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National library services a let down

COMMENTARY
By | March 14th 2010

By Joanne Mwaura

The local book industry has not done well in accounting for the total number of books published by Kenyans and on the country.

Many book lovers in the country do not know the number of books, journals or official reports produced by Kenyans, within and outside the country. Information on who has authored what publication in the country is scanty and sometimes unavailable even at the agencies charged with the responsibility to compile such information. There is no database on publications produced in the country, even though Kenya National Library Services (KNLS) ought to create one.

Information on books and other publications produced within or outside a country by its citizens is normally compiled and contained in the national bibliography of a country.

Legal deposit

In 1984, the national library, KNLS was charged with the responsibility to compile and avail the Kenya National Bibliography (KNB).

Despite enjoying legal deposit privileges bestowed to it by the Books and Newspapers Act, Cap 111 of the Laws of Kenya — miscellaneous amendments No 22 — of 1987, KNLS has not lived up to its responsibility.

The Books and Newspapers Act, provides that publishers deliver two copies of each title published, to the KNLS director within 14 days of publishing at the publisher’s cost.

This places KNLS at an advantaged position to produce an updated national bibliography that serves the interests of publishers and other stakeholders in the book industry.

But surveys show an unavailability of a current local national bibliography - print or electronic. So if anyone, for instance, wanted to establish the materials written on President Kibaki, Prime Minister Raila Odinga, or even Nobel Laureate, Prof Wangari Maathai, in the national library, the search would be futile.

In comparison, if a search were to be conducted in the National Library of South Africa for publications written on former presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, a lot can be found. A search on Nelson Mandela in the South Africa’s online national bibliography returned 50 entries including Nelson Mandela and Apartheid in World History by Ann Graham Gaines and also Mandela Comes Home, Mandela: A Beacon of Humanity.

World darkness

The British Library also has the British National Bibliography available online for free. To access all documents produced by Britons and on Britain, the British Library Integrated Catalogue is used.

Back home, lack of a comprehensive and current national bibliography has condemned most publishers into a world of darkness in relation to the number of publications and authors behind the local works. This negates the relevance of the legal deposit privilege.

An updated national bibliography is a boon to the book industry and the country. Publishers, researchers, authors, librarians and the international stakeholders benefit through an effective and current bibliography.

Publishers can take a statistical account of all their publications within specified periods.

This enables them to verify the titles published by competing publishers hence avoiding duplication.

Moreover, the publishers and the reading masses can gauge the strengths or shortcomings of the publishing industry.

Viewing all publications listed in the national bibliography tells a lot on the progress in the publishing industry.

Kenya librarians interested in publications from other foreign countries rely on the national bibliographies compiled by national libraries in those countries. The bibliographies are used as selection tools for buying f the foreign publications.

Lame excuses

Considering the non-existence of online national bibliography in Kenya, librarians and researchers in other countries are unable to know and order the rich and diverse publications produced by Kenyan publishers.

Thus, the publishers lose on book exports, leaving the book trade as a one-way process, characterised with more imports than exports.

Failure by foreigners to know what we have written and published about our country denies our book industry the market for our publications and tourism. Besides the Internet, publications containing our cultural values and national heritage can help sell Kenya internationally.

Excuses have been advanced to justify the inability by KNLS to compile the Kenya National Bibliography.

The common one is that Kenyan writers in the Diaspora do not liaise with the national library on what they have written.

The diversity of Kenya’s 43 ethnic groups has also been cited as a hurdle especially when authors write publications in the languages of these groups and fail to alert the national library.

The writer is an MA student at the University of Nairobi.

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