Thursday, August 3, 2017

Positioning academic Libraries in Sierra Leone - at the heart of academic writing workshops

I’m really pleased to have a guest post from Miriam Conteh-Morgan, whose work in the area of academic writing is inspiring.Miriam is Associate Professor Deputy University Librarian and a Campus Librarian at the University of Sierra Leone. She has worked as a subject specialist at The Ohio State University Libraries. She holds a Master in Library Science degree from Kent State University (USA), an MA in Linguistics and English Language Teaching (Leeds University) and has taught Linguistics, ESL and African Literature courses at universities in Sierra Leone and the United States.

I taught librarianship in Sierra Leone from 1989 to 1991 and it’s great to see such positive development following civil war and the many other challenges this beautiful country faces.


   Twitter: @micm80

“So where did they [University of Sierra Leone] find you!”  This exclamation came from a lecturer at one of Sierra Leone’s polytechnics who, himself an author/ researcher and journal manuscript reviewer, was participating in a workshop on academic writing and the use of e-resources for research. This remark was directed at this writer who led the section on identifying credible publishing outlets, selecting appropriate databases and other e- research materials and conducting searches in them. This was a maiden workshop in the University of Sierra Leone-led project to empower faculty and librarians around the country to engage in research activities that would ultimately strengthen higher education knowledge systems nationwide.
While the rest of the world may have come to regard Sierra Leone as shorthand for civil war or ebola, positive things are happening in its higher education institutions (HEIs) that tell a different story. These institutions are embarking on bold initiatives that would bring sweeping systemic change to the education landscape. One first step has been the creation of the new Consortium of Higher Education Institutions in Sierra Leone (CHEI-SL) and Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals (CVCP). Fundamentally, this means that instead of seeing each other as competitors, the members of six public and one private institution would begin to work cooperatively to tackle current problems and upgrade academic quality of their institutions by, among other things, rebuilding research capacities and increasing output --activities degraded primarily because of skills flight and the greying of the academy—even as they struggle to meet the increasing demand for higher education.
The Academic Writing Workshops form part of the institutions’ capacity strengthening initiatives and are supported by a grant from our Oxford, UK-based partner, INASP the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications,  through its Strengthening Research and Knowledge Systems pilot project in Sierra Leone. Being one of the INASP coordinators in Sierra Leone, the workshops have fallen under the purview of the University of Sierra Leone Libraries, and as Deputy University Librarian and head of one of its campus libraries, I coordinate with academics, librarians and IT departments at other institutions to plan and implement them.  
The first workshop, aimed at researchers, was held in January 2017 and co-facilitated by a visiting researcher, Dr. Luisa Enria of Bath University and myself. The original plan was to teach academic writing only, but we later decided on taking an integrated approach to include a segment on access to e-resources. For a first attempt, one cannot say it was not successful. However, based on the high energy and level of participant engagement, there were time constraints, so I knew I had to rework the format for future workshops. It was decided that we expand the workshop to not only add a second day for the e-resources but to make it a joint session for both researchers and librarians. This second iteration has proved to be the winning format, appreciated by both groups so it will be used as we roll out more workshops across the country for faculty and librarians in the seven-member Consortium of Higher Education Institutions in Sierra Leone.
The rationale for this format was simple: each group would need the other at some point in the research-to-writing process, so if librarians became familiar with academics’ areas of research and knew what resources to refer them to, working together on that enterprise would be more efficient and yield better results. Additionally, by teaming researchers and their librarians in the resource discovery phase, it is hoped that the latter would see themselves as a vital and integral part of scholars’ success and ultimately the institutions’. Active involvement in and thereby communicating libraries’ value and contribution to researchers’ success  to institutional leaders must be part of what academic libraries in Sierra Leone strive for.
Some might think this is taking on an activist and self-serving role, but I want  academic leaders to recognise that after years of serving as mere warehouses of books during the long, lean years of the recent past in Sierra Leone, campus libraries and their staff are reinventing themselves and becoming central partners in the research enterprise.  By marketing the skills of librarians as research partners and situating them more centrally in the research life cycle,  campus leaders will see them as support units leading change and tangibly contributing to the reorganisation, rebuilding and renewal vision  of higher education institutions in Sierra Leone. And this may already be happening. The polytechnics have been aggressively pushing for upskilling their faculty, and perhaps knowing that research resources and library support now exist, they have developed a three-year publication mandate for their faculty, akin to a time-bound tenure requirement.
The Sierra Leone higher education narrative is beginning to change.
For more about INASP’s work in Sierra Leone, read

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