Responsibility for the Development of Scientific Information as a National Resource
Scientific information may be considered to be a national resource, as useful in its own way as any other national resource, material or intellectual, provided it is wisely exploited and planned. Once this concept is accepted it follows that the development of this national resource is a national responsibility, although not necessarily the exclusive responsibility of the central government. In a democracy, at any rate, this responsibility will devolve on many bodies; government departments, universities, research organisations and professional societies should all play their part in co-ordinating existing sources of information, improving weak ones and initiating any necessary new services. There follow some suggestions as to the interlocking functions of these various bodies; the illustrations cited are based mainly on experience in southern Africa, partly because the pattern in a new and small country is clearer to see than in Europe and America, and partly because such illustrations may be of help to other small countries.
As a first step towards adequate planning, a survey and evaluation of existing resources and immediate needs is necessary and this should be put before a top-level body (such as a National Advisory Council on Scientific Policy) that has sufficient prestige to bring about some effective action. Such surveys, in varying degrees of completeness, were recently put before the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (C.S.I.R.) in the Union of South Africa and the Prime Minister’s Office in the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. In the case of the Union, the sub-committee of C.S.I.R. that gave special attention to the matter included the Chairman and one member of the newly formed Advisory Council on Scientific Policy. The planning and coordination of scientific information in the past has been frustrated to an ap-
HAZEL MEWS Department of Librarianship, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, Union of South Africa.
preciable degree by the fact that most co-operation was initiated by librarians and information workers themselves and they had very limited powers to put plans into action. High level support for future plans is, therefore, extremely important. It is equally important, however, that the co-operation of the librarians and other professional workers in information services should be secured as early as possible, since the smooth working of any plans depends ultimately on them. In South Africa the C.S.I.R., immediately it had approved a five-point plan of development, sent this to the South African Library Association, expressing the hope that, with the aid of the Association, the recommendations would in due course bear fruit. In the Federation, the adviser on co-ordination and development of scientific and industrial research, who had been asked to consider specifically (along with four other points) “the organisation of scientific and technical information services,” called together local librarians and research workers so that the plans could be discussed in their earliest stages of formulation.
One of the first responsibilities of the central government is the setting up of a central scientific and technical library and a national scientific and technical information service, either as an independent entity or attached to some existing institution. Unesco has recognised this need as a primary one by organising central scientific and technical documentation centres in countries it was asked to assist, for instance, Insdoc, the scientific documentation centre attached to the Indian National Physical Laboratory. In the Union of South Africa the Library and Information Division of the C.S.I.R. was from the beginning planned on broader lines than as a library service to C.S.I.R. laboratories only, and it is recognised as the central scientific library and information centre in South Africa. At the time of writing, the Federation is considering grafting a similar service onto the Library of the new Rhodesia University College or onto one of the existing scientific research institutes in the country.
Central government also has some responsibility to encourage and assist local services of a more limited kind in the main scientific centres and industrial areas, to relieve pressure on the central services and to give a rapid basic service on the spot. Whether such basic services are provided by university, research institution, public library, or technical college depends on local circumstances. In three of the main industrial areas of South Africa, such services are based respectively on the university library, the public library, and the technical college library.
The scientific societies have varied responsibilities, some old and some new; they include the publishing of specialised journals, organising or assisting abstracting services, encouraging the filling of gaps in the literature coverage of their subjects, defining their exact needs as far as information services are con-
cerned, and educating their members to become information-minded. Until recently few practising scientists gave much precise thought to information matters and not all of them yet realise that a good deal of thought and planning has already been applied to these problems by documentalists and other specialists. The scientific societies have an educational function in this respect. Societies similar to Aslib in Britain, the Special Libraries Association and American Documentation Institute in America, the International Federation of Documentation and the national documentation institutes on the Continent have a role to play that is complementary to that of the purely scientific and technical or the purely professional librarians’ associations, since they include many different kinds of workers in the information field and can weld together varying types of experience to work on these problems and to promote understanding of needs and of possibilities.
Some universities, in spite of overcrowded curricula, might be more alive to their responsibility for giving their science and engineering students some knowledge of the basic publications in their own field. Some graduates, in South Africa at least, face their professional careers with only a textbook background as far as their “literature” is concerned. As far as the chemists are concerned, their own dependence on previous work and such influences as that of the American Chemical Society’s new species of “literature chemists” is leading more chemistry departments in universities to give training in searching the literature. In South Africa the engineers are also facing up to this problem. The University of Natal’s Librarian now gives a course on engineering information to Natal students, and last year the new Faculty of Engineering at the University of Pretoria asked the Head of the C.S.I.R. Library and Information Division to lecture to the staff and students on sources of engineering information in South Africa. The reciprocal responsibility of information services to respond to such calls is obvious.
Universities and technical colleges which have departments or schools of librarianship should make sure that all the teaching provided in the country should not concentrate only on the training of staff for public and university libraries, but at least one institution in each country should pay particular attention to scientific information techniques. Of the six university schools of librarianship in the Union of South Africa, the one in the most highly industrialised area, i.e., the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, is specialising in training staff for scientific and technical information services. It would also help towards good scientific information services if students at the universities were encouraged to regard such work as a worthwhile career.
Research organizations and industrial firms must be willing to spend adequate sums on their own services. Southern Africa benefits in this respect from
the presence of firms with overseas connexions who have already realised in Europe or America the value of such services and who find their value enhanced in places far removed from the great centres of scientific and technical activity. Smaller firms need to be encouraged and helped by the central government to set up small services of their own and to be guided in the organisation and administration of such services. The South African C.S.I.R., as a semi-government body, felt it should give help in this way, and it published a guide to the organisation of technical libraries for South African industry. It also held seminars on technical information in the main industrial centres of the Union; these were attended with enthusiasm by local scientists, industrialists, and library staffs, and, in addition to the main purpose of the seminars, the value of the contacts brought about between such local workers of different kinds was in itself a justification of the experiment. C.S.I.R. also invites staffs from the technical libraries of research institutions and industrial firms to spend some time working in its own Information Division, so that a basic idea of what information work involves can be imparted to them, together with a bird’s-eye view of the entire South African information picture as seen from the centre.
Research in information problems has passed its own sealing wax and string period, when it was undertaken as spare-time work by people on the job. It now needs to be encouraged by bursaries and grants from the bodies that give money for scientific research or by industrial firms who are particularly interested in certain information problems. The lead the National Science Foundation and the Ford Foundation have given in America could be followed by official bodies in other countries. At present, however, candidates qualified to undertake such work in the newer countries are few. Last year the South African C.S.I.R. advertised a bursary for an investigation into desirable standards of staffing, equipment, book and periodical stock, photographic services, etc., in scientific, technical, and medical libraries in the Union, but it received no firm applications: the one tentative applicant could not be spared from his work as a practising information officer.
As scientific information is now a world-wide activity, the two-way flow of information and co-operation in professional information circles could be promoted by placing at the offices of scientific attaches and scientific liaison officials in the various overseas countries, personnel trained in information work and with a sound working knowledge of the information picture back home. The South African scientific liaison officers, who, before being posted to the London British Commonwealth Scientific Office, received some elementary instruction in searching for chemical information and the sources of information available in London, found such a preparation very useful, and asked that their successors
should also receive it, but such a makeshift training is obviously an inadequate solution of the problem and only staff with a working knowledge of South Africa’s information position can be considered as meeting requirements.
The pattern of interlocking responsibilities that these paragraphs suggest is not a very spectacular one, but any progress along these lines should yield good dividends. And “dividends” is a significant word, for many difficulties could be overcome if there were a more general realisation of the necessity for spending appreciable amounts of money on publications, information apparatus and adequately trained information staff. The scientific world finds it fairly easy to swallow the camel of laboratory expenditure, but it still strains at the gnat of information-service expenditure.