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How can academic libraries align with sustainable development goals?

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Haseeb Md. Irfanullah looks at the role for Bangladesh libraries in driving the country's evolution

Bangladesh is an economy in transition. In 2018, the country for the first time fulfilled all the criteria to become a lower-middle-income country. It now needs to maintain this gain for another five years to get out of the least-developed-country list in 2024, the earliest.

As Bangladesh progresses, its education sector remains one of the largest areas of government expenditure. For the current fiscal year (July 2019−June 2020), this sector is receiving about 12 per cent of the country’s US$ 62 billion budget. And, the ‘secondary and higher education’ sub-sector would spend about half of it, or US$ 3.5 billion. 

The past decade has seen many government initiatives promoting research and enhancing research capacity at Bangladesh’s universities. The overall public spending for research at the tertiary level is, however, small compare with the education budget or the country’s GDP (US$ 250 billion). A review of this year’s budget of the Ministry of Education shows an allocation of US$13.6 million for research. The Ministry of Science and Technology is another source of research funding for academic and research institutions. During 2009‒2018, it has funded around US$45 million in research.

Academic libraries of Bangladesh

Bangladesh has 152 public and private universities teaching around four million students and the public universities make one third of the total. Academic libraries of this country have had fantastic evolution over the past decade. My recent discussions with several university librarians and visits to 15 library websites draw some interesting pictures of Bangladesh’s academic libraries. The surveyed universities included country’s five oldest public universities (established between 1921 and 1966) and 2019’s top 10 private universities, with the oldest established in 1992.

Many libraries’ online access to global scholarly literature was initiated through several worldwide initiatives, like the INASP-PERI and the Research4Life. In recent years, the University Grants Commission of Bangladesh’s UGC Digital Library (UDL) has facilitated access to greater e-resources along with individual university’s negotiation with different publishers. Offering reference books to the students, researchers, and faculty members remains the core service of all libraries, but gradually moving towards e-books. The extent of accessing e-journals widely varies from university to university ranging from a few thousands to tens of thousands. Most surveyed libraries now support off-campus access to e-resources through OpenAthens or RemoteXs.

In recent years, Bangladeshi universities in general have become more aware of unethical practices in academic arena. One third of the surveyed libraries now provide plagiarism-check service to their students and faculties using software, like Turnitin. In rare instances, when asked by the university administrations, libraries also run plagiarism check on the published papers or post-graduate theses submitted by the faculty members along with job or promotion applications. Also rare, university administrations ask their libraries to check the authenticity of the journals in which staff members publish their research. Similarly, at a few universities, faculty members also ask libraries to check certain journals when the formers are not sure if those are predatory or fake.

Two-third of the university libraries surveyed have institutional repositories, often using DSpace. Anyone can openly access almost all of these repositories. In some cases, unpublished research is only accessible on-campus due to concern over potential misuse by plagiarizers. At least one university has initiated digitalization of old newspapers, periodicals, and journals under a donor-supported project.

On a limited scale, academic libraries arrange capacity development sessions for their staff and faculty members on new technologies and access methods. On a relatively wider scale, libraries organise orientation events for new students so that they can avail of the library services.

Issues shaping academic libraries

Since technology is an integral part of modern libraries, its availability, accessibility, and affordability is a crucial aspect in the Global South. Many facilities we now see in the academic institutions of Bangladesh have been established, supported or enhanced by donor-funded projects. The World Bank-supported a US$205 million Higher Education Quality Enhancement Project (HEQEP) in Bangladesh, which ended on 31 December 2018. Over a decade, this project significantly changed the teaching, learning and research systems of Bangladesh’s higher education. But how to carry forward such an investment beyond the project tenure is a challenge and depends upon individual university’s resources and commitments.

Besides the surveyed ones, academic libraries of Bangladesh in general sometimes show limited leadership to keep libraries relevant. Libraries and their users are not always aware of or do not have sufficient knowledge on what libraries ‘can do’ in a dynamic scholarly world. This hinders libraries to reposition themselves. The students and faculty members often do not demand enough services from the libraries, which in turn lead to less investment in the libraries. A library has to constantly complete with other priorities of their host institutions for funding as academic institutions of Bangladesh are often resource constrained.

To overcome technological and resource limitations, project dependency, and demand-supply gap, academic libraries need to show strategic leadership for their institutions. They need to collaborate with other libraries in the country and engage with wider stakeholders. They also need to innovate and improvise, not only in terms of technology, but also in the services they provide, policies they create to follow, money they arrange, and their overall relationship with the researchers. And, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offers an exciting opportunity for the academic libraries to support their hosts’ research ventures.

Academic libraries’ support to measure country’s development

Bangladesh did great in achieving most of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) during 2000−2015. That gave Bangladesh the confidence to embrace the SDGs Framework as it was endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly in September 2015.

The 17 SDGs have a total of 169 targets. Each target is supposed to be measured against 1 to 5 indicators with a total of 242 indicators. Bangladesh has developed a monitoring framework and SDG Tracker to do so. But a recent analysis shows that the country does not have data on many of those indicators. In fact, for 47 per cent of indicators, data is only partially available or needs further analysis; another 23 per cent of indicators have no data available at all.

Tracking the progress towards the SDGs is essentially a way of defining a country’s development. With incomplete data on indicators, measuring Bangladesh’s development is also incomplete. At the moment, the Government of Bangladesh only relies upon its ministries and agencies, and on the UN and other international agencies in limited cases, to receive SDG-related data. The government, therefore, needs to widen its data sources.

This gives academic and research institutes an unprecedented opportunity to get involved in this SDG venture to do what they are best at doing – data collection, analysis, interpretation and most importantly, building evidence. Further, the SDGs are also guiding the research agenda, globally. No new data, knowledge and evidence generation is possible without strong support from academic libraries – a role increasingly becoming crucial than ever before.

Academic libraries need to appreciate these new dimensions and responsibilities. Interactions among researchers and librarians can help both understand the requirements for effective research in the SDG era. At the same time, academic libraries need to create a stronger brand through collaboration, innovation, and leadership, thus growing out of their conventional persona and positioning themselves to impactfully support SDG research.

Dr Haseeb Md Irfanullah is an independent consultant on environment, climate change, and research systems and a visiting research fellow for the Center for Sustainable Development (CSD) at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh

This article is based upon author’s presentation at a webinar jointly organized by Cornell University Library and International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) on 5 December 2019.