Donations to Libraries: A Problem in International Cooperation

Donations to Libraries: A Problem in International Cooperation

Paul Sturges
Copyright: © 2014 |Pages: 11
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-4365-9.ch003
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The donations of books and other materials to libraries in developing countries reveal the paradox that a gift can be more of a problem than a benefit. In the post-colonial period, well meaning organisations sent boxes of discarded books to libraries. Governments send book donations for propaganda purposes and religious organisations do likewise, with the Church of Scientology currently using its massive translating, publishing and distribution capacity for this purpose. Ways in which donations can be selected so as to serve the actual needs of recipients have been explored in recent years, with the charity Book Aid International being an outstanding example. The experience of libraries in the face of donations of all these types is discussed so as to point to some conclusions on the significance for international cooperation.
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Donations: The Background

If we take a broad historical look at the question of donations we find that it has an enduring significance for libraries, but that significance has varied according to time and place. The centrality of donations to the growth and shape of libraries was a key factor in the age of the manuscript book and the early centuries of print. The Royal and Imperial libraries of Europe that mutated into National libraries, the Monastic, College and early Public Libraries all depended on foundation gifts and a continuing inflow of legacies and donations. Whilst a few libraries in the 16th and 17th centuries might have purchased a substantial part of their collections, most could only control the content of the library by encouraging some donations and (possibly) discouraging others. The 18th century commercial circulating libraries and libraries of private societies of one kind or another represent the first wave of libraries in which a proprietor, committee or librarian could, because of the revenue streams available, set out to exercise a real command over the shape and content of the stock. The expectation that library collections should represent a coherent view of a subject or subjects was thus a comparatively new addition to the intellectual structure of librarianship when, in the 19th century, libraries of many kinds began to be founded in great numbers in the USA and north western Europe.

Melville Dewey and the pioneers of systematic librarianship acknowledged and respected the role of donations, but they envisaged the librarian exercising a conscious control over the process of collection building. This control is something that consistent and crippling under-funding has denied the librarians of the developing world. On the question of under-funding, Seth (2006)’s short and clear review of the Indian library system makes absolutely clear, what any visiting observer also discovers quite quickly, that ‘Libraries are still the lowest priority in the decision-making process and there is no relation between the capacity of a state to spend on libraries and its willingness to do so’. Ghosh (2005) implicitly conveys a similar message. That this should be the case for the nation that produced Ranganathan and other significant thinkers of librarianship might be shocking, but the state of libraries in other parts of Asia, and in the African countries that the author knows rather better, is more than just shocking. Empty library shelves can be found in many places and where, in other cases, there are books on the shelves it is because those books are so completely unreadable as to actually repel readers. These books are usually donations.

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