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A Touch of Nostalgia

Mar 20, 2023 | Articles, Blog, Uncategorised

Sometimes, looking back gives us a better idea of where we are in the greater scheme of things, and how we came to be here. The following article was written by the University of South Africa’s John Willemse for presentation to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa’s Regional Symposium on Telematics for Development, held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia between 3 and 7 April 1995. The article has been edited, but the meaning has not been altered.


Since the early days of computerisation, library and information services (LIS) have been putting developing technologies to use to improve the services to their users. The advent of on-line computer networks promoted the development of library co-operatives into more formalised library and information networks on a regional or national basis. The following are the main applications for which these networks have been used:

Computerised Centralised cataloguing and acquisitions systems for libraries

These were originally developed in the United States at a time when library staff with the necessary language and subject skills were scarce, the objective was to catalogue books once only for use by many libraries. Later, these systems supported acquisition procedures, often on a centralised basis, particularly for public libraries.

Bibliographical information

The databases for the above activities relied heavily on data from national and other comprehensive bibliographies, (eg the British National Bibliography and Library of Congress cataloguing), when these became available in digitised form. Because of their comprehensiveness they lend themselves readily to the wider information function of bibliographical verification and identification of publications by specific authors or of specific subjects. This facility was both useful to Library staff and Library users.

Joint catalogues

As a result of co-operative cataloguing functions of the networks, their databases automatically developed into joint or union catalogues, indicating the holdings of the member libraries. Specific efforts were later undertaken also to add information for retrospective holdings from the time before computerisation. 

Interlending and document delivery

The capacity to identify publications which one library’s users might require yet not have available locally in another library, led to systems being developed to quickly transfer requests for these items to the holding library for inter-library loan and to administer the loan transactions.

Resource sharing

Libraries have never had the funds to buy all the publications required by their clients. Paradoxically, most libraries buy publications which are seldom if ever used. The LIS network eliminates unnecessary duplication of purchases of the same titles by libraries in the system. Available funds can in this way be put to better use.

Information services

Specialised online information services, mainly for specific subject areas, have become available over time. Most were developed as indexes to journals and/or monographs and other serial publications. Some provide access to financial or other data. Library and information systems have started to make this kind of information from database services available to their users on their own networks.

Sabinet investigation

South Africa, like most countries in the developing world with limited resources, is faced with the problem of providing adequate information for development. During the late 1970s the National Library Advisory Council decided to investigate the possibility of a comprehensive library network to maximise access to existing information resources. The study, which was done in close co-operation with the South African library profession, identified the most important needs of the major thirty libraries as follows:

  • Better management of information;
  • Information sources and Finance

In the library and information fields by making available joint computer and data transmission facilities. The study resulted in an extensive report with recommendations for the establishment of a South African Bibliographic and Information Network (Sabinet).

The Minister of National Education approved the formation of a South African Bibliographic and Information Network (Sabinet). Following the investigation Sabinet was founded in 1983. It was launched, with high expectations, into a well-prepared library community, which has helped to give it form. A number of libraries delayed their own computerisation programmes until Sabinet was founded.

The fact that 40 members immediately joined the new body, shows how eager libraries were to co-operate in using Sabinet’s national facilities and services – a system by which libraries could satisfy their need to co-operate and computerise. It may be concluded that Sabinet strongly and beneficially influences resource sharing in South Africa.

John Willemse (UNISA – retired)

And that, in short, is the pathway that Sabinet embarked on, leading to the increasing bouquet of products and services it offers now, almost 20 years into the third millennium. But what changes we have experienced! Innovations we could scarcely dream about a quarter of a century ago are now commonplace.

The Internet is ubiquitous. It is estimated that 97% of South Africans are interconnected, through a truly staggering list of devices. But the concept of ‘sharing’ is little changed (except, perhaps, in the sense that it has become more of an obligation). Sharing remains the dominant theme of Sabinet.

We at Sabinet have had the good fortune to be offered a leading role in this ever-evolving adventure story, and with the role comes the responsibility to excel. It is a responsibility we welcome.