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61st IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 20-25, 1995

User Education in Academic Libraries a study of Trends and Developments in Southern Africa

Babakisi T. Fidzani, Assistant Librarian, University of Botswana Library, Gaborone, Botswana


This paper examines user education programmes in academic libraries in Southern Africa. The discussion focusses on the planning, organization and implementation of these programmes. It highlights pro blems and barriers of user education in various academic libraries.

The paper further examines the influence of information technology on user education. It looks at how users are introduced to OPAC's, CD-ROMs, and Internet where available. Finally, the paper explores the possibilities of cooperation in the implementation of user education programmes in academic libraries in the region



Academic libraries support the teaching and research needs of institutions they serve. It is the libraries' responsibility to ensure that the use of its information sources, resources and servi ces are maximized to benefit its users, hence the necessity for user education programmes.

This study examines how user education programmes are planned, organized and implemented in academic libraries in Southern Africa. It further examines the influences of information technology o n user education and on the problems experienced in various institutions.

Fleming (1990) defines user education "as various programmes of instruction, education and exploration provided by libraries to users to enable them to make more effective, efficient and indepen dent use of information sources and services to which these libraries provide access".

Some specific components of user education are:

  1. Librarians introducing new students, some of whom come from school systems where there are generally no school librarians or well established libraries, to the complexities of university library facilities.
  2. Librarians familiarizing users, who have little or no information seeking skills at all with a broad range of library resources in order to develop library skills.
  3. Librarians educating users on how to find materials manually or electronically using on-line public access catalogues and CD-ROMs.

    Literature Review

    An evaluation of user education literature reveals the importance of user education in academic libraries. It is believed that improving users' knowledge of their libraries' collection and ser vices could be a motivating factor for more usage and more demands on the library.

    Mews argues that training in the use of information should be part of all students' education. There is need for instruction in the use of libraries and information services. He sees user educati on as a continuous process which should cover use of the catalogue, abstracts, bibliographies and reference books. At the post-graduate level detailed instruction in methods of searching and formula tion of clear requests, is necessary.

    Foss (1994) corroborates this by arguing that user education should be organized at different information levels to ensure that needs of all users are met. Foss outlines these different levels wi thin the Fourah Bay College's (Sierra Leone) user education programme. The first stage provides a general introduction to the library. The next stage is concerned with more subject and bibliographi c material. The third stage of instruction would cater for the needs of advanced and research students.

    While Foss (1994) basis his levels of user education on information levels, the China Ministry of Education (1995) recommended three levels of user education based on the users educational backgrou nd. The first level is library orientation for freshmen; the second courses of bibliographic instruction for juniors and seniors; and the third is more sophisticated user education involving the sort ing and summarizing of documentation and the studying and analysing of information for all graduate students.

    Ford (1994) notes that in South Africa, Australia and the Netherlands issues related to information access and use have become an increasing concern and, therefore concepts of user education and information literacy are being incorporated in their school and higher education curriculum. She further points out that the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) recognizes the importance of the development of information seeking skills to all members of society.

    The above views indicate that user education is a continuous process which has to be performed for all user groups. To ensure that users are equipped with efficient methods of accessing, evaluating information from a variety of sources and synthesizing the information into a coherent whole,training can be organized around level of difficulty of information and or users educational background. The goal of user education should be to improve the quality of users research output and ensure lifelong learning.

    Purpose of study

    The purpose of this study is to examine how academic libraries are responding to the challenge of teaching students information seeking skills in this rapidly changing information environment.

    The following aspects of user education are examined:

    1. User education planning.
      Policies and objectives.
    2. Organization and implementation of user education
      1. Coordination
      2. Library orientation and bibliographic instruction. Library orientation refers to the basic introduction to the library services given to new students. This includes library tours, library gui des on the layout of the library and library registration. Bibliographic instruction, includes introduction to the use of catalogues and instruction given on the use of abstracts, indexes, bibliogra phies and reference books, regardless of whether they are in print or electronic form.
      3. Ways in which user education is evaluated
      4. Current problems and barriers to user education programmes.
    3. User education and technology

    Scope of Study

    The study is limited to academic libraries in Southern Africa. The countries covered are Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, Swaziland, Malawi, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.


    A postal questionnaire was sent out to 34 libraries in Southern Africa. The response to the postal questionnaire was 56% after a letter of reminder.

    Distribution of questionnaires and responses


    Questionnaires sent: 1 ; Responses: 1
    Questionnaires sent: 1 ; Responses: -
    Questionnaires sent: 5 ; Responses: 3
    Questionnaires sent: 1 ; Responses: 1
    South Africa
    Questionnaires sent: 20 ; Responses: 12
    Questionnaires sent: 1 ; Responses: 1
    Questionnaires sent: 2 ; Responses: -
    Questionnaires sent: 3 ; Responses: 1
    Questionnaires sent: 34 ; Responses: 19


    The responses to the questionnaire will be analysed in this section under the following headings: user education planning, organization and implementation of user education and information technolog y and user education.

    Limitation of study

    From the distribution of questionnaire table, it should be noted that 65% respondents are from South Africa which is relatively more developed than other countries in Southern Africa. 37% of the res pondents are from developing countries in the region. Significant developments in information technology reflected in the study are in South African Libraries.

    User Education Planning

    Policies and objectives:
    Respondents were asked whether they had any user education policies and whether they had any user education programmes in place and if so state its objectives.

    Of the 19 respondents, 63% said they had a policy on user education 32% said they do not have a policy on user education, and 5% did not respond to this question. 68% libraries had a user education programme in place, 22% did not have a formal user education programme and 10% libraries did not respond to this question. All libraries which had user education in place had objectives for their p rogramme . Below are a sample of objectives cited by 5 different libraries;

    1. To introduce students to facilities and sources in the library to meet their needs and make students independent users and learners in the library.
    2. To develop library skills of users. To develop self-sufficient users. To establish the library as the centre of academic activity.
    3. To provide basic understanding of the library so that users can make efficient use of library material and services.
    4. Introduce library to first year students.
    5. Educate users about information sources and resources and how to exploit such resources effectively and efficiently.

    Organization and implementation of user education


    User education programmes are coordinated by the Reader Services Librarian in 32% of the libraries, by the Reference Librarian in 5% of the libraries, by the User Education Librarian in 50% of the l ibraries, by the Deputy Librarian in 16% of the libraries, and by the Head of the Department of Subject Librarians in 5% of the libraries. 16% libraries did not have a central coordinator and 1 library did not respond.

    Library orientation and bibliographic instruction

    95% of the libraries responded that they carry out library orientation for first year students, during the first to fourth week of the academic year. One library ( 5%) does orientations throughout the year whenever there is a need.

    Instruction on use of the catalogue and detailed instructions in methods of searching is done throughout the year on request in 68% of the libraries. 26% of the libraries conduct such instruction du ring the 5th to 6th week of the term. One library was not involved in such user education.


    The study sought to find out whether there was any form of evaluation carried out to determine the success of the user education programme. 84% of the libraries responded that they had some form of evaluation, 5% of the libraries do not carry out any form of evaluation and 11% of the libraries did not respond to the question. Forms of evaluation included library exercises after instruction, faculty evaluation forms after instruction and student evaluation forms.

    Problems and barriers of user education

    Institutions experience problems during the implementation phase of their user education programmes. Problems which appear to affect most institutions as cited by the respondents are inadequate num ber of professional staff to conduct user education training, limited time allocated for the programme and lack of support from the teaching staff. User education training is not compulsory in most institutions.

    Information technology and user education

    OPAC and CD-ROMS

    Implementation of information technology require some computer literacy for both users and library staff. Respondents were asked to rate the users exposure and knowledge of computers. 32% of the l ibraries rated their users as good, 21% of the libraries rated them as fair, 5%of the libraries rated them as a combination of very good and good, 11% of the libraries rated them as wide range from v ery good to no knowledge of computers and 11% of the libraries said their users have no knowledge of computers. 21% of the libraries did not respond to this question. From the responses 74% of the libraries were automated and had online public access catalogue (OPAC) available to users. 26% of the libraries were not automated. 64% of the libraries studied had CD-ROM titles in their collectio n.


    The study also sought to find out whether libraries were connected to the Internet and if connected, indicate how it is used. Eight libraries responded to questions on the Internet. Five of these libraries are connected to the Internet and three are not connected. In three libraries users have access to e-mail through the library. In all of the eight libraries which responded to the question s on e-mail and the Internet, only one library carry out user instruction on the use of e-mail facilities and no intruction is carryied out on the use of the Internet.

    User Education Planning

    Libraries provide a support service to the institutions they serve. It is important to understand the goals of the institution served to enable librarians to come up with a mission statement which should reflect the library's commitment in helping the institution achieve its goals. Thorough planning is needed to ensure that all activities carried out are towards meeting the institutional goal s. Commitment to educate users should be reflected in the mission statement of the library. This should be followed by a written user education policy.

    User education programmes should aim to make all users aware of the information resources available, both directly in the library and from external sources and enable users to enjoy the search for i nformation . It is interesting to note that many of the objectives listed by libraries in this study stressed the self-sufficiency of users through a successful user education programme.

    Written policies and objectives on user education provide a basis for self-evaluation. This could be used to answer questions like, is the user education programme achieving what it was set out to achieve? If not more detailed studies on user information needs should be conducted. User education programmes need continuous revision to keep up to date with the changing information environment. Written objectives for instruction should be derived from the written profiles of the information needs of the users. Universities have unique identities "each university library must design its o wn course to meet the immediate needs of its clientele as well as fit into the university teaching programme" 7. This is evident in the responses, some libraries' concern is introducing first year students to the library "some of whom have never used a library before" 8.

    Organization and implementation of User Education

    User education programmes are centrally coordinated in 88% of the libraries. This goes to show the importance attached to the programmes. The question one asks is whether the programmes are organi zed in such a way that they would equip users with information skills which would enable them to make effective and efficient use of library resources and services. Institutions experience problems which hinder implementation of effective user education programmes. Problems cited include shortage of professional staff, lack of cooperation from faculties and inadequate time allocated for user e ducation.

    Library orientation is carried out to all new students in all libraries studied. The other forms of library instruction do not have a well defined schedule. Six-five percent of the libraries do th eir instruction on use of the catalogue and detailed instruction on use of the catalogue and on methods of searching on request. Therefore the teaching of information seeking skills in these institu tions is dependent on the co-operation between the teaching departments and the library departments. Users from those departments whose co-operation with the library is strong are given more guidanc e through well structured instruction. Those who cooperate with the library sacrifice only a few hours of time scheduled for their courses in recognition of service offered. Library instruction ca n be more effective if it is continuous and "linked to student course work and assignments" 9. Fifty percent of those libraries studied, do not get the full participation of all faculties in library instruction. Some users are therefore deprived of a chance to benefit from the library instruction.

    It is encouraging to note that 84% of libraries had some form of evaluation for their programmes. This could help both users and Librarians to improve on their weaknesses if enough time was allocat ed for user education. It is a pity the study did not go further into examining the effectiveness of each type of evaluation.

    Further improvements could be made to user education programmes by:

      (a) Establishing exchange programmes which would enable exchange of user education publications used to educate large numbers. This would promote sharing of ideas in addressing similar problems.
      (b) Sharing ideas on strategies to be used to win faculty support and have a compulsory Bibliographic Instruction course.

    Information technology and user education

    There is no doubt that the information environment in libraries inschanging in Southern Africa. Libraries are either automated or are in the process of being automated. This new information techn ology in libraries poses a considerable challenge for librarians. Librarians have to teach users with little or no knowledge of computers how to search the OPAC.

    Instruction on the use of the OPAC, forms a basic step to searching a computerised database, which might lead to more sophisticated searches like searching other databases thus being exposed to more information.

    64% of the libraries had CD-ROM titles in their collections, CD-ROMs enable users to get current information in their subject areas. Training in CD-ROM searches will enable users to have access to more information. Identification of information in users research areas available elsewhere, gives users a chance to have access to material through inter-library loans and thus promote resource sh aring.

    It is very unfortunate that from the libraries studied CD-ROM instruction is not compulsory. Rather, it is done by subject specialists on request. This deprives readers of developing skills to uti lize a faster and current bibliographic reference. User education programmes should aim at sensitizing users to the value of online public access catalogues and CD-ROMS so that they can learn to appr eciate and use them.

    The Internet poses another challenge to the librarians. It affects their job and working practices. According to Bauwens(1993) , knowledge of how to navigate the Internet is now becoming a basic r equirement for information professionals. This would enable librarians to carry out instruction on the use of the Internet. Users need to be introduced to different on-line catalogues and their searc h procedures.

    Currently none of the libraries examined include instruction on the use of the Internet in their user education programmes. Libraries should not only see themselves as users of Internet but also as providers of information from the Internet. There is a growing need to support users in the form of training to provide them with skills needed for effective exploitation of online resources.


    User education programmes are available in 68% of university libraries in Southern Africa. However there are problems which hinder the effective and efficient implementation of these programmes. P roblems cited are shortage of professional staff to handle large numbers of users, inadequate time allocated for user education and lack of cooperation between library staff and faculty. Librarians have to work together to come up with strategies to ensure effective and efficient user education programmes.


    1. Fleming, Hugh (ed) User Education in academic libraries.. London: Library Association Publishing Limited, 1990.

    2. Mews, Hazel Reader Instruction in colleges and universities: an introductory handbook. London: Clive Bingley, 1992.

    3. Foss, Valerie M. “Reader instruction at Fonirah Bay College Library, University of Sierra Leone” Sierra Leone Journal, 1(1): 36-39 (1974).

    4. The Ministry of Education (China) (September 1985). A few view-points on Improvement for Course of Bibliographic Instruction. quoted by Fang P. and Daniel Callision” User Education in Academic L ibraries of China”. International Library Review, 22, 95-103 (1990).

    5. Ford, Barbara J. “Information literacy goes international College Research Libraries News 55(2): 422-425 (1994).

    6. Fjallbrant, Nancy “Why user education and how can information technology help? IFLA Journal 16(4): 405-421 (1990).

    7. Aguolu, C.C. “The Education of Library users in Nigerian Universities” Education Libraries Bultetin 25(75) 20-29 (1983).

    8. Response from questionnaire.

    9. Raseroka, H. Kay "The Role and Purpose of the University Library in a Rapidly changing information Environment with Reference to the Eastern and Southern Africa Region" IFLA Journal 19 (1) 51-58 (1992).

    10. Bauwens, Michel "The poor man's Internet-reaching the networks with e-mail only" Aslib Proceedings 45(7/8) 201-207 (1990)