Reference Services in Academic Libraries in Sierra Leone


Society is becoming more stratified and polarized, with the rich and the poor, the educated and uneducated, having limited cognitive skills wider apart than in any time in our history. In this period of increasing stratification by income and ability, the library in academic institutions may acts as a bridge between the entrenched social poles.

Reference libraries have the longest history of any type of library. They existed in the days of clay tablet and from such tablets, information was consulted and a list of concerns is being regarded as the primitive forerunners of current library catalogues. From their beginnings in ancient times, the functions of libraries have not altered significantly. However the format, quantity and content of the materials making up their stock and the resultant services have progressively been transformed to the point where the researchers today have access to a network of sophisticated information resources. The primary role of the library is educational and this has been the attitude if not the realization of reference librarians (Higgens, 1988).

Academic libraries are those designed to meet general studies at the undergraduate and graduate levels and which also support their parent institutions in delivering their programs for an effective teaching and implementation of practical skills. Higgens (1988) defined an academic library as that attached to help academic institutions above secondary level serving the teaching and research needs of students, staff and researchers. According to Harrods (2000) academic libraries are those found in universities, polytechnics, colleges and all other institutions forming part of or associated with the educational institutions.

Reference Services at the Fourah Bay College Library

Fourah Bay College library was established in 1827. It is located at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone in the Michael Jollife Building which was named after the late Mr. Michael Jollife, an expatriate who served as College librarian from 1961-1970.

The first floor of the library houses the reception desk; photocopying room; issue desk; Sierra Leone Collection (incorporating the United Nations Collection); the American Shelf; General Reference Collection; Cataloguing Department; Acquisition Department; Circulation Department and the College Librarian’s office. The second floor holds the Textbook Collection. The third floor contains the General Lending Collection.

The lower ground floor houses the Bindery; staff rooms and stores. The library has Professional, Para-professional and other support staff. It uses the Dewey Decimal Classification Scheme and the Triplicate Issuing System with Card catalogue.

Fourah Bay College library is one of the outstanding academic libraries in Sierra Leone established with the mission statement “to build a comprehensive collection of recorded information to support effective teaching, research and training in the Liberal Arts, Pure and Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology, Social Sciences and Law and related fields to facilitate speedy access to information, and to optimize the use of collection by potential library users of Fourah Bay College and other institutions.”

Reference Service is the peak of library activity job. It involves the maintenance of a resource bank from which answers to queries are provided and materials needed by users are made available.Davidson (1979) defined reference service as the provision of information and materials to people entering a reference library and requesting help from the library staff. Katz (1997) viewed reference service as the behind-the-scene activities of the reference library in the selection, acquisition and maintenance of the library stock and its careful recordings and administration.

When we talk of reference service in academic libraries, we mean those activities undertaken by librarians and associated types of staff from the reference department in academic libraries. This is achieved through the use of collection of books, and other materials stocked in the reference department for reference purposes distinct from collection made for home reading or other use outside the library. The reference process in academic libraries involves the following:

• The user recognizes his need for information;
• The user puts his question to the librarian;
• The librarian engages the questioner in a reference dialogue;
• The librarian refines and restates the question;
• The librarian formulates the search strategy;
• The librarian identifies and exploits his own and/or external information resources;
• The librarian presents his tentative findings;
• The user assesses the relevance of these in relation to his requirements; and
• The user accepts an approved answer.

Reference materials at the Fourah Bay College Library include:dictionaries, encyclopedias, abstract journals, directories, yearbooks, biographies periodicals/serials, indexes to periodicals, newspapers, maps and charts, technical reports, patents, standard specifications, dissertations, theses, conference proceedings and the academic and administrative calendar of events or the operation of the college.

In addition to these materials the library offers the following services:

Reference Service: This refers to the personal assistance given to users in finding specific information whether direct or indirect. At Fourah Bay College Library, a resource bank is maintained from which answers to questions are provided and materials needed by users are made available.

Bibliographic Service: The library prepares book lists and bibliographies for its clients, especially post-graduate students which serve as a great aid in their research activities especially in the writing of their theses and dissertation.

Photocopying Service: This service is provided for students who wish to photocopy their notes as well as lecturers who want to reproduce multiple copies of useful materials to make their lecture notes. Users pay a fee for this service.

Internet Service: This is the latest among the services provided at the Fourah Bay College Library. The Library provides an opportunity for staff and students to access information online via the use of the Internet. However, to use the system, the clientele must have some skills in the use computers and a fee is also charged for the service.

Binding Service: Mutilated references materials are sent to bindery to be bound. However it is not a free for all service as some cost is charged for the services rendered especially to students and for personal work of staff members.

The reference department at the Fourah Bay College library is a special one from which materials cannot be borrowed for home reading. It is served by special librarians called Reference Librarians or Information Officers, who assist and advise patrons in their research and other literature needs. They provide bibliographic or intellectual access and offer targeted services and programs with the mission of educating, informing and entertaining a variety of audiences and the goal of stimulating individual learning and advancing society as a whole.

Reference Queries:are also answered in the library. These questions posed by the library patrons to the reference librarians with the aim of getting the right information to satisfy their needs. These queries are divided into:

Directional Queries: These are queries in which the reference librarian is asked simply for directions.

Ready Reference Queries: These are referred to as quick reference questions. They are queries in which the reference librarians need to consult only one source, and that adjacent to the inquiry point, in order to deal with the user’s needs. This is distinguished from the purely directional level of work by the fact that the librarians need to consult some data rather than simply answer from personal knowledge.

Specific Search Queries: These are described as those in which reference librarians may need to consult several sources to ensure complete the satisfaction of user needs. They are the kind which are clearly understood without too much discussion and the sources required are obvious and fairly elementary.

Research Queries: These are queries that require extended searches, perhaps over several days and possibly involving a number of library staff concurrently. The marshaling of facts and figures from a wide range of sources, together with the need to write extensive background notes and explanations, and probably to borrow materials from other libraries and make a telephone call to advice or getting assistance from other libraries will be a feature of this type of query

Challenges of Reference Services at the Fourah Bay College Library

Academic Libraries in Sierra Leone, especially Fourah Bay College Library are not without challenges. These range from shortage of funds through lack of adequate professionally skilled staff to erratic power supply.

The library is wholly and solely dependent upon the college administration for funding. An assessment of funding at Fourah Bay College Library reveals that a very low priority is given to the institution’s academic nerve center. The library is gravely underfunded. Games and Sports Division is given a higher quotation than the library. This financial challenge has therefore limited the library in the provision of an excellent reference service to its clients. The library also lacks the required current reference materials to handle reference queries. This financial constraints has limited the library in acquiring the most recent reference materials.

Further the number of professional staff is small compared to the number of para-professional and other support staff. The reference section does not have adequate staff to handle the volume of reference queries from the bulk of the users of the library especially during peak periods.

Power outages also pose a serious challenge. The problem, though a national one, has affected the operations of the library. The 21st century library is supposed to be a digital library which must thrive on power supply. Sadly power supply in Sierra Leone is erratic and this has handicapped the Fourah Bay College library greatly. As such staff and users could not make use of such facilities as computer, searching the Internet for recent reference materials and information or photocopying materials which cannot be used outside the library or even have access to automated reference materials.

The reference department at the library does not have Internet facilities to aid in answering reference queries that require current response. Also the seating accommodation in the reference department at the library is inadequate and cannot accommodate the large number of students in the college who come in for reference services. The reference department also lacks Current Awareness Services (CAS), Selective Dissemination of Information (SDI) all of which form the basis for reference services. Moreover the reference sources and resources available at the reference department are not well publicized or marketed which could serve as a strong link between the department and the clients.

Indeed, reference service is one of the most important services that a library uses to meet its aims and objectives. There is considerable potential in the use the college library of reference services but there are also many challenges. There should be therefore commitment on the part of the librarians, library administration, users and the college administration in order to achieve quality and sustainability in the development and improvement of reference services. Only through their active participation will reference services transform the teaching and learning process, alter the nature of information seeking, organizing and using behavior at Fourah Bay College.