B  U  L  L  E  T  I  N


of the American Society for Information Science and Technology       Vol. 31, No. 2    December/January 2005

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Editor’s Note: This paper was submitted to the ASIS&T SIG/III International Paper Competition in 2003.

The Role of a Resource Center in National Development: The Namibian Context
by Wessel J. Smit

Wessel J. Smit is with the Resource Center of the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, Private Bag 13306, Windhoek, Namibia; phone: +264-61-249015; fax: +264-61-240339; email: smitw@dea.met.gov.na

Namibia ’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) Resource Center is composed of three different entities – Directorate of Environmental Affairs (DEA), Directorate of Forestry (DoF) and Directorate of Parks and Wildlife Management (DPWM). The main center is located at the DEA in the Windhoek city center and was officially launched by the minister of environment and tourism, Philemon Malima, on November 15, 2002. The center serves as the central information and data domain for the MET but also allows non-ministry affiliates to access and use facilities within specified limitations.

A Matter of Priority

Traditionally, a library has been seen as a central point for the storage of information in hard copy, where students and researchers, among others, go to find relevant information in their respective subjects. Since the dawning of the digital age, however, the importance of a library has been transformed in its utility and role due to the Internet and Internet products accessible to staff. In some institutions the library has simply become a place where archives are stored. In extreme cases, you will find books and old documents just lying there, gathering dust, while the library and information retrieval facility enjoys less and less priority. Although such cases of neglect are partly the fault of staff not willing to make a commitment, a whole institution gives rise to this situation through the allocation of inadequate space, funds and attention, especially if there are quicker ways of obtaining required information. Institutional staff members slowly build personal collections of relevant literature, stacked on pine and oak shelves in their offices, that further reduce the chances of their visiting the library. In addition, some individuals subscribe to online journals and document delivery systems that ensure they can spend eight hours a day in their offices with all needed information virtually at their fingertips.

In order for our center to transform – to adapt and lead again in information management and allocation within an institution – it must offer a service not accessible via the Internet, be a leading agency in information management and create awareness among students, visiting researchers and the general public about environmental issues in Namibia . We must deal with the issue of speed and efficiency. Rising up from being “just another ministerial library” to being an information allocation center that is renowned and trusted countrywide is a big challenge, but a very exciting one too.

A Public Domain Information and Data Access Point

The mission of the MET Resource Center is to provide environmental information to the Namibian nation at large, especially the scientific community and students. Being in charge of an information facility representing a whole ministry involves a relentless pursuit of the latest documentation and information and having it available when most people do not yet even know it exists. Traditionally, one would walk into a resource center looking for what a certain minister or other expert in a specific field has said two or five years ago, which has an impact on what happens today. But focusing on this kind of need has allowed services to become slack and unsatisfying to researchers.

In the ideal scenario you would be consulting a resource center wanting to find out what this minister or expert is going to say one year from now – proactive participation in policy creation, in what is being decided by the leaders of a country. If you ask my opinion, such a service is exactly what a ministerial resource center is there to provide. By using the center’s knowledge and the tools, you act like a spider, creating a web with numerous links to different institutions that handle the same or related topics and making it all connect in the middle. The center point in this case is the MET Resource Center .

It is important to draw on resources from other information institutions (both nationally and internationally), from the media, from research stations and mining corporations countrywide, and from the Internet. It is also critical to have good relationships with various experts such as scientists and researchers as well as with leaders in government institutions and worldwide organizations. These sources and contacts will give you an edge in information provision and will keep researchers and policy-makers coming back to your institution for research. In the ideal situation you, as the ministerial information officer, will have an active hand in what is being decided at workshops, conferences and even by the Cabinet. Reliable information from different sources thrown together by a creative mind can develop a forecast for the future and allow policies to be shaped in the right direction. What is eventually written in books and made into law will be information coming out of your resource center, and people will keep coming back for more.

This is not ambition; instead, it is the reality of the MET Resource Center and what it has become during its nine months of existence. Through fax or email we can supply the United Nations publications unit in New York with country information on Namibia , thereby helping a student of environmental law in Stockholm write a thesis with help from the MET Resource Center . Information flowing around the world non-stop like a giant river will saturate the country through all levels of society.

Five Pillars of Excellence

In reviving the resource center, we have identified five pillars of excellence: amalgamation, communication, dependence, tangible results and networking.

Amalgamation. The resource center is part of the Environmental Information Systems (EIS) Unit of the MET, which functions as a national environmental information hub by acquiring and processing environmental data and disseminating the information products. It is a collection of thousands of book, document and journal titles in hard copy. At the moment the center consists of three separate entities spread over three directorates between Windhoek , Okaukeujo and Etosha National Park . The content of these centers is recorded in digital format and has been incorporated into a single database that can be accessed within seconds from a central point, currently the Directorate of Environmental Affairs, although in the future the DEA and Directorate of Forestry Resource Centers will be physically housed in the same location. This database is also on the library Web page on the DEA website – www.dea.met.gov.na.  The materials we house can thus be viewed by a worldwide audience and borrowed by ministerial staff efficiently through communication between the resource center staff and relevant directorates involved. The goal here is to have an idea of the amount and quality of the information resources that we possess in our ministry and of how best to utilize it.

Communication. In terms of interaction, a resource center functions much like a radio station, relaying and extending the information it receives from the experts to the public at large. It is a loudspeaker that receives knowledge from the source, and then broadcasts it out to the whole public. As a body the center is in constant contact with over 100 people and institutions nationally and internationally. Interaction with institutions and experts in various fields occurs on a daily basis via email, fax, phone or ordinary post in a mutual give-and-take scenario. Relevant information to our trade is then circulated throughout the ministry in the form of chain emails. Everyone is kept updated on the latest journal and book issues received, current affairs and even social events. Newsletters are circulated on a weekly basis, and a poll is held annually to enable MET employees to choose which journals and books the resource center should buy, thereby ensuring quality and reliability of resource materials as well as staff satisfaction. Communication between other subject-related resource centers around the country and abroad is vital and leads to networking and interlibrary loan agreements.

Finally, efforts are being made to reach those who live far from the capital city and other major towns and who do not possess privileges like the Internet, television or even telephones. Across the country, educational and other human development institutions exist for the main purpose of providing communities with guidance in matters like health, agricultural practices and commerce, as well as community-based natural resource management. We make contact with the people running those institutions, offer our assistance in providing relevant learning materials, and correspond with them on a regular basis. In this way we act not only as a library for reference, but also as a distribution center. They trust our center’s services and call in advance with requests that usually include ministerial publications, reports and discussion papers, booklets, brochures and posters. We readily supply these and hope in this way to make up for a lack of proper infrastructure that may exist in certain areas, which in the past, kept people from developing further.

Dependence. We have grown up in a Hollywood-oriented society where we look at icons like John Wayne and James Bond, who are displayed as heroes – hard men who never need anyone else and can do everything on their own. However, in reality, people, and therefore all institutions, desperately need each other to function maximally. A human body will be dysfunctional if the leg decides to quit working. The same rule applies to us. The government, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), farmers and scientists, as well as resource centers, need each other in order to produce a high quality output. Information needs to flow, and it will only flow freely through the building of confidence and better working relationships. Putting your trust in someone else does make you vulnerable, but thousands of years of human civilization’s trial and error has proven that trust is the only way we move forward and improve conditions.

Tangible Results. The goal of every institution is always results, and we have plenty to offer. The MET Resource Center is the information access point to the public and has the responsibility of being an accurate representation and distribution center of the ministry’s work efforts. The center has its own Web page and enjoys representation by members of the EIS Unit at big events like the World Summit on Sustainable Development (2002) as well as other meetings, such as those of the Namibian Information Workers Association (NIWA). As of April 2003 the center has been assigned the responsibility of laying out and compiling future EIS unit publications. This responsibility includes proceedings of the annual Environmental Monitoring and Indicators Workshop (EMIN), state of the environment reports, annual reports, brochures and even posters. Along with being the center doing the compiling and layout, it will also be the promotion and distribution center of publications within the ministry as well as nationally.

Networking. Networking here refers to physical and digital communication, as well as data, expertise and resource sharing. Ranging from the researcher and farmer in the field to the cabinet, the resource centers in a country must have good links and relations with all these bodies at once and with each other. Networking involves wide-ranging communication, a common goal and a great willingness to share resources, knowledge and expertise in order to build something much bigger than one institution alone can accomplish.

The Environmental Information Databank and the Namibian interlibrary loan system are two initiatives that are direct developments stemming from networking efforts by the MET Resource Center :

The Environmental Information Databank is a MET Resource Center initiative combining the resources of numerous subject-related resource centers in Namibia . These centers include the libraries at the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Rural Development, the Namibian Economic Policy Research Unit (NEPRU) and the National Botanical Research Institute, to name but a few. For the first time ever, a databank of environment-related information will be created with over 130,000 searchable entries. This concept has been foreign in Namibia up to now, but it will be the most effective network ever created between Namibian subject-related resource centers.

Each of the participating centers uses the library computer program called CDS/ISIS, which allows the creation of huge databases that take up a surprisingly small amount of cyberspace. The MET Resource Center will thus have access to numerous databases from different related cooperating institutions, and from there the databank will be loaded onto the MET Website. Once on the site, the materials themselves will not be visible, but their descriptions can be accessed via a user-friendly search engine that will provide the user with book titles matching his/her request from all the centers.

This search engine will be accessible by navigating to the MET Resource Center Web page on the MET website. The two tables below give a good indication of the functionality and efficiency that this service will offer:

Table 1
SUBJECTS COVERED NATIONALLY

Agriculture
Botany
Desert Research
Economics
Geology
Legislation
Marine Resources
Meteorology
Ornithology
Science
Sociology

Table 2
SEARCHABILITY

The contents of the databank will be searchable via the following 8 criteria:  

Author
Availability
DDC Classification
Date of Publication
Location
Publisher
Title
Topic

With the wide range of subjects being covered and the advanced search capabilities of the databank, we will be able to effectively provide the information needs of environmental scientists, nature conservationists, politicians, economists and students in Namibia and internationally.

Within the databank, each resource center still retains its identity, which will make reference very easy and convenient. The databank is still being developed and relationships and trust among participants are still being established, but it is expected to be fully functional by the middle of 2004.

A national interlibrary loan system, being developed by the Namibian Library Information Service (NLIS),  answers a call first issued at Namibia`s independence in 1990. This action stems from the creation of the Environmental Information Databank and the neccessity of cooperating with an international audience. Over 30 participating resource centers in Namibia will be able to share information and books among different ministries or institutions, something that has been next-to-impossible in the past.

Along with nationwide functionality, this system will connect with the Southern African Interlibrary Loan System. Through the National Library of Namibia, which acts as a gateway for Namibian libraries to the rest of the world, we will be able to access material from outside our borders. A committee nominated by the NLIS is investigating and researching this concept, and once their findings are reviewed, an official interlibrary loan system will come into being.

The ultimate long-term plan of the MET Resource Center – to cooperate closely with subject-related centers on four different continents – comes one step closer with this development. The immense wealth and importance of information and service generated if these centers in different countries and continents can be made aware of each other and start working together cannot be stressed enough. Politicians envisioned an African renaissance and we, as ministerial information officers, are the tools that equip the nation with knowledge and the will to bring about that vision.

Conclusion

What conclusion do we draw after all is said and done? It can be brought down to a question of what we want to do with data. The national vision for Namibia for 2030 and beyond envisions a prosperous, confident and self-reliant nation playing a leading role for humanity in Africa and the world. We strive for a population of well-educated, skilled, proactive and financially stable people with a broad range of talents and a good attitude toward themselves, their fellow citizens, their country and global humanity. The main aim is development of people, considered a nation`s human wealth as set forth in the National Planning Commission’s A contribution to Vision 2030. Natural Resources Sector (Theme 6).

New projects and programs will be formed from the needs identified in resource center resources and documentation. This knowledge will in turn be applied in the field, completing a circle of interdependence and cooperation among individuals and institutions on all levels of society, raising the standards of productivity and living. This is the aim of environmental monitoring, the measuring of indicators and the continuous, active role the resource center plays in it through the process of data management and interaction.


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