Information needs can't be generalised

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Siân Harris finds out what some of the key information issues are for librarians and researchers across Asia

Much discussion about scholarly research focuses on the western world. Top research institutions in the west are very good at publicising what they do beyond national borders and Europe and North America are home to many international publishing houses. But the picture this gives of research publishing is far from complete.

In Asia, many of the challenges faced by librarians and researchers are like those faced elsewhere in the world. Issues of budgets, information literacy of students and choosing resources are similar around the world. However, there are many information needs and challenges that are specific to each country.

For example, it’s easy to assume that all researchers in all countries turn to broadly the same set of research resources – even if their institutions don’t subscribe to them all. However, it’s simply not the case. This issue was illustrated at the ALPSP conference last year when Choon Shil Lee, professor of library & information science at Sookmyung Women’s University, South Korea spoke about a range of country-wide medical information resources, all of which had western analogues but all of which focused on research from South Korea.

She spoke about a publishing landscape in the country where there are no major commercial scholarly publishers and very few subscription-based titles. The projects she’s involved in include bringing together many of the disparate journals in the country – many in Korean – and enabling them to be searched together, as well as enabling the many open-access titles to be indexed in Google Scholar.

Different languages

Language is also a challenge for many librarians and researchers. In some countries, English – which is commonly used for scholarly publishing – is widely spoken and taught. In others, the fact that so much scholarly information is in English is seen as a major barrier to students, if not for their professors.

‘Language is not much of a challenge for my collegues and me who got doctoral degrees from English-speaking countries such as the USA, UK and Australia but, for students, language barriers are still the main problem,’ observed Chutima Sacchanand, a professor of library and information studies (LIS) at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University in Thailand. She estimates that literature published in Thailand, in Thai, makes up around 30 per cent of the resources she accesses.

These experiences were echoed by Mitsuhiro Oda, a professor of library and information studies at Aoyama Gakuin University, Japan but currently a visiting professor at Loughborough University, UK. He sees language as the main information hurdle, likening it to crossing hazardous water. ‘We have to translate and interpret research information from Japanese to English, and vice versa,’ he explained. ‘Roughly three quarters of the resources I use for my research are published in Japan, in Japanese.’

In Singapore, however, the situation is very different, as Joseph Kennedy, research librarian, law & business at Singapore Management University, pointed out: ‘Since English is the language of business and we are primarily a business school located in an English-speaking country, language is not a huge challenge. The language issue may be more for users who come from other parts of the world. However, English proficiency is required for entrance into the university,’ he explained.

Kennedy estimates that roughly 10 per cent of the resources subscribed to at his institution are from Singapore, 15-20 per cent from the Asia-Pacific region (including Singapore) and 80-85 per cent from other parts of the world. Nearly 100 per cent of these are in English, he added.


Images of GGD SD College, India, courtesy of Gurpreet Singh Sohal

The language situation can vary within countries too, especially in India. Pralhad Jadhav works in Mumbai as manager – KM & library at Khaitan & Co, Advocates, Solicitors, Notaries, Patent & Trademark Attorneys. His mother tongue is Marathi but he mainly works in English and all the resources he subscribes to, even those originating in India, are in English, he said. He said that language is not a challenge at all for his users. In Chandigarh, Gurpreet Singh Sohal, librarian at GGD SD College, does not see language as a big challenge either, explaining: ‘Hindi is our mother tongue and we serve the Hindi, Punjabi, English, French, Urdu and Sanskrit languages. In our region, the language barrier is very limited as most of our resources are in English and most of users also seek information in that language.’

The mother tongue of Jessie Satyanesan, chief librarian, Mohandas College of Engineering & Technology, Kerala in India is Malayalam but most work is done in English. ‘I would say around 30 per cent of our resources come from India; the rest comes from the USA and European countries. Around 95 per cent of the technical books are in English; the rest are mainly non-technical books, published in India in the Malayalam language. The majority of the students have had their schooling in English so using the English language is not a major challenge to the users but there are exceptions where language is a problem.’

Despite the variation and challenges, the prevalence of English can help in accessing scholarly communication, even where not everybody is fluent in the language. As Chutima Sacchanand noted, ‘Other languages (except Thai and English) are very much a challenge. As my colleagues, my students and I, including other library professionals in Thailand, cannot read, write or speak other languages except English, this limits access to research and academic papers written in other languages, especially languages used in other Asian countries, such as Chinese and Japanese.

‘I wish, at least, that papers in other languages could have English abstracts so that we can have access to information from the literature of other countries in Asia that have similar backgrounds and learn and share our experiences,’ she added.

‘Scholarly publishers could better serve [LIS] researchers in my country and specifically in Asia in the future by developing a database of LIS researchers in Asia with their profiles, life and work with informative abstracts of their research and academic papers and developing a database of English abstracts of research and academic papers in the native languages,’ she continued.

Financial challenges

It is dangerous to generalise, however, across so many diverse countries and cultures. For Jessie Satyanesan, of Mohandas College of Engineering & Technology in India, the main challenge is the cost of accessing resources. ‘Publishers of scholarly content should provide open access to the resources. They could also form a consortium and charge a smaller fee for third-world countries,’ he said.

Gurpreet Singh Sohal of GGD SD College in India echoed these concerns: ‘Paid resources are one of the biggest problems as individual institutions cannot take the burden of large chunks of money.’ He recommends following a consortia approach at an India-wide level ‘as India is still a developing country and our colleges and institutions do not subscribe on their own because of financial constraints.’ He also recommends ‘pick and choose’ options for particular resources as complete publisher packages can be too expensive for a single institution.

But there are other issues to be addressed too: ‘Bandwidth is still a problem in our country. Speed has increased but this still needs to be improved. There is also a lack of skills among library professionals.’

Nonetheless, many challenges are universal: ‘I think the biggest challenge is to promote technology innovation-oriented reading habits in this age and attracting readers towards the library premises again,’ concluded Gurpreet Singh Sohal.

Jessie Satyanesan, chief librarian, Mohandas College of Engineering & Technology, Kerala, India

We serve engineering subjects, biotechnology, social sciences and humanities. This is not a research-oriented institution. However, the students use both print and online journals for their assignments, seminars and projects. We are now fully automated, with an online public access catalogue and all the library resources may be accessed from any online terminal in the campus. The library has developed a library portal, and resources in various subjects may be accessed. As curriculum requirements changed, we have moved gradually to online subscription resources.

Our students use Google and other forms of online resources, including IEEE print resources. We have also developed a digital library, which provides access to free e-resources.

However, users may not find the resources they need in their library because it is difficult for one library to subscribe to several databases because of the cost involved. They may have to get the information from other libraries and external sources through interlibrary loans – and this can include some textbooks that are prescribed for their course.

Because of the impact of mobile technology we expect future access to information through the mobile applications in libraries and other forms of emerging technology. I plan to introduce emerging technologies in our libraries in the future.

Chutima Sacchanand, LIS professor, Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, Thailand, former director of the university library and former president of the Thai Library Association 

Chutima Sacchanand

My mother tongue is Thai and the language I mainly work in in my daily life is Thai. The information we obtain is almost all on research conducted in western countries. There is a need for more research information focusing on Asia, about Asia and by Asian scholars. In addition, as library and information science is interdisciplinary in its nature, my information needs are not limited to library and information science resources, but also include resources in other related areas. Another challenge is information access; it is difficult to obtain access to sufficient research material that has been generated in non-western countries or native languages and contexts, especially in Asia. There is a lack of sufficient research materials in the native languages of Asia.

As a researcher and professor, my colleagues and I, including my students, find difficulties in accessing and using the information and literature in the field in the native languages of our neighbourhoods and other countries in the region, which have been produced quite a lot in their native languages.

Gurpreet Singh Sohal, librarian, GGD SD College, Chandigarh, India

Hindi is our mother tongue and we serve the Hindi, Punjabi, English, French, Urdu and Sanskrit languages.

I serve commerce and management, sciences, applied sciences, social sciences, computer science and engineering research. Journals and databases are subscribed to according to the requirements of the relevant departments. For the books, we hold exhibitions in different subject areas annually where our faculty chose books according to their requirement for the given subject area.

Most of the 140 [print] journals and periodicals we subscribe to are published by Indian publishers, Indian Government agencies and institutions, national presses, and private public houses. We have more than 61,000 books in our library, which are mostly published by national publishers. But in the last four to five years, we have added a large chunk of books from international publishers.

Our college also has access to the N-LIST programme (India’s National Library and Information Services Infrastructure for Scholarly Content), which provides access to e-resources for students, researchers and faculty from colleges and other beneficiary institutions.

Through this programme our college can access 75000+ e-books and 3000+ e-journals. Databases like ProWess, Economic Intelligence Service (Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy Pvt.), GCG Accelrys (like Gen Bank, PIR, PDB) have been subscribed to by the college. Our College is also member of DELNET, which is a network for sharing resources between institutions.