Professor Lenrie Olatokunbo Aina was appointed in August 2016 by President Muhammadu Buhari as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and national librarian, National Library of Nigeria. In this interview by CLEMENT IDOKO, he speaks on poor reading culture and dilapidated state of public libraries in Nigeria.
How did you begin your career to heading the apex library of Nigeria?
I started my career at the University of Ibadan in 1978 where I was appointed assistant librarian and later Librarian 2 and from there I moved to the Department of Library and Archival Information Studies, University of Ibadan as lecturer. I was there up to 1989 as a senior lecturer before joining the brain drain wagon to the University of Botswana and I served for 18 years. I became a professor at the University of Botswana, came back and had a stint at the Federal University of Technology Minna, before I moved to the University of Ilorin. I have been very much involved in the profession. I served as president of Nigerian Library Association between 2010 and 2012 and I served on the editorial boards of many important African journals of library. I have travelled extensively all over the world.
What can you say is responsible for the sordid and dilapidated state of public libraries in Nigeria?
We have the problem of funding. We also have societal problems. We also have the problem of the profession. All these three combined into one. Of course, you know that funding is very important but that is not the only problem, you need commitment. Our society is largely an oral society, so, there is no priority for libraries at every stage when it comes to prioritising the areas of importance. Libraries always occupy the lowest position and this is unfortunate because a library is where you get knowledge. It is a store of knowledge and with knowledge you can do everything that you want to do. Many of our public libraries are supposed to be funded by the state governments but in terms of priority, state governments give them very low priority. There are some state libraries that have not bought books in the last 10 or 15 years.
However, one must isolate some states. Some states are doing very well, like I always mention Bayelsa State, Kaduna State, Bauchi, and of recent Delta State. Delta State has just commissioned a gigantic public library that everybody is so proud of.
How can you describe the reading culture in Nigeria?
When you want to hide money, put it in a book because nobody will go there. Like I said earlier, we are in an oral society where we just believe in discussing but reading, no. That is why we have a lot of fake news now. Somebody gives fake news and people start circulating it because we cannot do our own independent reading.
We target school children because it is better to target the ones that are still in school. But it should be holistic and let us even start when they are young. Research has proven that unborn children can respond to stimulus when it comes to reading of books. We have started to see how we can accommodate pregnant women to instil a reading culture even before the child is born. We are also trying to see how we can involve other segments of the society.
You talked about encouraging pregnant women to read. I recall that during one of your nationwide campaigns, you also visited hospitals and maternity homes, what did you hope to achieve from that?
It was a fantastic experience. The mothers cooperated with us and we were excited. There was a mother who told us a story in one of the hospitals visited that when she was pregnant, she listened to a particular music and when the child was born, any time he was making noise or crying and she puts on the music, the child would stop crying. If you are pregnant and the baby is inside you, you read aloud and the child is accustomed to it and when the child is born he likes reading. Let us not just start at the primary school level. Let us start when the child is unborn.
Nigerians are concerned that the National Library project which work had commenced several years ago, remains an abandoned project, in spite of the fact that where you are now is more or less an eyesore. What is really causing the delay in completion of the project?
Those who formulated the idea of the National Library headquarters had good intention because it was commenced in 2006 with the expectations that the project would be completed within 30 months. But for one reason or the other, it was neglected. The good thing about that National Library of Nigeria is that if it is completed, it will be one of the best in the world. Certainly, it will be the best in Africa.
Just recently, I was at the ministry and the permanent secretary gave me update on plans to complete the project. He said things are going on well and they are looking for funds. I want to assure the nation that very soon this government will do something about that.
What are the challenges of operating a library in Nigeria?
The challenges are many. Many libraries in the world have moved from analogue to digital. As a matter of fact, libraries were at the forefront of ensuring that everything went digital and it requires funding. In this place, we are trying to join modern libraries. For you to access our books all over Nigeria, you have to go to the branches or the headquarters here. But what we are trying to do is to digitise the books so that they can be on our website. We are on it. We have awarded the contract and very soon people can access our books without having to come directly into the library.
What are the key innovations you brought to bear since you came on board as the national librarian?
When I was appointed, I was shocked at what I met. I was expecting that at least I would meet a modern library but I met an archaic and ancient library, the way we described a library 1,000 years ago. They used to have internet connectivity but they did not bother about it for three years. That was the first thing I tackled. This was restored within two, three months that I came.
We have 27 branches, and we buy books here at the headquarters, process them and send them to the shelves. Unfortunately, I found thousands of books lying on the floor; they were meant for the states. When I asked questions, I was told that there was no money to move the books. We had to look for money to move the books to the various branches. We also saw that another 100,000 books were not processed at all. I had to set up a taskforce to at least make sure we reduce the number.
Another thing was that as an organization mandated to issue out what is called International Standard Book Number and International Standard Serial Number, they nominate an organisation in each country for that and we are the sole organisation responsible for that in Nigeria. When you publish a book and the book does not have a number, it is not a standard book. So, you apply to us and we give you the number. But for five years we didn’t pay the subscription and I was afraid that they would stop giving us these numbers. They stopped. We had to source for money from various places so that we could pay. We paid eventually and they started giving us numbers.
Then, to collect these numbers, you have to approach our branches or you come to the headquarters; I said no. You have to come to the branches if you want to, there is nothing preventing you from staying in your office or in your house and obtaining our number. All you need to do if you have access to internet is to go to our website, there is the form there, complete the form, upload what you want to get the number for and once everything is in order and is approved, you go and pay. Once you pay, it gives you the number and that that can be done within two or three hours.
What generally can be done to improve on our reading culture in Nigeria?
What we can do to improve our reading culture is to first know that you gain a lot of knowledge by reading. But you cannot buy all the books, no matter how rich you are, this is why we have to depend on the library. A library is expected to provide books for people to read at no cost. Sometimes you can borrow or read but it must not cost you anything and you have access to a variety of books. If we improve our reading culture, it will even be easy for government to govern us. Like the current problem of fake news now. People are not enlightened and once you tell them any lie in the news they take it hook, line and sinker.