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Dr Buhle Mbambo-Thata: a viewpoint from South Africa

Profile by Margaret Adolphus

About Dr Mbambo-Thata

Photo: Dr Buhle Mbambo-Thata.Dr Buhle Mbambo-Thata is one of the most distinguished librarians in Africa. Her current position, which she has held since 2006, is executive director, library services, University of South Africa (UNISA), South Africa's premier, distance learning university.

Previously she spent five years as university librarian at the University of Zimbabwe where, against a backdrop of a collapsing economy, she managed to build up a state-of-the-art digital library.

In addition to her role at UNISA, Dr Mbambo-Thata is active in the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA): previously chair of the Africa Section Standing Committee, she is currently chair, IFLA Division 5, Regional Activities, and member of the governing board. This role involves overseeing developments within the standing committees of Africa, Asia and Oceania, Latin America and the Caribbean.

She also has a whole string of committee affiliations – the Library Network of Association of Commonwealth Libraries, the E-Knowledge Society for Women in Southern Africa (of which she is chairperson), and has previously served on the advisory committees of the eIFL Found.net, the Gender in Africa Information Network, and the Access to Learning Award of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

If all this makes Buhle Mbambo-Thata sound somewhat formidable, as a person she is charming and softly spoken. She is also very unassuming and modest about her achievements; in fact, she does not recognize these as her sole property. Driven by vision rather than ambition, she simply sees things that need doing, recognizes that she cannot do them alone, and works with others to get them done. For her, it's the team that counts, not the individual.

"I felt so wanted"

Dr Mbambo-Thata has been a librarian all her working life: she worked in Bulawayo Public Library before going to university and then during university vacations. Her work experience, which included going with a "mobile library" into homes for the elderly, farm schools and schools in remote locations, made librarianship a natural career option.

She went on to do a postgraduate diploma and a master's degree, and eventually a DPhil in information science. And now she has under her belt two prestigious jobs as university librarian. How, I ask her, did the challenges of the jobs differ?

The skills required were fundamentally different – no doubt due to different political and economic external conditions, not to mention student needs.

On the one hand, a traditional university, in a country going through what she euphemistically describes as "a challenging time", with 12,000 students physically present.

On the other, a more stable environment with plenty of resources, but with a larger (around 280,000) and very heterogeneous student body, whose circumstances dictate very different study methods. The challenge lies in deploying the resources creatively, so that the whole spectrum can be reached.

At the University of Zimbabwe, the resources were not there and she had to spend time fundraising for projects she wanted to undertake. Many would have buckled under these frustrations, but for Dr Mbambo-Thata, these were just difficulties that needed to be overcome:

"I felt so wanted because the challenges were very clear, the needs of the students were so evident, the university library was going down, that was not right."

Her biggest achievements were twofold. Firstly she oversaw a digitization project which, at a time of rapid economic decline, means that the country's main university library is at the cutting edge of twenty-first century information provision.

Her other achievement is simply to have created a structure in which the systems she set up, for both the physical and digital library, can be maintained without her, and the University of Zimbabwe Library, now run by her then deputy, still retains its excellent reputation.

Part of the reason why her success does not die with her is her strong belief that she works with the help of others:

"My style of management is to share my heart with my team. When I do something, I don't do it alone.

"One of the reasons why I applied for the job of university librarian was because I had got to a point in my life where I knew that what I needed to do required many hands. It was time to grow from the head of a faculty library to something bigger and get more things done, and I think that the University of Zimbabwe gave me that opportunity."

And relying on "many hands" also meant that there were others who could keep the ship running while she was away, active in the wider library and information science community.

"Someone once asked me who ran the university library while I travelled and I said to them, if the University of Zimbabwe Library works because I am there, then I've failed, because my job is to set systems and equip people to manage those systems, and ensure that they are accountable for things that we agree on, and check on the output."

Reaching all the different worlds of the South African community

Because both serve a distance learning community, comparisons between the UK's Open University and UNISA are hard to avoid. The former's service model is almost totally virtual, and rather than being a distinctive brand, is integrated with the student's workflow, appearing in the course virtual learning environment, Facebook, etc.

So much so that a student can go through their course, and come out the other end fully information literate with little explicit awareness of the library's virtual presence, still less having visited its sleek new steel and glass building in Milton Keynes, UK.

UNISA's distance learning approach

Such an approach would not work for UNISA, as South Africa is many different worlds in one nation. At one extreme, there is the "high end virtual world"; at the other, "the struggling student with no electricity and no postal service". In the middle, there is the student who can't afford Internet access at home, and so is dependent on the postal service and on having access to a "third place" where he can study and go online.

Hence the library must provide a hybrid service, offering a point of contact with all these groups, where ever they are on the communications and economic spectrum. It must have the back-end systems and smart navigation to enable the user to search at a distance. Thus the library's web interface is clean and well organized with a logical structure and directions which follow the user's terminology rather than the librarian's, see www.unisa.ac.za/library. It must, and does, have a large collection of journals (and increasingly books) in a digital format.

Image: screenshot of UNISA Library's home page.

Screenshot of UNISA Library's home page

Alongside these digital strategies it must develop other service models to take account of less technically advantaged students: it must provide places where they can access the Internet, and alternatives for those who are out of reach of even those facilities.

Dr Mbambo-Thata describes this as a "mega strategy" and one can be forgiven for thinking that the Open University, with all its technical deftness, has less of a challenge in that it has a more homogeneous student body.

The physical library also has a more pronounced role, offering study space to the many who, like their counterparts elsewhere in the developing world, may not have access to a quiet place to work. This includes younger students from poorer homes which can't afford Internet provision, who see UNISA as a practical route to getting a degree part time while they work.

Image: screenshot of UNISA Library’s soccer exhibition hosted during the FIFA World Cup.

UNISA Library's soccer exhibition hosted during the FIFA World Cup

In recognition of this fact, opening hours of the main Muckleneuk Library were extended last year until 8pm two months before exams, and Dr Mbambo-Thata hopes that the library will eventually be able to stay open until 8pm all year round.

UNISA obviously cannot provide space for the entirety of the student population, so it partners with other organizations which offer quiet areas near the library where students can sit and read. There are a number of branches throughout South Africa, as well as one in Ethiopia.

Many students, however, live beyond the reach of the regional libraries and even the postal service. Their needs will be be catered for through a forthcoming project, one of Dr Mbambo-Thata's most cherished initiatives: a series of mobile libraries running from the branches. These will take the form of buses fully equipped not only with books, but also with PCs providing access to the main library's entire digital collection, as well as information literacy training.

The library is also "mobile" in another sense: two years ago, it bought AirPAC, a system that reduces the library screen for mobile phones (it was the first library in South Africa to do so). Students can carry out administrative functions as well as download articles, read the abstract and request that the whole article be sent to them by e-mail.

In a country where mobile phone uptake is rapidly increasing and is a cheap form of Internet access, as in many parts of the developing world, this is another way of bringing the library to the user.

Personal librarians

Students, however, need more than PCs, books, journals and space, important though all these are: they also need advice. Dr Mbambo-Thata does not believe in the threat of disintermediation: librarians will be around for a while simply because their expertise is needed to guide students around the multiple sources of available information.

UNISA's system of "personal librarians" (subject librarians) is much appreciated: these are attached to a faculty and help all those doing research with their search and information literacy skills, at all stages of the research project, from proposal and literature review onwards. When a faculty team visits a branch, for example earlier this year they were in Ethiopia, the personal librarian will accompany them to lectures.

Every master's or PhD student who registers is automatically introduced to a personal librarian, either physically when they come to the library or electronically if they work at a distance. Recently the service has been extended to undergraduates undertaking research for projects, for example.

The nature of African librarianship

Having held two key jobs in African librarianship, in two different countries, and also as chair of the IFLA Standing Committee of the Africa Section, Dr Mbambo-Thata has a unique perspective. The nature of African librarianship in the twenty-first century preoccupies her, and UNISA has hosted a couple of lectures on the topic, for example on standards setting and the integration of indigenous knowledge with technology.

She uses the analogy of an elephant:

"If an elephant must be eaten, it can only be effective if you eat it in small parts and African librarianship is an enormous enterprise".

African librarianship is different, she believes, reflecting different user contexts and sociology, which in turn necessitates different service models. The economic situation of most students, for example, prohibits them from working totally virtually, so the university needs to provide them with intermediary facilities.

It may be, I suggest, that as similar conditions prevail in other parts of the developing world, there are also similarities in service models. Dr Mbambo-Thata agrees, pointing out that the Indira Gandhi University in India also uses the branch/regional centre model.

Oral culture

Perhaps what is more uniquely African is the respect for oral culture:

"We often find students huddled together, consulting one another before they consult books."

This obviously affects the way they learn, and interestingly contrasts with the Chinese respect for the teacher, as well as resonating with collaborative learning styles favoured in the West.

I suggest that comparisons between the developed and the developing world may become even more muddied in a negative sense because the credit crunch tended to hit the West more severely. South Africa, on the other hand, was on the periphery of the credit crunch, thanks largely to a law that limits credit.

Education is also ring-fenced in South Africa as part of the drive to transform the nation after years of deprivation, and spending has actually increased. So universities may not experience cuts this year, or layoffs, but there will still be a need to develop systems that are sustainable and cost effective: "diamonds are not forever".

Institutional repositories and open access

African readers may have different needs, but in one respect librarians have a very similar preoccupation to those in the West: how to manage the vast amount of knowledge that is being created.

Paradoxically, Western knowledge workers are more concerned with the oral and informal knowledge that lies embedded within organizational practices and culture. That which African librarians such as Dr Mbambo-Thata are keen to capture, on the other hand, is the more formal research being created by master's and doctoral students.

Institutional repositories are a positive development here: they offer public access to Africa's research:

"African universities can now occupy spaces on the Internet as opposed to being consumers of the Internet".

And not only universities: national libraries, such as Timbuktu National Library and Bibliotheca Alexandrina, are creating their own repositories and archives. In South Africa, the National Library and the National Archives have a constitutional mandate to collect and preserve government information.

In addition, a number of the continent's academies of science insist that the research they fund should be openly available, in open access journals, and/or in subject repositories which are intra-university. These are registered with the open access databases, such as OpenDOAR, and so are searchable via Google.

Dr Mbambo-Thata believes it's a moral issue: without open access, you would have the situation that African research institutes and universities would fund research which would then not be freely available on their continent.

Stronger libraries for greater democracy

With her role in IFLA as chair, Division 5, Regional Activities, Dr Mbambo-Thata has the opportunity to use her experience to the benefit of the rest of the developing world.

The Division coordinates the work of libraries and library associations across the whole of the Southern hemisphere and its main priority is to facilitate strong library associations, as the voice of libraries, the body that government consults. And once their position is established, library associations become responsible for training, and setting standards.

In other words, greater professionalization and a strengthening of the position of librarians. And a strong library profession can only enhance the things that librarians stand for – freedom of thought, access to knowledge, the power of reading, and greater information literacy.

A huge remit, but as we end the interview, Dr Mbambo-Thata is clearly focused on a very particular outcome – her mobile libraries:

"When those buses drive out onto the beaches and hinterlands, it will be a great moment of excitement. What we want to say is, the UNISA Library will come to you."

That poverty and lack of technological infrastructure should not affect a thirst for knowledge and a desire to better oneself is an ideal which governments, both North and South, would do well to remember, particularly in an age of economic downturn.

Further reading

Mbambo-Thata, B. (2007), "Building a digital library at the University of Zimbabwe", INASP Research and Education Case Studies, International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP), Oxford, available at: http://www.inasp.info/uploaded/documents/Zimbabwe_DigLib_book_Web.pdf [accessed 20 April 2010].

Mbambo-Thata, B. (2010), "Assessing the impact of new technology on internal operations: With special reference to the introduction of mobile phone services at UNISA Library", Library Management, Vol. 31 No. 6, pp. 466-475.