Saving the library when no-one is reading books

Saving libraries at International Fund for Agricultural Development

When Sundeep Vaid started work in the library of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (Ifad) in Rome, he wasn’t sure the library would exist for long as ‘nobody was using it’. Starting with the idea that ‘Ifad cares about knowledge’, Sundeep managed to persuade decision makers of the library’s central and crucial role in the organisation.

Created in April 1978 (Ifad was established in 1977), the Ifad library held highly specialised collections on rural poverty, agricultural and economic development.

At the time, there were three people working in the library, which was paper-based and focused on grey literature and books. 

Sundeep Vaid, Ifad Librarian for the past 20 years, discovered that people just didn’t have time to read books. 

‘I thought I’d better go to them. So I pinged a few people, people dealing with a specific country or thematic areas such as land or water – just to tell them what was coming out in the journals. If I found something about livestock in India, for example, then that would go to the person in charge of that country and to the group dealing with livestock issues. It all started like that and it had a real effect. They would copy someone else who was working with them in that area, who in turn would ask me to copy them on all such communications in future.  That is how I started building a list of people showing who is interested in what.’ This brought about a sea change in how the Ifad library was perceived and positioned in the organisation.

Selective dissemination

This activity helped make Ifad employees aware of the library but also helped Sundeep learn more about the people who are going to be using the library. He emphasises that it’s a hands-on experience: ‘You can look at the organogram but it doesn’t tell you exactly what information a person needs, or what would add value to their work.’ 
This is done by disseminating selective information to people and seeing what they do with it: ‘I go through journal articles in major databases, RSS feeds, blogs and email alerts, scouring for the latest in development thinking and forwarding what I find on a highly selective basis.  It is important to target your audience well and avoid information overload for users. You don’t want to overdo it and become unpopular!’

In meetings with other librarians a ­frequent question is ‘how can we know who wants what?’ Sundeep says ‘There is no set way of handling this. You need to talk to your potential clients. Of course this involves hits and misses in fine-tuning the distribution lists. What’s the worst that can happen? No one is going to kill you for sending an article.’ The library’s role changed from knowledge collection/maintenance to active knowledge sharing. 

Around 2008, Ifad was due to move to a new building with the library, which ­employed four people, in a key location. Sundeep says: ‘The designated ­library space in the new building was to be in the lobby, in a prime location with the cafeteria on one side and the library on the other. 

‘But just when I thought the library was safe, it was decided at the last minute that this place wouldn’t go to us. In the end they put us down in the basement – which is where it would have died.’ 

Influencers

Staff numbers diminished to one and, Sundeep says: ‘The only thing that was keeping it alive was the selective dissemination of information.’

‘One day I started bringing up the books myself and filled the shelves in one of the rooms in the place originally designated as the library. I did it just to show management what the library could look like if we brought up the rest of the shelves and books.’

The idea caught on. Management, who were by now used to receiving regular information from the library, lent their full support. The reprieve came in December 2013: ‘Our president reestablished the library and made it central and he also said that he wanted the library’s future to be secure beyond his term in office, which came to an end in 2017.’
According to Sundeep, the short-term effects of advocacy through the selective dissemination programme built into a long-term momentum. Asked why the then President took an interest in the library he says: ‘It’s because he was also receiving emails from me. He was my client even when he was the Vice President.’ 

Then, and now, when he comes across a new member of staff, ‘I unabashedly say I’m the only librarian’ and invite her/him for a quick induction. I also mention at times that the President had his library training and other people further down the hierarchy would book in to come!’

Location matters

The new location was no guarantee that usage would increase.  Sundeep says: ‘All I could say to management was that sometimes supply generates its own demand and for a learning organisation like Ifad, it was appropriate to place our library right up front, in the lobby. It sends the right message to our stakeholders: “Ifad cares about knowledge”.’ 
Usage has now increased and it is popular with staff at all levels. Book loans and requests for information are on the rise.

While Sundeep can say that the library was saved by selective dissemination of knowledge and the gradual growth of support, the location is symbolically important, reinforcing the value given to it.  Sundeep says: ‘When Ban Ki Moon met a group of Koreans in Rome he met them here at the library. And other people that hold interviews like to have a back drop of a library because it projects the image of a knowledge institution.’

Technology and training

Meanwhile Ifad is expanding: ‘We’ve got 700 people in Ifad, a growing number of people in a growing number of country offices.’ As interaction with the library grows so does the amount of information generated, as well as training and advocacy opportunities for the library.

Since 2012, around 600 people have benefitted from one hour training sessions. 

The library recently installed a video-streaming facility in view of the increasing number of knowledge events being held there and is a launch pad for new ideas.  ‘We recently installed a large interactive video touch screen. This has become so popular now that our IT division has started deploying similar equipment in other offices.’ 

In another example, Sundeep says: ‘Once I saw our intern in the cafeteria with some other interns from the various divisions.  I said to myself that we need to build on this informal network.’ Thus was born the first intern-to-intern training session in Ifad, where the library intern imparts training to interns from other units. 

Adding value

The survival of Ifad’s library highlights how librarians may have to rely on providing new and proactive services in any organisation. Proactive dissemination of information helped redefine the library’s role from bringing information in and waiting for clients, to knowledge sharing activities. For example, Ifad is producing a new research series on different aspects of development and the library is helping in its dissemination. 

But Sundeep’s experience suggests that library staff may have to rescue themselves fairly regularly. He says: ‘That’s how it’s done... you have to show the added value of your work and make it central within the larger KM scheme of things.’ 

Sundeep will be speaking at Internet Librarian International on 18 October on ‘Back from the brink: how to save a library’.

This article was originally published in CILIP Update Magazine, September 2017.

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