Beyond the library in Malawi: taking the MALICO consortium to uncharted waters


This is a guest blog by Patrick Mapulanga of Malawi’s MALICO library consortium. Patrick spent five days travelling the country in March 2015 with INASP staff on a country visit. Here he discusses lessons learned for the MALICO consortium.

Billed as the “warm heart of Africa”, Malawi has stunning scenery and some of the friendliest people. The country offers attractions for everyone, from palm-lined lakeshores to busy market places. In March 2015, the INASP Executive Director, Sue Corbett and her colleague, Emma Farrow paid a visit to Malawi. It was a long journey that would cover 2010 kilometres covering almost all of the three regions of the country.

While for our visitors the trip was a chance to share information on reforms taking place at INASP with their partners, for the Malawi Library and Information Consortium (MALICO) it was an opportunity for us to take stock of where we are as a consortium; what steps we need to take to strengthen our organization; and see what is working and what needs to change. Meandering through the Kabula Hills in Blantyre to Zomba Plateau in the South, Kasungu and Lilongwe plains in the Centre and the famous Chikangawa Forest Reserve in the North, the trip had a few lessons worth sharing.

“Are we really assisting our researchers?” asked Cecilia Maliwichi Nyrienda of the College of Medicine Research Support Unit. The answer may not be a definitive yes. Here we reflect on some lessons learned.

Meeting needs through services: analyse and communicate

While MALICO’s subscriptions have increased, the usage of e-resources has been decreasing, suggesting more work is needed in order to meet the resource needs of researchers. Is this due to lack of awareness, problems with proxy servers, connectivity or the resource selection process? In order to answer these questions more accurately, we rely on feedback from librarians. It appears that not enough work has been done on the ground to ensure that researchers are consulted during the selection of e-resources. Linked to this is the need to encourage library staff to collect usage statistics so that the consortium can make better and more informed decisions when selecting e-resources.

It was a surprise to learn from the Dean of Postgraduate and Research at the Malawi Polytechnic in Blantyre that all postgraduates were part-time and did not have remote access to e-resources. This was an opportunity for MALICO to support the setup of a proxy server and share learning with other institutions. MALICO saw this as an opportunity to use skills from a Systems Librarianship workshop and approached the local workshop lead for support in setting up remote access. With technical support from the ICT Director at the Polytechnic, the proxy server has now been installed and the lack of remote access to e-resources off campus is a thing of the past. Postgraduate students are able to login off campus and access e-resources just as if they are on campus.

Moving out of the library: a wider role for librarians

The Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources Vice Chancellor Professor George Kanyama Phiri suggested proposal writing skills training is a challenge for most academics and researchers. Since librarians are at the centre of supporting teaching, learning and research, he suggested that librarians should be incorporated in proposal writing workshops. This was a wakeup call for MALICO. Are librarians prepared to participate in proposal writing? Their role in supporting researchers could include advice on undertaking literature reviews, evaluating sources, giving guidance on referencing styles. Indirectly, having librarians present in the proposal writing sessions would raise their profile.

One of the emerging experiences in Malawi was that librarians are taking a leading role in Malawi in the establishment of local journals, making research more visible. For example, Kamuzu College of Nursing has launched the Malawi Journal of Nursing and Midwifery in which the librarians were fully involved from the beginning. Librarians will further be involved in identifying ISSN and eISSN for the journals. The journals will follow the open-access model. Currently the Malawi Journal of Nursing and Midwifery seeks to engage Open Journal Systems. The potential to host the journal online promises to raise the visibility of the journal before it is registered on the African Journals Online Platform.

Discussions at Mzuzu University led to a recognition that librarians could, and should, work more closely with departments of Library and Information Science, particularly on Information Literacy.   What came out clearly was the fact that information literacy plays a critical role in evaluating sources of information partly because now it’s not a question of information poverty but rather information overload. With information overload there is a need to learn how to assess critically the quality and reliability of various sources. Researchers of all levels would benefit from learning referencing styles and software, with assessors also benefitting from training in anti-plagiarism software. Librarians can play a critical role in Information Literacy training, raising their profile and demonstrating their value simultaneously.

Reaching out to build relationships and networks

Our meeting with the National Council for Higher Education, the sole body responsible for accreditation of higher-education institutions in Malawi, was a great exercise in building important relationships. Representatives were very positive that they would invite MALICO to input into new accreditation guidelines, setting standards for libraries and librarians in institutions of higher learning and research. This would establish MALICO as a leading organization in the sector, and give us the opportunity to expand our membership. We will also use this opportunity to advocate for the benefits of working with and as a consortium through the NCHE network.

One of the challenges facing library consortia worldwide is how to create sustainable and mutually beneficial relationships with publishers. Key to these relationships is being able to demonstrate the benefits, to the publisher, of working through a consortium as opposed to with individual institutions or governments. To do this, we also need support from our own ministries, who are able to point publishers in the right direction. We learned that the Minister of Education, Science and Technology is willing to show this support, and consult with MALICO and Vice Chancellors when meeting with publishers.

One of the many challenges facing MALICO is the ability to expand its operating base through evidence-informed policy making. MALICO and its partners are contributing immensely to research outputs from Malawi. However there exists a gap between research and its impact in evidence based policy formulation, which in the future we hope to address by becoming part of the solution. We hope to work together with more experienced partners already involved in the EIPM process, such as the National Assembly Library.

Conclusion: advocacy is the key to a stronger consortium

As demonstrated here, the lessons we have learned point to the importance of stronger advocacy messages for MALICO, and the librarians in our institutions. We need to demonstrate and communicate the value of our services to those who would both use and support them. This can be done through taking on new roles, using statistics and other data, and building relationships. Our meeting with the Minister of Education, Science and Technology lacked the statistics that would compel him to see the role that MALICO and INASP have played in widening access to resources in Malawi. We have been able to recognise the need for MALICO to develop an advocacy framework policy, targeting different groups. Our important rallying call has become “Up to date information!”

For more information, see a news report of the trip and reflections from Sue Corbett.

Guest Contributor

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