e -Library in the Offing
Prime minister Sheikh Hasina, while chairing a meeting with the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (Ecnec) on October 13, asked the Dhaka University authorities to digitise the central library of the university and turn it eventually into an e-library. The directive came as the committee was discussing a project for setting up ICT centres and e-libraries in Upazila levels. Although the possibility of e-libraries in Upazilas sounds far-fetched, the call to start digitising the libraries is a welcome move towards fulfilling the goals of a digital Bangladesh.
E-libraries in many countries offer both print and
online resources besides browsing facilities.
It is not rare these days to find a newspaper article or a television programme on the vision of a digital Bangladesh. For some unknown reasons, may be thanks to the ever-growing mobile operating companies, such an article or programme will always be accompanied by snaps or scenes, which unmistakeably feature a village man or woman working in a typical field full of paddy or vegetables. More to the point, the man will be shown to be spreading the happiest smile over his face while talking over a mobile phone as if whatever was promised in the vision of digital Bangladesh has been achieved with an image that guarantees a mobile phone even for the farmer or housewife living in the backwaters. The vision of a digital Bangladesh, needless to say, is not about the simulation of rural men or women using a mobile phone. It is rather about making a knowledge-based society whereby exchange of information and knowledge will help boost national economy, turning our life in the process more comfortable and in tune with the rest of the world.
However, despite the present government's reiteration of a digital Bangladesh, both in its pre-election pledges and post-election goals, what exactly constitutes the vision has been largely ambiguous. In line with the stated goals, a number of initiatives have been underway to implement the process of digitisation, which has so far been evident mostly in the banking sector, with the adoption of advanced ICT technologies by the Bangladesh Bank. Nevertheless, lack of a full-fledged vision with regard to its implementation has barred the policymakers from prioritising the sectors to be digitised. Despite all the loopholes in policymaking, there is no denying that a knowledge-based society has to be preceded by the digitisation of its education sector generally and its libraries particularly, simply because libraries provide the most updated information of all branches of knowledge.
Better late than never, the saying goes. The Prime Minister's recent call to digitise Dhaka University library, and to set up ICT centres and facilitate e-libraries at the Upazila level was a welcome move. Yet the move seems to suffer from the same ambiguity that characterises the overall vision and thus is likely to undercut its progress.
The DU library, which has a huge collection of rare extant manuscripts, books
and journals, will soon be digitised.
“In fact, the prime minister said it as part of her goal of a digital Bangladesh. And we are committed to digitising not only the library, but also every sphere of the university. As part of that commitment, we have for the first time in Bangladesh initiated the process of online admission. We will definitely extend our programmes to most of the spheres especially to the library,” says Professor AAMS Arefin Siddique, vice chancellor of Dhaka University.
A digital library is a library in which collection of books and journals are stored in digital formats (as opposed to print, microform, or other media) and accessible by computers. The digital content may be stored locally, or accessed remotely through computer networks. The necessity of a digital library derives from a number of factors such as archival purpose, lower cost, information retrieval, preservation of extant texts, multiple accesses and saving space. But the model of an ideal digital library, which has no physical boundary and can be accessed online by anybody from any country sounds very far-fetched in the context of Bangladesh.
The Dhaka University library, which turned 89 this July, has a collection of 6,80,000 books, 30,000 rare manuscripts, 20,000 old books and journals, and a large number of puthis, pamphlets and booklets. The only way to preserve such a huge collection of extant manuscripts is to digitise the library.
Professor Siddique is very upbeat about a full-fledged digital library where most of the books will be accessible by computer for the students.
“Now we are concerned with the automation and cataloguing, very soon we will embark on digitisation. Although we will begin with a limited capacity, with the help of the government and other organisations such as the UNDP we will soon turn it into a full-fledged digital library.”
The librarian Professor M Nasiruddin Munshi voiced the urgency of digitising the library. The library authorities have already started the process, he said. However, what is at stake is the clarity of a vision as to how to digitise: should there be an all-out approach in a fashion similar to the European countries whereby most of the books will be available for the library users on the computer screens? Should we take into account our social context and take up thereby a more pragmatic approach?
“There are several ways and aspects of digitising a library, all of which are not applicable to Bangladesh” says Munshi.
As for the Dhaka University library, we are seriously concerned with the numerous rare collections, some of which are manuscripts written on barks and ancient papers.
“Then there are many rare documents, books and journals including Bhasaprakash, which is one of the oldest magazines published in Dhaka.”
“It goes without saying that all these rare documents are slices from the history. Therefore, they are of utmost importance to the researchers and students alike. So these documents must be digitised immediately for the sake of long-term preservation.”
At present, preservation of some of those rare manuscripts requires artificial temperature control. If they are not digitised soon, many of them will become completely unintelligible.
“Digitisation of the most vulnerable manuscripts is not possible without high-tech cameras. Primarily we need two crore taka to start off and 30 crore taka to complete digitising all such valuable manuscripts, books and documents,” informs Munshi.
Considering the limited resources, poor computer and Internet accessibility in our country, large-scale digitisation seems neither feasible nor necessary. Yet, storing highly important books and journals into digital formats in order to facilitate quick and multiple accesses to the same book through extensive computer networking can be very useful for students. In that case, students will be able to access the required documents anytime from their respective dormitories.
“We have not yet thought of that. Even if we decide to do so under the new directive, we would be very selective about that. Moreover, we need not go for such a large-scale digitisation. But may be we can adopt other technical means to help the students draw benefits more quickly and easily,” adds Munshi.
In matters of increasing the digital store by converting printed books, both Munshi and Begum stressed that copyright issues pose the biggest challenge in this regard. Converting the copyright-protected materials into digital format requires prior permission from the authors as well as the monetary arrangement with them authors. Such a colossal task is even impossible for the books written by Bengali authors, let alone for books by foreign authors and researchers. Given that, books, which are free from copyright complications, can be stored into digital format.
Talking about the various facets of digitisation in the context of Bangladesh, Suraiya Begum, librarian in-charge of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), says, “It all depends on the scope and purpose of a library. A university library is meant only for the students, not for the public. So the way it will be digitised must differ from a public library, there may be some common factors though.”
The BUET library epitomises a hybrid library, which contains both physical and digital collections of various sorts, utilising all the possible means within its limited resources. Much like the DU, it has browsing and reprographic facilities. But unlike DU, it has a fully developed automation facility offering detailed bibliographic information of the books and journals of the library. More importantly, it has a very rich collection of online journals, subscribed by the library; and all recent articles, books and theses written by the teachers, researchers and students of the BUET.
“The buzzword digitisation has created a lot of confusion among us” comments Suraya Begum. What we need to do is to present to the students a fully automated as well as technologically equipped library which will offer books and journals both in print and digital formats.”
Alam Talukdar, the director of the Central Public Library, thinks that there are two reasons why massive digitisation of books and documents appear to be unnecessary in case of a public library.
“Firstly, there are the copyright issues. Then there is the aspect of the feasibility of such a massive programme. Since it is not a university, its programmes are to be meant for the public in general. If it is so, then you should think of the poor Internet access of our people. Considering all these, I think we should focus on the automation and reprographic facilities. We should also emphasise browsing facilities.”
About the libraries in the district and Upazila levels, Talukdar says, “Establishing ICT centres in district level libraries is already underway. We are also informed of the Prime Minister's recent directive about setting up of the ICT centres in Upazila levels. In both cases, we are emphasising automation and browsing facilities even though we are suffering from severe manpower crisis to implement this project.”
While digitising extant books is a must to preserve history, automation, browsing and other technological facilities should be emphasised more. Finally, enriching the online resources by subscribing to online journals and avoiding copyright steps seem more feasible problems than full-fledged conversion of printed materials into digital formats.
(R) thedailystar.net 2010