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N3tr after, National Assembly library suffers neglect

By Igho Akeregha, Abuja Bureau Chief
03 February 2020   |   4:47 am
If the size of a library is a measure of how much individuals or nations set store by knowledge as the recipe for development, it is no wonder that Nigeria’s progress

How sordid state of the facility contributes to poor lawmaking
• Lawmakers shun library, opt for private research avenues
• No online portal for bills, other legislative documents

If the size of a library is a measure of how much individuals or nations set store by knowledge as the recipe for development, it is no wonder that Nigeria’s progress is in dire straits.

What has become a physical representation of national disdain for knowledge is the National Assembly library. It is neglected. This is despite a huge allocation of over N3 trillion to the legislative arm of government after 21 years of the return of democracy.

Located just at the rear of the popular ‘White House’ building in the expansive National Assembly complex, the National Assembly library stands alone in a separate bungalow. A close look at the building reveals an old structure that was merely refurbished a long time ago. A more curious eye will discover it had been left unattended to in the last two decades. Only the painting serves to hide the true state of rot, ruin, and abandonment that the old books placed on the stacks serve to complement.

As any visitor approaches the entrance of the library, the suspicious and prying eyes of the four officials who conduct affairs of the library which opens daily as a routine, except for weekends, speaks volumes. The four are regular employees of the National Assembly under the control of the Clerk to the National Assembly, Mohammed Ataba Sani-Omolori.

The only current materials are in the newspaper section which contains about 10 shelves where old books of various disciplines are arranged. The separation of the library building from the main National Assembly building has been a source of concern to some lawmakers who complained that it inhibits free and easy access.

Twenty-one years after Nigeria re-embraced democracy fashioned after the United States (US) presidential system that has the parliament as its major pillar, the National Assembly library remains in a state of squalor without patronage by lawmakers who seek robust legislative research, and members of the public who desire knowledge.

One source who pleaded not to be mentioned said the makeshift newspapers-reading centre in the library was a temporary arrangement that had not received attention for about three decades. 

When The Guardian visited the library located at the base of the ‘White House’ building that houses the two chambers, it was discovered that there were very few books relevant to legislative research. 

About 15, 000 books exist in the following sections: Reference section; United Kingdom section; United States section; China section; World Bank section; Parliamentary Publications; Women; Labor, Social Sciences, Education and Cultural Law; International Law; Laws of the Federation; Computer Studies; Literature; Psychology; and Political Science.

The NASS library does not have an online portal for bills and other legislative documents. One member of the House of Representatives, Ben Igbakpa representing Ethiope Federal constituency informed The Guardian that since he arrived at the chambers, he had not visited the library. Our investigation revealed that other lawmakers including senators and House of Reps members have shunned the library, preferring to source information from private arrangements as they say there is no use visiting a library one can hardly get anything useful from.

Expressing his frustration, a senator told The Guardian: “For purposes of legislative research, the library is limited in capacity because of its inadequacy in current books. So you would find out that some of us depend on personal efforts to source books relevant to the kind of legislation we may be working on.”

Gbajabiamila’s confession 
After 17 years of legislative sojourn in the House of Representatives, Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila opened up recently about the unfortunate absence of a standard library in the National Assembly. He quickly set up a committee of the House of Representatives to find ways of upgrading the library. He assured that the House would ensure the provision of adequate funding for a world-class legislative library in the Ninth National Assembly session.

Giving the assurance in Abuja when the members of the House Committee on Legislative Library, Research and Documentation, led by its chairman, Rep Gaza Jonathan Gbefwi, presented to him a brief about what the committee intended to achieve, Gbajabiamila said the leadership of the House would provide the maximum support needed for the project.

He said he was passionate about the legislative library, which would aid research. According to him: “I’m impressed with this visit, especially with the press in full attendance. Your job is to put together a structure that will ensure that the Nigerian parliament is among the best in the world.

“This is the only thing you can do to ensure that the tools of the trade for the legislative business are there. One of the tools is books. Research and books are the things we use for our work. I’m very passionate about this committee and I know it has a lot of potentials.

“It’s embarrassing to say that we have the biggest parliament in Africa, yet we don’t have a library. The biggest library in the world belongs to the U.S. Parliament. That’s why you see parliamentarians there do their work well. This is because they get all the things they need for their job at their fingertips.

“So, this committee is very important. I must commend the chairman and members of this committee for the good job you’ve been doing. The chairman was in the U.S. Parliament on this. He has spoken to donor agencies and all that. I commend you for that. It shows that we’ve made the right choice for this committee

“Of course, the issue of funding is important to ensure that you hit the ground running. We’re doing our best to get funding in the 2020 budget for you to work. We’ll also talk to donor agencies ourselves. So, we’re going to make sure that you get all that you need for your work.”

Gbajabiamila promised that when fully established, the legislative library would be open to Nigerians to use and conduct research. Rep Gaza had commended the speaker for showing a special interest in the committee, saying it was the first of its kind in the history of the House. He solicited the support of the leadership of the House for the panel to realise its mandate.

He said the committee had engagements with a lot of stakeholders with a view to coming up with a roadmap on how to have a well-organized library for the National Assembly.

But as is common with political leaders in Nigeria, the visit and promises by Speaker Gbajabiamila may have ended as some other exercises in futility. So far, there is no sign that the library is receiving attention soon.

As rightly alluded to by Gbajabiamila, libraries in Nigeria are not mentioned in the roll call of leading libraries of research in the world. The 10 leading libraries in the world, according to are Library of Congress, USA; Bodeleian Library, Oxford, United Kingdom; Reading Room at the British Museum, London; Yale University BeineckRare Book and Manuscript Library, New Haven, Connecticut, US; Vatican Library, Vatican City, Rome; National Library of St Marks, Venice, Italy; Boston Public Library, Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Library of Parliament, Ottawa, Canada; New York Public Library, USA; and Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, Toronto, Canada.

While Nigeria is quick to compare its democracy with the United States, the reality is, the two countries are miles apart. A comparative overview of the Library of Congress, USA, and the National Assembly library, evokes disappointment. 

The Library of Congress (LOC) is the research library that officially serves the United States and is the de facto national library of the United States. It is the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States. The library is housed in three buildings on Capitol Hill in Washington DC; it also maintains the National Audio-Visual Centre. The library’s functions are overseen by the congress librarian and its buildings are maintained by the architect of the Capitol. The Library of Congress is the second largest library in the world, next only to the British Library. Its “collections are universal, not limited by subject, format, or national boundary, and include research materials from all parts of the world and in more than 450 languages.”

In terms of size, the Library of Congress has more than 38 million books and other printed materials, 3.6 million recordings, 14 million photographs, 5.5 million maps, 8.1 million pieces of sheet music and 70 million manuscripts, 5,711 incunabula, and 122,810,430 items in the nonclassified (special) collections: more than 167 million total items.

The library serves 535 members of the United States Congress, their staff, and the American citizenry and has a budget of $684 million with a staff strength of 3,105.

The Library of Congress moved to Washington, D.C., in 1800 after sitting for 11 years in the temporary national capitals in New York City and Philadelphia. The small Congressional Library was housed in the United States capitol for most of the 19th century until the early 1890s. Most of the original collection had been destroyed by the British in 1814 during the War of 1812, and the library sought to restore its collection in 1815.

The collections of the Library of Congress include more than 32 million catalogued books and other printed materials in 470 languages; more than 61 million manuscripts, the largest rare book collection in North America, including the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, a Gutenberg Bible (originating Declaration of Independence from the Saint Blaise Abbey, Black Forest) one of only three perfect vellum copies known to exist; over one million U.S government publications; one million issues of world newspapers spanning the past three centuries; 33,000 bound newspaper volumes; 500,000 microfilm reels, over 6,000 titles in all, totalling more than 120,000 issues of comic book titles; 5.3 million maps, six million works of sheet music; three million sound recording; more than 14.7 million prints and photographic images including fine and popular art pieces and architectural drawings; the Betts Stradivarius and the Cassavetti Stradivarius

The library developed a system of book classification called the Library of Congress Classification (LCC) which is used by most US research and the library serves as a legal repository for copyright protection and copyright registration and as the base for the United States copyright office. Regardless of whether they register their copyright, all publishers are required to submit two complete copies of their published works to the library—this requirement is known as mandatory deposit. Nearly 15,000 new items published in the U.S. arrive every business day at the library. 

Contrary to popular belief, the library does not retain all of these works in its permanent collection, although it does add an average of 12,000 items per day. Rejected items are used in trades with other libraries around the world, distributed to federal agencies, or donated to schools, communities, and other organisations within the United States. As is true of many similar libraries, the Library of Congress retains copies of every publication in the English language that is deemed significant.

The Library of Congress claims that its collection fills about 838 miles (1,349 km) of bookshelves, while the British Library reports about 388 miles (624 km) of shelves. The Library of Congress holds more than 167 million items with more than 39 million books and other printed materials, against approximately 150 million items with 25 million books for the British Library. A 2000 study by information scientists Peter Lyman and Val Heyman suggested that the amount of uncompressed textual data represented by the 26 million books than in the collection was 10 terabytes.

The library also administers the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, an audiobook and braille library programme provided to more than 766,000 Americans.

On December 24, 1851, the largest fire in the library’s history destroyed 35,000 books, about two–thirds of the library’s collection and two-thirds of Jefferson’s original transfer. Congress appropriated $168,700 to replace the lost books in 1852 but not to acquire new materials. This marked the start of a conservative period in the library’s administration by librarian John Silva Meehan and joint committee chairman James A. Pearse who restricted the library’s activities. Meehan and Pearce’s views about a restricted scope for the Library of Congress reflected those shared by members of Congress. While Meehan was librarian he supported and perpetuated the notion that “the congressional library should play a limited role on the national scene and that its collections, by and large, should emphasize American materials of obvious use to the U.S. Congress.”

Away from the United States, the largest library in the world is the British Library. It was established on 1 July 1973 (46 years ago) and is located in Euston Road, London. It is reputed to have between 170 to 200 million items in its collection. These are 13,950,000 books, 824,101 serial titles, 351,116 manuscripts (single and volumes) 8,266,276 philatelic items, 4,347,505 cartographic items, 1,607,885 music scores and 6,000,000 sound recordings. The library which is open to anyone with a need to use its collections and services runs on a budget of £142 million.

The British Library is a major research library with items in many languages and in many formats, both print and digital: books, manuscripts, journals, newspapers, magazines, sound and music recordings, videos, play-scripts, patents, databases, maps, stamps, prints, drawings. 

The Library’s collections include around 14 million books, along with substantial holdings of manuscripts and historical items dating back as far as 2000 BC. In addition to receiving a copy of every publication produced in the UK and Ireland (approximately 8,000 per day), the library has a programme for content acquisitions. The library adds some three million items every year occupying 9.6 kilometres (6.0 mi) of new shelf space. There is space in the library for over 1,200 readers.

Apart from the British Library, Britain, which practices the parliamentary system of government has a separate library for the House of Lords, Nigeria’s equivalent of the Senate and the House of Commons, Nigeria’s version of the House of Representatives. Compared to the National Assembly Library in Abuja, the House of Commons Library is the library and information resource of the lower house of the British Parliament. It was established in 1818, although its original 1828 construction was destroyed during the burning of Parliament in 1834. The library has adopted the phrase “Contributing to a well-informed democracy” as a summary of its role.

The facility was a purpose-designed library built by Sir John Soane and completed in 1828. In the rebuilding of the Palace of Westminster by Sir Charles Barry and Augustus Welby Northmore Pugim, the library was given four large rooms on the riverfront of the principal floor of the new palace, each 40 feet by 25 feet and some 20 ft high. This suite was fully opened by 1852, and two additional rooms added in the mid/late 1850s. One of these was to compensate for the loss of Room D, which was taken over by Speaker Denison and his successors as their private library (It was not restored until the 1960s).

The library was stocked with some 30,000 books majoring in history, topography, literature, biography, and politics, as well as the official papers of the House. Almost alone among contemporary parliamentary libraries, from about 1860 onwards, the staff were given free rein to determine the scope of the collection.

In 1945-46, the House of Commons reorganised its library on modern lines. A Research Division was created, to provide briefings to members, and to answer their individual detailed inquiries on a confidential and non-partisan basis. A modern reference library was created in the former Map Room, which had been previously equipped with pull-down maps of all parts of the world.

The library provides four core services to the House, members, and their staff:
A confidential inquiry service for members and their staff covering all subjects of parliamentary interest. Some 19,200 substantive requests (“logged inquiries”) were received in 2010/11.

Briefings for the House and members generally covering the business of the House and other issues of parliamentary concern. 83 Research Papers (around half on bills before the House) and 187 Debate Packs were produced in 2010/11. 494 new Standard Notes were published in the year and around 1,200 were updated at least once. Research Papers and most Standard Notes are generally available in the Parliament website

Library services including reading rooms, book loans, on-line resources, and reference collections. The library is one of the main common spaces of the Houses of Parliament; members use it for conversation, discussion, and relaxation as well as consulting information sources. Reading room facilities for members’ staff are provided in the Derby Gate Library.
Training and guidance in the use of information, particularly online resources and library services.

In 2011, the library had 150 staff and occupied premises outside the Palace of Westminster (principally the old Whitehall Club at no.1 Derby Gate) as well as within it. Many of the staff have specialist qualifications in, for instance, law, statistics, and various aspects of public affairs, or librarianship. Staff of the library is not, and have never been, employed by the civil service, they serve and provide completely impartial advice and analysis to, members of parliament.

Although members of the House of Lords may by courtesy use the library, the House of Lords has a separate library (and an equally fine set of rooms).

The library is not open to the general public, though information about the history and work of the Commons can be supplied by the House of Commons Information Office. Arrangements are often made for members of the public who wish to use resources of the library not available elsewhere to have access to them in the Parliamentary Archives.

In the 2020 appropriation budget, N32 billion was set aside for refurbishing the Senate and House of Reps chambers. Curiously, there is no mention of any budget to upgrade the NASS Library, meaning the quality of bills and research by Nigerian lawmakers will continue to suffer delay and poor quality. 

Efforts to speak to Omolori and spokesmen of the two chambers throughout last week were unsuccessful as many of the lawmakers said they were just returning from vacation. Some said there were more pressing national issues like insecurity and unfinished committee work to handle.

But as Nigeria continues to ignore critical infrastructure like the NASS Library necessary for democratic development, some analysts say the country, though a giant, may still remain slumbering for a long time to come.