ALN Interview

Interview with Peter Lor

Contents - Peter Lor

Born in the Netherlands, Peter emigrated to South Africa where he studied at the universities of Stellenbosch and Pretoria - later studying at Caen in France. Following appointments as University Librarian at the University of Bophuthatswana, Assistant Director of the State Library, Pretoria, and Professor in the University of South Africa's Department of Library and Information Science, Peter Lor was the Director of the State Library. He subsequently became the National Librarian and Chief Executive Officer of the National Library of South Africa, which was formed in November 1999 by the amalgamation of the State Library with the South African Library. In addition, he has served on the boards of directors of a number of non-profit foundations, including the boards of SABINET (the South African Bibliographic and Information Network), the Foundation for Library and Information Services Development (as its Executive Director), and the Book Development Foundation.

Professor Lor has been a very active contributor to IFLA and has chaired the Advisory Board of IFLA's Action for Development through Libraries Programme (ALP), the interim standing committee of IFLA's Section of Library and Information Science Journals. From 1996 to 1998 he was vice-chairperson of the Standing Conference of African National and University Libraries in Eastern, Central and Southern Africa.

Peter Lor was actively involved in developing policy for library and information services for post-apartheid South Africa and played a leading role in the formation of the Library and Information Association of South Africa (LIASA), a new, inclusive organisation that replaced the former separate associations. He regards this as one of his biggest and most satisfying professional achievements. [From IFLANET]

ALC Newsletter: What were the major outside influences that favorably and unfavorably affected the formation of the Library and Information Association of South Africa (LIASA)?

Lor:  The turbulent days of the formation of LIASA, which at the time took so much of my waking hours, now feel like a lifetime away. So much has happened since then. I'm sorry to say that my recollections are quite hazy. I should have kept some sort of diary. I did keep copies of many documents that I read and wrote during this period, but these are currently in storage in Pretoria, while I am in Milwaukee. After my return to South Africa in a few year's time I hope to be able sort them out, write up some reminiscences, and hand the documents over to the University of South Africa Library, which holds the SALA and SAILIS archives, and possibly those of the ALASA as well.

“Outside influences” were overwhelmingly positive. Kay Raseroka, our neighbour in Botswana and a senior statesperson in the African library profession, played a very constructive, non-judgmental role, listening to colleagues from all parts of the spectrum and helping to bring us together. I use the word “non-judgmental” because we from SAILIS were the baddies and it would have been easy to play the blame game and make us into scapegoats. Birgitta Bergdahl, the Director of IFLA's ALP Office also listened and engaged with us, perhaps somewhat to her own surprise? Bob Wedgeworth (IFLA President at the time) had no hang-ups and helped by pushing a bit when things looked like they were getting bogged down. My predecessors as IFLA Secretary General, first Leo Voogt, later Ross Shimmon, were both supportive and patient. There were a few overseas colleagues who took a somewhat ideological line in support of LIWO, which never really engaged fully with the process of forming LIASA, ended up opting out and ultimately faded away.

ALC Newsletter: To what extent have the policies and initiatives of organizations such as IFLA, USIS and UNESCO made an impact on appreciation of libraries at the grassroots level in Africa?

Lor:  I'm still thinking about this and hope to be able to let you have some sort of an answer when I speak at the upcoming [ALC] meeting. The short, provisional answer is that Africa is huge, the challenges are enormous, and the impact of external parties, however well-intended, is often only visible in a small elite circle of well-educated librarians. I suspect that in spite of all the efforts of these organizations, many grassroots library and information workers are quite unaware of IFLA, UNESCO and USIS (which has for some time already been part of the State Department). This is certainly the impression that I got in Lusaka in July last year, at the SCECSAL Conference.

ALC Newsletter: What is the status of library science education in South Africa today?

Lor:  I've been out of South Africa since 2005, and very preoccupied with international and academic work, so I'm not the best person to ask. I am familiar with the Department of Information Science at the University of Pretoria, which I think is very good - one of the best in Africa. But then, I'm an extraordinary professor there, so I'm not an unbiased observer.

A short answer would be: Mixed. Some good schools, some mediocre. A rationalization process has been taking place and a number of schools have been phased out. Unfortunately, quality is not the only factor determining survival. The University of Cape Town's school is being phased out, which I think is a great pity.

Generally, I think that the move in the 1960s and 1970s to integrated bachelors degrees (combining the major and minor courses of a general bachelors degree (mostly BAs) with Library and Information Science majors) was a mistake. I'm an early product of this system myself, graduating in 1967 with a BA Librarianship from the University of Stellenbosch, in the first class that followed this curriculum there, but I nevertheless believe that teaching LIS at the postgraduate level is far more effective. This is especially the case when so many students opting for the course have had practically no prior exposure to libraries – no books in the home, no school library in their school, no community library in their community. It is really challenging to connect with these young people.

Here in Milwaukee I teach mainly mature graduates, with lots of work and life experience and a high level of responsibility and motivation. I feel spoiled rotten.

ALC Newsletter: Have South African libraries, especially public libraries, been integrated into community development programming in areas such as literacy, adult education, public health, civic education?

Lor:  I'm not really able to answer this question. I've been shown some examples of excellent work, e.g. the Mpumalanga branch library near Durban, which was on the list of library visits during the 2007 IFLA Congress in Durban. But I'm too far away from the SA public library scene to be able to tell how representative they are.

ALC Newsletter: What are some of the lessons you have learned as a leader of IFLA?

  1. Humility. There are just so many unsung people quietly giving of their time and energy supporting IFLA sections and activities. There is a lot happening in the various sections and core activities, all thanks to this commitment. I led the IFLA headquarters team, but that is only a modest, supporting and coordinating unit in a much larger organization. (IFLA's HQ staff is less than 10% of ALA's staff.) Another reason for humility: it was a steep learning curve. I had been a library director and a leader in a library association, but that does not necessarily qualify one as an association executive. My respect for professional association executives rose considerably. It's not an easy job.

  2. Process is important, especially in an international, multilingual organization. North Americans and northern Europeans tend to be quite analytical and focussed on results: Here's the problem, here are some solutions, which one do we select then? All agreed? Wham-bam. Decision made. In many cultures it doesn't work that way. More time and patience are needed.

  3. In a large, broad-based international NGO you are never going to satisfy everybody all the time, especially not in matters political.

ALC Newsletter: In your 2005 presentation at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, you concluded with a call to librarians to assist and learn from one another across geographic borders from the standpoint of a “better and more sensitive understanding of needs and circumstances in the recipient countries”. Any thoughts on how well librarians are responding to this call so far?

Lor:  I'd be surprised to hear that anyone was responding to anything I said to that small audience in Milwaukee. I guess it was a rhetorical statement. Of course there are still well-meaning people who want to respond to the “book famine” by sending crates of books, just any books, as long as they are books, to “Africa”. (Or to other developing regions.) But I do like to think that there is a growing openness and willingness to listen first before “helping”. During my time at IFLA I met a lot of people from all over the world who demonstrated that sensitivity and understanding. But not because of anything I said.

Editor’s Note:  This interview was done via email. Peter Lor will be speaking at the ALC Spring Meeting in Durham (NC) and we all look forward to continuing this conversation later in March.

ALASA - African Language Association of Southern Africa
SALA - South African Literary Awards
SAILIS - South African Institute for Librarianship and Information Science
SCECSAL - Standing Conference of Eastern, Central and Southern African Library