From the University of Ibadan, Professor Lenrie Aina moved to the University of Botswana, where he taught for 18 years before returning to Nigeria to continue teaching. He was to become the National President of Nigeria Library Association. From there, he was appointed the Director, National Library, Abuja. HENRY AKUBUIRO chatted with him at the National Library head office in Abuja on a myriad of issues, including the uncompleted new National Library building in Abuja, problem of reading culture, fighting piracy, the National Policy on Education,
How was the transition from the classroom to an administrative capacity as the National Librarian?
It was not easy at all, because, in the university setting, things are done normally. But, in the administrative setting, when you are the CEO, the bucks stop at your desk. If there is problem anywhere, you are the one everybody is calling. But it has been interesting trying to meet all kinds of people, from members of the public, your colleagues to the National Assembly.
In the 1970s, the federal government collaborated with the Ford Foundation to expand the National Library. Till now, the expansion hasn’t cut across the 36 states. What happened to that collaboration?
In the ‘70s and ‘80s, we really have support from all over the world. But our problem is that, unlike the first postcolonial governments we had in Nigeria, which had interest in the library, subsequent governments relegated it to the background. That’s where the suffering started –the problem of funding. When you talk of the library, it is a social service that doesn’t generate money. You spend money to maintain it. But we still get assistance from time to time.
The new N78 billion National Library project, which has been on for over ten years, seems to be abandoned. So far, it is the only national edifice in the midst of others in the Central Business Area, Abuja, yet to be completed. All the national monuments surrounding have all been completed. What’s happening?
It was an ambitious project started in 2006. It was meant to be completed within 30 months. If it had been completed at that time, it would have probably been one of the best national libraries in the world. It is a massive building. The founding fathers had good intentions for the building; unfortunately, funding has affected it. Some fund was provided for it when it started, but it got to a stage, nothing was provided for it. Now, for us to complete it, we have different quotations. The one we are talking about now is 50 billion naira.
Oh, it has come down from 78 billion naira?
Yes. Even for you to get that 50 billion naira is not easy, but this current regime is doing everything humanly possible to use special intervention fund to finish it. This is a national heritage for the country, and we are hopeful it is going to be finished.
Is there any time frame attached to the completion now?
For anything by government, it is difficult to talk about time frame. But the good thing is that government has the commitment. We are very hopeful that, at least, something tangible is going to come out of that one.
The news we are hearing is that snakes and rats are now competing over ownership of the edifice…
It is not as bad as that. We have some people that are working there; they are trying to maintain the place. We are hopeful that work will start anytime from now.
Considering the set objectives of the National Library, from inception to the present, has it met its mandate?
What makes us national? There are certain things that make us different from other libraries in Nigeria. The first thing is that it is the national heritage of the country. Any publication that emanates from Nigeria must be deposited with the National Library of Nigeria, whether it is published abroad or is published about Nigeria elsewhere or by a Nigerian anywhere, we must collect, and there is a law that supports that every publisher must give us three copies of their publication (if it is an individual publisher), state government agency 10 copies, federal government 25 copies.
Also, we are mandated to issue out numbers, ISBN and ISSN, to authors, publishers, and so forth. We are the only body in Nigeria that is responsible for that. These are the two main mandates of the National Library. Unfortunately for us, we don’t have the co-operation from the authors and the publishers, mainly not due to their fault –sometimes they tell you it is due to ignorance. If a book doesn’t have an ISBN number, it is not a standard book, because ISBN is coordinated in the UK, while ISSN is coordinated in Paris. They send these numbers to us, and we assign them to publishers and resend the numbers that the numbers have been assigned to, so when you have a book without ISBN, it is not listed and, therefore, is not a standard book. We are trying to encourage publishers and authors to get these numbers. Government has been assisting us; it gives us money to sensitise the publishers and authors, and we have done our best to do that.
How much is required to get these numbers, because we are getting conflicting figures?
It ranges from N3,000 to N5,000 –very little amount of money –and it is basically administrative charges, because we have to communicate with our partners in London and the UK. You are not paying for the number itself. What we are trying to do is to make it easier for them to obtain. Before, if they wanted to obtain these numbers, they had to travel to our branches. But we are now at the stage where you can obtain these numbers from our website: you upload a request ISBN form; once we think it is in order, we give the approval to pay, and once you pay, you get the number within a day. We have done the test-run for some time. Any moment from now, we are going to go live. We are going to do some workshops in March and April.
It is disturbing to note that most of our libraries are stocked with old books, instead of being repositories of contemporary ideas. This is a big problem, I think….
You are right. I think our major problem has to do with the society itself. The society has little regard for books, so they don’t want to get new information. Then there is a problem of funding. Funding, especially in the states, is so bad that some libraries have not received funding in the last 10-15 years. It is not good for any library to stock only old books; you have to stock both old and new books. As soon as you have new books, you put them on the shelves so they can know what is happening. We are trying to correct that. We have a conference of national librarian and directors of state public libraries and chairmen; we are trying to look at our problems and how to solve them.
That leads us to the sore subject of reading culture in Nigeria. What’s your assessment?
It is very bad. Nigeria is largely an oral society, so people don’t read. But the government gives us money to promote reading culture, for it realises that it has to promote reading and go round the country trying to convince schoolchildren in primary and secondary schools that they should imbibe the culture of reading. But here we have gone a notch higher by focusing unborn children to read through pregnant mothers.
From research, we have found that, if somebody has a baby in the stomach, by reading aloud, you are more or less stimulating that child’s ability to read. So, by the time the child is born, it easier for the child to cultivate the habit of reading. So we have been visiting hospitals across the country, giving the pregnant women books and told them to be reading to their children. We do it every year.
We often hear that Nigerians don’t read, yet we see Nigerians buying from old books stands, and also sellers of old books have remained in business. How do we explain that?
It still comes back to the society. Some buy books for decoration. In the ancient times, when the Romans went to wars, they would capture people and their books. On their return, they would put those books in shelves. If you wanted to know the rich then, it was measured by the number of books in their shelves. But they were not reading the books. It was just for decoration purposes. Maybe that’s what they are doing now –buying them for decoration. Abroad, when you enter a train, you see majority of the people reading. In Nigeria, everybody is shouting. That is why government is spending money to encourage reading. Now, people are talking about fake news. Fake news won’t affect you and I, because we read and know that what is there is not true. But for those who don’t read, they take it hook, sinker and line. So we must promote reading. We are collaborating with NYSC to establish book clubs in every nook and cranny, and we will support.
Piracy is a big issue ravaging the Nigerian book industry, and we seem to be fighting a lost battle. How are you liasing with authors to make sure they eat the fruit of their labour?
At the National Library, we co-operate with the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA); we attend their activities, and they attend ours. But more importantly, at the National Library, we don’t buy pirates books. So we try to say no to pirated books.
How do you differentiate between pirated and original books, for the pirates are becoming smarter by the day?
It is easy to different. By the time you look through, you can know the one that is authentic or not. Al least, we try to discourage that, and anybody that supplies us books knows that. We are trying to say no to pirated books. We have also instructed Nigerians all over the country to report any seller of pirated books to the nearest police station. It is terrible. Maybe we should strengthen the laws so that people found guilty are heavily sanctioned.
But the authors are saying there is no will power on the part of the government to fight piracy, for if there is, the pirates shouldn’t have been going about their business with impunity. We have a situation where pirates are apprehended, and, the next minute, they are greed by the police….
I think this is also the fault of ours: librarians, authors. Let’s go the National Assembly en masse; let’s have a strong law. People still don’t understand what democracy is all about. Democracy is your government: if you feel strongly about any issue, you can draft your own law and give to them to consider. The worse thing that can happen to any author is for him to work so hard for years, publishes a book, only for pirates to reap where they didn’t sow. We need to encourage strong laws.
The National Policy on Education provides for every school to have library, but, in practice, it isn’t so…
The problem we have is that government has not implemented the National Policy on Education to the full. The policy is that every primary and secondary school must have a library. If this is implemented fully, you will find that the number of librarians we have in the country is not enough to go round all the schools, and there may not be unemployment for librarians in the country. It will also boost the economy of the authors. That is what happens all over the world. From the classroom, you go to the library. We have less than 10 percent of the schools in the country with libraries.
You have been complaining of funding, don’t you think it is high time Nigerian libraries collaborated with private individuals?
We went to the National Assembly recently and said, “Look, we can’t depend solely on government”. Unfortunately, library is a social service; we offer free service. No matter how rich you, how many books can you buy, but in library, you can read as many books as possible. But some philanthropists are actually assisting us to establish libraries. Late Justice Mustapha Akanbi established a library for the community in Ilorin. We visited it. There is another at Iseyin, Oyo State, and yet another in Asaba, Delta State. People are beginning to realise we cannot do it alone.
Don’t you think the mobile library is the answer?
That is why we are collaborating public libraries in Nigeria. Every state has its State Library Board, and they maintain a lot of public libraries; but they have been neglected for so long. At the National Library, we decided to form an interface between them and the public. Last time, we started a conference between the national librarian and state library directors and chairmen to know the problems they are facing. So we are identifying these problems to know how to solve them. If public libraries are well established, they can do mobile libraries. In the 1970s, the best library in Nigeria was called Bendel State Library Board. It was fantastic. The number of librarians they employed was almost half of what we had in Nigeria then. They penetrated everywhere, whether it was in the village or across the river. These are things we are trying to revive.
Do you think the book matters in a developing country like ours, considering the emphasis on the sciences by successive governments?
You get knowledge from books, and knowledge is what drives the entire country. For government to be providing funding to encourage reading, it means knowledge matters, because it is very easy to rule an educated society. If the society isn’t educated, it will run into several problems, because it doesn’t understand your mission.
How did you go about tackling your immediate priorities when you took over as the National Librarian two and half years?
I know what a good library should be as a professor of library science, so immediately I took over, I tried to work towards that. When I came here, there was no internet, and I fixed that within the first three months. When I came in, our books were basically physical books, and I said our books should be accessed all over the world. We have started the process of digitising. For the ISBN and ISSN, we have made it easier for authors and publishers to access the numbers from wherever they are. We have been working hard to renovate all the braches to make them attractive to readers. We want to make library part of the Nigerian society. I want to do so many things. I want to leave here in the next two and half years with the legacy that I transformed the National Library from an ancient-like library to a modern national library.