University of South Carolina

Working off the grid

By Peggy Binette, peggy@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-7704

Imagine if the University of South Carolina’s power was on only a few hours a day and its Internet connection was so unreliable or painfully slow that it took upwards of 20 minutes to send a single email.

While unthinkable and perhaps unacceptable to us at Carolina, those are the challenges that faculty, staff and students face every day at the University of Mkar, a liberal arts college in West Africa’s Nigeria. Because connectivity is so poor, the main way faculty and staff communicate is via cell phone text or call.

USC’s Duncan Alford, associate dean of the School of Law and director of its law library, experienced Mkar’s challenges for himself in May, when he spent nearly three weeks at the university on a Fulbright award to attend a conference on citizenship and work with library staff.

“It was in the high 90s, humid and there was no air conditioning. I have to admit, it was tiring,” Alford said. “Not having power at night means you cannot work at night. I’m used to reading at night, and I had planned on using my nights to prep for the conference. Well, there’s only so much work you can do by flashlight. Those are their realities.”

The conference and his presentation on how the U.S. Constitution evolved accounted for a small portion of his time. The bulk of his Fulbright was spent working with librarians and administrators at the university’s general library to develop a plan to manage its holdings, build resources and enhance the required research course that all students take.

Mkar’s library, serving a student body of 1,000, is small by our standards in both holdings and space.

It has 10,000 volumes. By contrast, USC’s School of Law library has 250,000 print volumes, with 250,000 more in microfiche. Mkar students compete for one of the 90 seats in its 4,000-square-foot library, working more often than not in nature’s dim light.

“They have a card catalogue, but it hasn’t been updated so they don’t have a good control over what they have in their collection,” Alford said. “Their budget is tight, and half of their collections are donations.”

Alford helped Mkar librarians draft a collection development policy to guide what materials they would and wouldn’t buy in the future. He also helped them write a statement they can give to well-meaning donors, usually from Europe or the United States, on materials that would be most useful.

He also added practical assignments to Mkar’s 100-level research course to help students identify, understand and use resources, including the library’s only electronic resource – eGranary, a digital library that developing countries like Nigeria consider their “Internet in a box.”

“Essentially, portions of the Internet have been put on a hard drive so the university can network it,” Alford said. “Here in the U.S. we would never do that because our power is always on and our internet access is good. They don’t have that. Even when they have power the Internet is too slow.”

eGranary includes Wikipedia and major websites such as ones for the World Bank and International Monetary Fund as well as web pages from think tanks and public websites.

“It gives them something and a level of control because their infrastructure is not reliable. This is their work around,” he said.

While accessible, Alford said Mkar’s edition of eGranary was outdated. It was purchased in 2006 after the university opened and hadn’t been updated since. A quick search by Alford revealed Barack Obama to be a U.S. senator from Illinois and there was no record of the global recession, which had yet to happen. Because of the importance of the eGranary as a resource to Mkar, he recommended it be updated every three years.

“They’re a capable people; they just don’t have the resources,” said Alford.

Leapfrogging technology

Titus Nomsure is among the most capable at Mkar. An information technologist, Nomsure accompanied Alford back to South Carolina to see how USC libraries operate. His trip, a first for him outside Africa, was made possible by the School of Law.

“My visit to the University of South Carolina was the most wonderful experience of my life, and I think that experience will last for my entire lifetime, thanks to the untiring efforts of Professor Duncan as we popularly address him at the University of Mkar,” Nomsure said.

Nigeria, rich in oil and No. 8 in world population, is Africa’s fastest growing economy. The government’s economic plan, Vision 2020, calls for the country to be among the 20 largest economies in the world by 2020. A more stable power grid is a priority for meeting that goal.

“They understand that the knowledge economy is coming,” Alford said. “Titus and others at Mkar recognize that more and more information is going electronic, and that they will simply never have the space to have a library collection like we do. They are looking at leapfrogging technology. Rather than go through a print era, they want to go straight into an electronic era, but they have the current infrastructure problem.”

Nomsure was struck by the level of technology and operations of USC’s libraries and what leapfrogging technology would mean for Mkar.

“The first impression I had of your libraries is the intensive use of ICT (information and communication technologies) and hi-tech facilities and the level of automation in the libraries,” Nomsure said. “Another thing that stood out most was the quality of services being rendered to your library users. Everything was done promptly and according to schedule.

“The availability of constant power supply and the internet connection was super fast, something that is alien in our country Nigeria. You know during Professor Duncan's last visit to the University of Mkar, he spent most of the nights in total darkness, and it took him almost an hour to check just three emails.”

While at USC, Nomsure spoke to a legal research class and lectured with Alford on Nigeria’s legal system; outlined a plan for Mkar’s purchase of Follette Library Manager, a software system that will help automate library operations; and explored ways to connect Mkar’s library to the Internet through a separate server.

“I was highly impressed with the cooperation I received from all the staff of the library both at the law school and the Thomas Cooper Library,” Nomsure said. “The visit was very beneficial to the University of Mkar and to myself as a person.”

Alford and Nomsure continue to stay in close contact.

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Posted: 07/30/12 @ 4:50 PM | Updated: 08/21/12 @ 4:27 PM | Permalink