Libro Futuro

Let’s defend libraries! A librarian in Sri Lanka. Mario Coffa interviews Premila Gamage

Intervista in italiano

Premila Gamage is a librarian and currently holds the position of Knowledge Management Systems Consultant and Librarian of Verite Research, Colombo Sri Lanka. She is also the national coordinator of the Commonwealth of Learning (Skills for Work) – National Library – Skills Online Sri Lanka Program (SOSLP). She holds a PhD in Information Management from Leeds Metropolitan University (now Leeds Beckett) in the UK. Premila is a seasoned professional who has contributed to a number of local and international organizations including the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Access to Learning Award and, the National Center for Advanced Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences (NCAS), Sri Lanka. She was elected to the IFLA Governing Board and elected Chair of the Division for Regional Activities (Asia and Oceania, Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean). She has also been appointed to the IFLA Advisory Committee of Advancement of Libraries Program (ALP). As an accredited IFLA trainer, she has conducted numerous librarian training workshops in Lebanon, India, Nepal and ASEAN countries on various topics, including leadership. She has also been Mentor of the International Network of Emerging Library Innovators Program (INELI) for South Asia. She was responsible for the national project of the IFLA Public Library Politics Project global research program, which was initiated with the aim of evaluating the attitudes of policy makers regarding the role, value and impact of public library services. She has conducted a series of island-wide training seminars on library advocacy with financial support from the ALP and the American Library Association, for the Sri Lanka Library Association. Premila has been internationally recognized and is the first Sri Lankan to be awarded the Honorary Fellowship of Charted Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), UK for her efforts to extend library and information services to young people in remote regions of the Sri Lanka and its deep commitment to promoting education. She is author, co-author of peer-reviewed journal articles and has represented the country in numerous international forums.

Premila, to start can you tell us briefly about your work and what it means to be a librarian in Sri Lanka?

Sri Lanka has a long tradition of libraries which goes back to the 5th century AD. However, the library movement in modern lines began in the country after the British occupation 1815. At present the country has a well established public library system. In addition there are about school libraries, research and academic libraries including, government libraries and NGO libraries. Let me first begin with the second part of your question Mario – First, ‘What it means to be a librarian for the general public in Sri Lanka’. I would like to give an experience that I have to face often. It will give you an idea of ​​what it means for the majority or the popular image of the librarianship. At social gatherings, when I was introduced to people as a librarian – it’s fine no issues. But with the time when they get to know me little bit more, then we always get into this conversation:

“Actually what do you do”

“I’m a librarian”

“Yes, I remember but it seems you do other things – not library – library sort”

Even my very close friends who are teachers, bankers, media persons are bit confused. What their reference to me is “she says she is a librarian but she seems to be doing something else”. I am sure you can get an idea – how others see a ‘librarian’ – common image of the librarian. If you are an Academic or Research Librarian then those communities and outsiders also to a certain extent have slightly different image about librarians and they value the work of librarians.  If you are a public or a school librarian then again you are recognised differently – you do not get the same recognition as Academic or Research librarians get. Their role is still being identified from a traditional perspective.  Despite the fact that the SLLA, and library schools in Sri Lanka conduct study programmes in LIS to produce quality professionals most public and departmental libraries are still run by non-professionals. One of the main reasons behind this is political interferences, especially for filling junior level cadre positions and bureaucracy. The SLLA together with other library related institutes and authorities are working on these and actually to certain extent have addressed issues with bureaucrats. Policy makers, Government officials/administrators, and the general public in the country still do not appreciate the role of libraries and librarians in our society. I think librarians themselves are partly responsible for this. Most librarians, including public and school librarians do super work in addition to routine classical work of librarianship – For an example they carry out excellent work which contribute to number of SDGs but they are poor marketers. But most of the time their wonderful work has gone unnoticed or not seen by the majority, especially administrators and policymakers. Here comes the importance of advocacy and training – and the role that professional organisations like library associations needs to be played. 

You are coordinator of the Commonwealth of Learning (Skills for Work) and therefore you also deal with training. In your opinion, how is the training of librarians changing in recent years and especially after the COVID 19 pandemic?

Yes, I am the Country Coordinator for the Commonwealth of Learning, Canada ‘Skills for Work’ programme. It is not a programme aimed at training librarians. It is a programme initiated in June 2020, by the National Library of Sri Lanka (NLSL) in partnership with Commonwealth of Learning (COL) – Coursera Workforce Recovery Initiative (CWRI) initiative. The aim of NL’s programme was helping job-seekers in Sri Lanka to gain upskill and reskill to enter into the job market as well as reinforce job related skills to regain employment. COL-CWRI offered learners unlimited and free access to more than 5,000 courses designed to skill and reskill them. The NLSL implemented the programme under the topical theme ‘Skills Online Sri Lanka Programme (SOSLP) – Employed for the Unemployed’. This initiative was opened to all citizens of Sri Lanka even though very few librarians registered with the programme and completed courses. Commonwealth of Learning extended the programme till 2024 and in its new phase more and more librarians are enrolling. Regarding the library training – due to the pandemic, mode of delivering programmes of the library schools changed to online. The content of these programes have changed a lot covering new knowledge and skills required to be a present and future librarian. More and more short-term trainings are available for librarians covering topics such as research methods, communication, ICT etc. In addition to their usual degree and diploma programmes, all universities provide short-term training programmes which are open to all library professionals in the country. The Sri Lanka Library Association too provides training for librarians. The National Library and the Department of Local Government conduct country wide programmes to train public librarians. I believe that we need to focus more on library advocacy training. It is good to see that one leading library schools has included advocacy in their programmes. Therefore, I think we are moving towards that direction as well. 

Within IFLA you have a role that covers many territories. From your overview, how is the Association moving from an international perspective?  

My involvement began with IFLA in 1998 as a developing country travel grantee. I am very thankful to Dutch Government for giving me the opportunity which helps enormously to change and expand my professional life. I believe in IFLA – a truly international organisation – IFLA’s governing structure is such even at that time IFLA accommodated librarians from all over the world – it identified, assisted, addressed and worked for specific needs and issues of the library field in the regions and countries especially, that are bit behind. IFLA-ALP programme, BSLA programme, FAIFE I think particularly were helpful. And from there IFLA moved to high-level international organisations such as UN, UNESCO, WIPO – stands and voice for entire LIS community and closely work with them. The new governing structure which was established in last August, Global Vision implemented and the Action Plan will take this to another level. Right now we are experiencing many changes in IFLA’s activities and workflows. The new governing structure allows regions to get involved in different levels of committees within regions, identify issues or concerns specific to regions and then work with different sections, Advisory Committees and thereby contribute in realizing IFLA’s 4 strategic directions i.e. 1. Strengthen the Global Voice of Libraries 2. Inspire and Enhance Professional Practice 3. Connect and Empower the Field 4. Optimise our Organisation. 

In partnership with the IFLA ALP, American Library Association (ALA) and the Sri Lankan Library Association, you have conducted a series of librar advocacy workshops. An act of courage that struck me very much. Can you tell us better? 

This is a programme started in 2009, with SLLA then President Prof Piyadasa Ranasinghe. As stated earlier policy makers, Government officials/administrators, and the general public in the country do not appreciate the role of libraries and librarians in our society. Most of the time there was no library representation in the government’s flagship developmental and other programmes – even the programs that have a direct impact on libraries almost entirely represented by other professionals – for an example development of laws and policies for copyright and intellectual property. To exert any influence on library development, library association leaders, activists and educators and professionals must understand the role of library associations as pressure groups for political action and policy decisions.  Leaders, educators and activists need to effectively influence government decisions. For that, These leaders, educators and activists must have the requisite skills. At that time library advocacy was not included even in library programmes conducted by universities and the SLLA. Therefore, there was an urgent need for training on ‘Library Advocacy. With the funding of IFLA ALP a series of workshops were conducted island wide. The workshops were organized with the intention of training LIS leaders, especially public librarians, educators and activists to gain the requisite skills in policy development and implementation; including developing government relations platforms, monitoring government proposals, effective advocacy campaigns and public relations. The primary training workshop was held in Colombo, in 2009.The target group of the primary workshop was Library Association Leaders – including presidents of Indian and Nepal library associations, and Educators, Policy makers (Provincial Council Members etc.), Administrators (Secretaries) and Chief Librarians of the respective councils. The two eminent resource persons, Mr. Michael Dowling, Director, International and Chapter Relations Offices, American Library Association and Ms. Moira Fraser, New Zealand Parliament Librarian conducted the workshop. A series of cascade workshops – around 12, were conducted thereafter by the SLLA President and me covering all the districts of Sri Lanka. With financial support of ALA, its ‘Advocate’s Handbook’ was translated into native languages. As per the end-line survey, the workshops produced very positive outcomes. In addition to raising awareness among LIS professionals on advocacy librarians considerably applied at least in a small scale to their respective libraries. The University of Kelaniya, a leading LIS department introduced advocacy into their LIS programmes. 

As a librarian and as a “super hero” you have made immense efforts to extend library and information services to young people in remote regions of Sri Lanka and promote education to the point of even receiving an award. I believe you are a perfect role model for many colleagues. What could you suggest to encourage me and others to be active and persistent in order to promote our wonderful work?

I don’t think I’m a ‘super hero’ – Think out of ‘classical’ library walls – walk out – be innovative and creative – understand your community – work with your community – establish partnership with all stakeholders.




Mario Coffa
Mario Coffa
Mario Coffa archivista e bibliotecario, laureato in Conservazione dei Beni Culturali presso l’Università degli Studi di Perugia (2005) e diplomato in Archivistica e Paleografia presso la Scuola di Archivistica dell’Archivio Segreto Vaticano (2010). Dal 2010 Lavora per CAeB (Cooperativa Archivistica e Bibliotecaria) presso le biblioteche dell’Università di Perugia come bibliotecario e come archivista presso l'Archivio Storico del Comune di Gubbio. Si occupa di Biblioteche Digitali e formazione in ambito di biblioteconomia digitale. Nel 2014 membro del Comitato Esecutivo Regionale dell’Associazione Italiana Biblioteche (AIB) sezione Umbria, membro del gruppo AIB sul portfolio professionale e nel triennio 2017-2020 Presidente eletto di AIB Umbria. Dal 2020 membro dell'Osservatorio Formazione dell'Associazione Italiana Biblioteche. Autore di diversi articoli e interviste per Insula Europea sul tema degli archivi, delle biblioteche e del digital lending.


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