From Fred Ezeh, Abuja
Prof. Lenrie Olatokunbo Aina is National Librarian and Chief Executive Officer, National Library of Nigeria (NLN). In this interview, he lamented the increasing drop reading culture of Nigerians, insisting such was responsible for the level underdevelopment in the country.
In few months’ time, you will be exiting office except for reappointment. How has it been for you in the past four years?
It has been a memorable journey for me. But it was easier for me to navigate because I have been in the profession for long. But I didn’t know it was going to be as big as I met it. As librarians, we are in the forefront of keeping records. Unfortunately, the style of services has gone digital and we have also joined the rest of the world in that regard. Our national libraries have been transformed to what we call virtual libraries. People can now access contents from any part of the world thanks to technology penetration. The National Library is for everybody and accessible to all. We encourage everyone to take advantage of that for research and self-development.
What level of rot or otherwise did you meet on ground?
First was the absence of internet in our offices and even in the headquarters. That affected the speed of our digitization plans. Low morale of the staff majorly caused by career stagnation, poor working condition, dilapidated facilities and several other ones. But one after another, we were able to tackle them starting from restoring internet services which helped us to fasten the digitization of our libraries.
What level of support did you get to achieve the project done?
We received impressive support from the Federal Government, particularly the Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu. He made sure we got the needed funding to achieve the project. We acquired scanners worth millions of naira. We even sent three members of our staff to the country of manufacturers to get requisite training and capacity to operate the machines and that helped us greatly to achieve the goal.
What about copyright issues?
That was where we had problems. Our plan was for people to access all Nigerian publications that we have in our custody and pay royalty to authors. We have been working out that whenever people access publications, there is something for the authors. That is one of the major work we have been doing.
What about the Act establishing NLN? How up to date is it?
Some items in the Establishment Act are obsolete. In the cause of designing our five years’ strategic plan, we discovered that the Act establishing NLN was enacted in 1970 (50 years ago). In the Act, there is a penalty for those who fail to deposit their books or other publications with NLN. We are supposed to collect all books published in Nigeria, about Nigeria and of Nigeria. For those published in Nigeria, it’s mandatory we are given certain number of copies, which is three copies for an individual, state agencies 10 copies and federal agency 25 copies. The Act stipulates that if an author fails to deposit publication within one month, the person will pay fine. Howbeit, we have set up committee on the review of the Establishment Act and work on that is on going.
Are you responsible for the issuance of ISBN?
Yes we are responsible. ISBN simply means International Standard Book Number (ISBN). We are the sole authority that issues ISBN number but that sole authority is not part of the law. It means that anybody can stand up and want to give out the number. That is why we also want to review our Establishment Act so we can have that sole responsibility.
What’s the importance of ISBN?
It’s a unique number for books. There are agencies responsible for that. One is in UK and the other is in France. They give each country a unique serial number, which they share to individual authors within the country. It brings up the publication to international standard and makes it accessible to global readers. Each author is assigned the unique number to any published book. In the end, the assigned numbers are returned to the agencies in France and UK, and they would incorporate it into their database. There will be no two books that have same ISBN number.
What’s your assessment of Nigerians’ reading culture?
Evidently, many Nigerians don’t like reading. They only read for purposes of examination or other academic work. No country can grow if they don’t put reading as part of their culture. When I came here there used to be readership advocacy in which NLN officials would take the campaign to two or three states. I saw it as a serious problem because there was a statistics then that indicated that Nigeria was not enlisted among top reading nations in the world. There were only two countries from Africa, namely, Egypt and South Africa. I felt embarrassed and insisted that the readership campaign be expanded to states where we have branches.
What strategies were used to correct the statistics?
We started the campaign with primary and secondary schools. But later, we saw reasons to expand the scope. From research, we discovered that it’s best to start from creche where children are encouraged to start reading from the early years in life. We also approached pregnant mothers in hospitals. There is evidence that there’s link between mother and child. We encouraged mothers to always read books to their unborn child. We also visited motor parks and appealed to the drivers and conductors to read. We visited correctional centres, interacted with inmates and donated books, shelves, food and other things worth N2 million and encouraged them to read.
Did you see any link between the #EndSARS protest and poor reading culture among Nigerians?
There was display of ignorance by the hoodlums that hijacked the protest calling for an end to the activities of SARS officials. For instance, what were destroyed in Lagos were worth N1trillion and that would be difficult to replace. You can demonstrate and show your anger without being destructive and it will be effective. I told some people that we have failed. The money to replace all the things that were destroyed would have been used for something else. Instructively, the real #EndSARS protesters didn’t destroy because they are educated, but the hoodlums came and destroyed.
What do you think is discouraging Nigerians from reading?
There has to be access to books and other reading materials. In Nigeria, when children are celebrating birthdays, their parents buy them cake, coke and cook food for them. In other places, parents buy books and other reading materials as birthday gifts for their children.