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Cataloguing in Bangladesh: A Member’s Account

Category: Blog

The following is a guest blog by David Kenvyn.

David is a CILIPS member who worked in East Dunbartonshire Libraries from 1998 to 2013 when he took early retirement.   In 2014, he volunteered for five months at the Donald Woods Foundation, Hobeni, Eastern Cape, South Africa where he catalogued the library and archive.  In 2016, Charities Education International asked him to undertake a similar task in Kakina, Bangladesh and he volunteered at UttarBangla University College’s Guru Nanak Library for six weeks.

Here is David’s blog about some time he spent working on the project:


The Association of Scottish Literary Studies has reported the very good news that the University of Bankura has been gifted some 8,000 books from the collection of the late Jim Allison, OBE.   I know nothing about the University of Bankura, except that it does not yet have an online library catalogue and that the intention to create one is stated on its website. I do not know what stage they are at in this process, but I do know that some of my colleagues in Scotland have no idea of the conditions that librarians work under in some parts of the Indian sub-continent.

I have just returned from Bangladesh where I started the process of cataloguing the 10,000 English language books held in the Guru Nanak Library at UttarBangla University College.   This is a brief account of my experience there.

I was approached by Charities Education International, a Glasgow based organisation, and asked to go out to Kakina in Bangladesh to set up the cataloguing process at the College.   Their project director, Irene Graham, is a member of Action for Southern Africa’s Scottish Committee and so she knew that I had been out to Hobeni in 2014 doing a similar job for the Donald Woods Foundation.

Now I could think of many reasons why it should not be me who did this, the main one being that I cannot speak or read Bengali.   So I put Irene in touch with CILIPS, thinking that someone would jump at the opportunity.   Maybe they would have done if the location had been somewhere less remote than Kakina, which is on the far northeast of Bangladesh, near the border with India.   No-one volunteered so in July or August Irene got back to me and asked if I would go.   I agreed, and applied for my visa, arranged my vaccinations (typhoid, typhus, cholera, hepatitis and polio) but only two injections, one in each arm.

Before getting on the plane for Dhaka, I attended a fundraising meal in Glasgow where a retired colleague told me that the job would be easy because I could download all the catalogue records I needed from the Library of Congress.   She said this as if she was imparting knowledge that I did not have.   Now you can only download catalogue records if you have a library management system that allows this, and if you have constant access to electricity.   And, of course, the library in Kakina had neither of these things.   Also, in Bangladesh, as in South Africa, the internet providers charge for access to their services and this has a considerable impact on limited budgets.

The flight from Glasgow to Dhaka took fifteen hours with a changeover at Dubai.   The bus from Dhaka to Rangpur took roughly the same amount of time (partly because it was over two hours late arriving in Dhaka) and then we had to climb aboard a bamboo foot ferry in the pitch dark to cross a branch of the Ganges.   Then we were picked up by a car and taken to Kakina.

The next six weeks were spent working on a Library Development Plan, sorting out the cataloguing of the English language books, and generally getting the library into some kind of order so that the books could be retrieved when the students and staff wanted them.   I also made a lot of friends with both the staff and the students, sometimes simply because I walked along the road from our accommodation to the college buildings every working day.   Also, the group were invited to meals, parties, weddings and to the Diwali celebration at the local Hindu Temple.   There were occasions when we were given police escorts just to make sure that we could get to wherever we were supposed to be going on time.   The local magistrate even took us across the border into India, just on his say-so.

Of course, it was not possible to get everything done in six weeks, but the basics for the library are now in place.   About 25% of the books in English have been catalogued.   Work has begun on cataloguing the books in Bengali.   The books are being arranged in subject order on the shelves according to the latest edition of Dewey Decimal Classification which had to be purchased for this purpose.

The classification was not perfect because I was working from the 19th edition of Dewey.   This is seriously out of date, not including entries for feminism or astrophysics.    Where Cataloguing in Publication information was available, I used that rather than the 19th edition.   Those of us who are old enough will remember the serious trauma caused by the publication of the 20th edition which changed the classification numbers for so many subjects.   Some people preferred retirement to implementing these changes.   The latest edition of Dewey was not delivered to the Guru Nanak Library until the week after I left Kakina.

The catalogue I produced was an Access database because there was no library management system. It is however much better than having no catalogue at all.   Suggestions have been submitted to the governors about possible improvements to the library service.  I even visited the National Public Library of Bangladesh in Dhaka to discuss the possibilities for co-operation between the two libraries.

All of this is important because the cataloguing task now facing the University of Bankura is immense.   There are probably few similarities between Bankura and Kakina, although they are only 600 kilometres apart.   Bankura, however, is quite close to Kolkata so it may not have the problems of power outages that Kakina experienced on a daily basis.

My concern is a simple one.  Everyone will think, quite rightly, that this is a wonderful gift. If there is no follow through, to ensure that the books are catalogued, staff and students will know what books are available, and they will not be used.  The University of Bankura will need continuing support to ensure that this does not happen.

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