World Libraries

Community Information And Referral Services For Rural Areas Of Southeast Asia: A Conceptual Framework

Abstract: There is a growing recognition that library and information services must become part and parcel of socio–economic development programs. Since the majority of people in Southeast Asian countries still live in rural areas and are engaged in agricultural activities, attempts were made to reach them through rural library services. However, existing services are deemed too book oriented and hence information and referral services (I & R) have been suggested as an extension of existing library programs, particularly those services providing information on agriculture. A CAINS (Community Agricultural Information Networking System) model is proposed. The paper concludes that I & R service can help reduce the information gap between the urban and rural areas.


There is a growing recognition that library services, particularly in public libraries, must become an integral part of national socio–economic development dedicated to improving the general quality of life. Library and information services originally limited to business, corporate organizations and major government agencies will have to be expanded to cover all sectors at the grass roots level. However, only countries with sufficient financial resources have been able to provide efficient nationwide library services, while those with economic constraints have tended to place library development at the bottom of the list of government priorities. Nevertheless, realizing the growing complexities of present–day society and the increasing demands for information, a new dimension is recommended to supplement traditional library services in developing nations. This is the "information and referral service" (I & R) that is familiar in the United States, Great Britain, and certain other European countries. This service is variously called " community information service" or "community information and referral service." I & R, as we will name it in this paper, was defined by the American Library Association as "the process of linking an individual with a need to a service or a source of information or advice which can fill that need."[1 p.1] Recently IFLA has taken an interest in the concept, and a set of draft guidelines for the establishment of I & R has been issued by a working group of the Section of Public Libraries[2].

Before considering the details of an I & R program, we should look at the Southeast Asia library situation, with particular attention to the services given to rural society, and with special consideration of five countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand.

Library provision in Southeast Asia has encountered a number of problems, including unique social stratifications and racial compositions. The media (radio, television, and newspapers) operate in at least four languages (not inclusive of more than a thousand local dialects). The language barrier therefore is not only an international problem but a problem within a nation, too.

Despite a steady increase in the literacy rate, the problem of the information–privileged and under–privileged is still apparent, especially between urban and rural populations. East and West Malaysia are separated by 2,000 kilometers of South China Sea, while the Indonesian archipelago covers 2,000,000 square kilometers dotted by more than 13,000 islands. Further, the geographical distribution of 7,100 islands comprising the Philippines which stretch 300,000 square kilometers can pose daunting problems to the information services planners.

Whilst some Southeast Asian countries have the highest per capita incomes in Asia, others are hampered by political fragility and trade deficits. Nevertheless, this region is rich in both terrestrial and nautical resources, with the potential of becoming a highly developed area of the world. The highest priority in terms of financial allocation is towards the eradication of illiteracy, poverty, and ignorance.

The provision of library services in the region has been quite innovative over the past twenty years. It ranges from the " barefoot librarian" concept publicized at the Conference of Southeast Asian librarians in Manila (1973) to the Koran masuk desa (village newspaper) in Indonesia [3], postal loan services in the interior of Malaysia [4], the information supermarket in Singapore [5], and the "tinbox library" in Thailand[6].

The Singapore conference on The New Information Professionals (1986) took a serious view of the apparent decline of librarians’ image[7]. If the present image is to be retained or elevated, librarians must change their role to justify their importance and the importance of public libraries. This is another factor influencing the development of I & R, although obviously the needs of the users are the fundamental justification.

Planners of I & R, or any new service for a rural society, need to bear in mind the characteristics of that society. The rural society as noted by Hafziger [8] is highly differentiated. It comprises a complex structure consisting of peasants, small scale farmers, sharecroppers, shifting cultivators, fishermen, plantation workers, and artisans. In most developing countries, the bulk of the population still live in poverty with high birth and death rates but low literacy levels. Information dissemination that relies on the acquisition of printed matter will reach only a small fraction of the population because of low income (prohibiting the purchase of expensive materials), illiteracy, and language barriers. Most rural families, as noted by Quebral, "have less of everything except offspring. A good number of their children die before the age of six because of malnutrition and poor health care." [9 p. 184] They just lack the economic power to break loose and hence normally do not go out seeking information. What the librarian needs to do first, in planning an I & R program, is to construct a community profile that describes the population to be served, their information needs, and the sources of that information.[2 p. 430] This profile can be derived from questionnaires, interviews, and discussions with community groups [10 pp. 434–436].

In Southeast Asia the rural population relies heavily on agrobased activities, a need which is often overlooked by the existing information system.

One major obstacle inhibiting the provision of efficient information services in the rural areas is related to the poor communication infrastructure and widely dispersed rural population. The geographical characteristics of these areas hamper communication between the urban and rural areas. Some localities can only be reached by river transport through thick jungles, valleys, and terrains, where travelling during bad weather can be an additional burden. Under such conditions, the rural populations tend to be left out of the major information mainstream. They simply have little idea where to go for information. Because of late arrival in rural localities, printed materials are often out of date and of little value.

However, with the development of better communication systems over the years, the rural and urban linkages have improved tremendously. The urban influences, for example in Malaysia, have rapidly changed the rural lifestyle so that information flow can more easily take place. What needs to be improved is not only the communication system, but attitudes toward the information system, because the rural population still holds a different impression about what library and information services can actually offer.

Most Southeast Asian nations have prepared development plans, almost all of them with an emphasis on improving rural conditions. So far, such plans have produced a positive social impact, especially improvement of literacy and standards of living. The information systems in Indonesia, for instance, provide programs like village broadcasts and village newspapers. "Listening groups" in villages have been formed as part of the strategy towards direct involvement in government programs outlined by the government guidelines of state policy. While Malaysia has achieved a commendable standard in rural library services through legislative support, Thailand is rapidly strengthening its information resources through channels like village newspaper reading centers and the Department of Community Development. The Philippines has comprehensive bookmobile programs covering the entire nation through its provincial and barangay library networks[11]. Singapore (with its city–state character) forges ahead with automation while the new Asian State, Brunei, is unlikely to face problems in the provision of library services because of its small size and strong financial position. The progress of rural library services in Southeast Asia can be observed through the examination of country reports given in the Seventh Congress of Southeast Asian Librarians (CONSAL) Manila, 1987. The library situation in a number of nations is summarized here.


In her account, Prakoso [12] took note of the 3,529 subdistricts and 66,391 villages to be served by rural library programs administered by the Center for Library Development that was established in 1967. The rural library programs which constitute part of the Five Year Development Plan fall under the government policy in setting up village libraries and mobile units, and reaching the interior by boats. So far, 1,690 libraries have been established; but based on the number of villages, the number is far short of the 54,754 libraries needed and the requirement of 109,508 trained staff. It has become part of the village social activities aimed at broadening the community outlook and improving the village ways of life while encouraging awareness in the use of modern technology for better living. The entire operation calls for the direct involvement of other units such as Village Community Resilience Unit, Village Administration Units, Young Social Works Unit and Family Welfare Promotion Unit.


The basic objective of rural development in Malaysia is to uplift the socio–economic conditions of the rural population and reduce economic imbalance between rural and urban areas. Toward this end, regional development projects have been set up covering all rural areas.

The provision of rural library services as noted by Wijasuria is not represented as a major program effort in the Fifth Malaysia Plan 1986–1990. Neither do the State Public Library "Corporations" have a written policy on the subject. However the draft National Policy for Library and Information Services proposed that library and information services be provided in every district and mukim (sub–district) within the country "in such manner that those desirous of using such services will have convenient access to them." [13 p. 67]

Currently, library services are provided by federal, state, and local government authorities. The federal authority provides services through its Ministry of National and Rural Development, Ministry of Land and Regional Development, and Ministry of Education. The state authorities have established their own public library "corporations," with branches, mobile units, and mini libraries in selected villages. There are at least 57 mobile units serving 826 library stops. While recognizing the constraints of the program, Wijasuria further noted that "far too often library services are provided on the basis of perceived rather than the real needs."[13 p. 68] The Malaysian rural population however has the advantage of full participation and commitment from the elected political leaders. Members of State Library Corporation Boards are often state assemblymen who ensure adequate legal and financial support for the rural library services.


The provincial, city, municipal, and barrio library services of the Philippines are under the supervision of the National Library. Despite attempts to provide services to all 12 regions through 498 branches, these services are still characterized by short supply of books (0.01 book per person). "There is much to be done"noted Munasque[14] p. 76], because the existing services reach merely seven percent of the population. The bookmobile units introduced after World War II continue to operate while others have ceased functioning. The Quezon Province has 27 municipal libraries, but has also been served by bookmobiles since 1978. Conrado notes:

The bookmobile makes four trips a week, but not necessarily a round trip. It leaves the capital city and proceeds to the first stays there four to six hours...if the distance is far, the staff stays overnight to save gas, time, and effort. The driver sleeps inside the bookmobile while two other staff members share a room for the night in the house of a teacher [11 p. 134].

The bookmobile service has succeeded in reaching a segment of the rural population which would not otherwise have any library facilities at all. In presenting its case, Serafin Quiason, the Director of the National Library, reminded the authority that "It is the rural areas where the common man is the beginning and the end of overall development. If we want to achieve any mission for the common man in the rural areas, we must constantly strengthen the capabilities of the existing structure." [11 p. 133] The bookmobile and its counterparts in the Philippines have succeeded in bringing improvements to rural areas. They have stimulated reading interest. They have increased general awareness through the distribution of informational literature on health, nutrition, child care, family planning, etc. Their staff have shown good examples as a dedicated group of public servants. They help to supplement the existing services in school besides having to playa bigger role in continuing education of the rural adult Filipinos.


Located at the heart of Southeast Asia, this nation of 50 million people is about the size of France. More then 80% of the people still live in rural areas engaged mainly in agricultural activities. Endeavoring to enrich rural lives, the Thai government brings knowledge into the interior, and skills as well. It has introduced agricultural schools through its expanded educational network. As a result, the Thai adult literacy rate reached a high of 85.5% in 1980. In its effort to provide library services to the rural population, the Thailand National Library, which is under the Department of Fine Arts of the Ministry of Education, has established branches throughout the provinces. The provincial schools, which emphasize services to children, provide "children library boxes"to clusters of schools on a rotation basis. In 1986, the library boxes reached 4,039 clusters[6 p. 81].

Another noble effort is the provision of "tinbox libraries," a project undertaken to provide books contained in tinboxes and placed at strategic spots during school lunch breaks. The project covers 158 schools located in 5 districts at Pitsanulok Province.

The "Door to Door" library project is aimed at rural households. It is intended to supply each household with a bookcase containing not only books but sports equipment as well. The bookcase is placed on loan for a period of three to six months before it is passed to the next household. Another interesting method of bringing knowledge to the rural readers is the solicitation of book donations. Book boxes are placed in front of government buildings, department stores, and shopping centers before the books are selected and shipped to the rural areas. The Buddhist concept of Tad phapa nangsu, which means the donation of yellow robes together with books to Buddhist monks, has gained popularity in 2,700 monasteries throughout the country. Other projects include the "barefoot teachers" among village centers, and the "travelling book exhibition," a program that takes children’s books to villages on a rotation plan. [The travelling book project is discussed in Prof. Cheunwattana’s article in this journal.–Ed.] One notable characteristic oflibrary provision in the rural areas of Thailand is the involvement not only of educational institutions, but religious institutions and other government offices, including border patrol police!

On a more positive note, Kullasap Gesmankit, the former Director of the National Library of Thailand concludes:

Taking the problem in–depth, the solution to it is not as difficult as it would seem to be if the rural areas are to be provided with the library services which would be within reach by all...It is believed that good library services would bring along an improved living of the rural people insofar as their ability to absorb is hoped, the government’s claim to cover 38 provinces and 12,500 villages which from the poverty zone will shed some lights of wisdom [6] p. 88].

The conceptual framework upon which this paper is based shows the potential capability of I & R in addressing the following areas:

  1. To reduce the gap between the information rich in the urban areas and the information poor in the geographically isolated regions;

  2. To fulfill individual needs for information used in solving daily problems especially among the low socio-economic groups living in the rural areas;

  3. To playa more positive role in fostering national unity in a multiracial society by minimizing language, cultural or ethnic barriers.

As indicated by the above country reports, books and reading materials have actually reached a relatively high segment of the rural population. What has not been fully achieved is the cultivation of a wide public interest toward reading. It seems that given this fact, library provision must in some cases be conducted with an emphasis on non–print methods. One alternative is to develop comprehensive I & R services.

Wijasuria’s observation that the present library services (in Malaysia) are "too book oriented" [13 p. 67] calls for a reexamination of library objectives and programs. This has been substantiated by a recent study conducted by library science students at MARA Institute of Technology, which revealed that more than 40,000 inquiries were received over the last five years by Hotline, Actionline and lnfoline, the three major information services provided by newspapers in the country.

Library I & R services come under a variety of names and activities, such as information giving, follow–up, referral, escort, and outreaching. The service can be general in nature or can be a specialized one. The Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge established a specialized information service center called CHIN (Community Health Information Networking) and began operating in 1974. Its main function is the creation of an efficient interlibrary loan system to allow public libraries to have access to existing health sciences library resources. An interesting feature of CHIN, as noted by Gartenfeld [15] is the involvement of health professionals in every phase of the project; at least one–third of the community advisory council members are health service providers.

An advantage of information and referral, as noted by Long, [16] is that the service does not require a completely new structure. In Singapore it is provided fully by the existing public library systems without incurring high operational costs. It is a flexible concept, and as visualized by Lee, [15] it can positively contribute towards community developments. The rural areas, as suggested by Kempson [2] can be reached by village contacts, mobile services, telephone services, and radio.

It is possible to develop an I & R model especially suited to the needs of the rural communities in Southeast Asia, particularly in the field of agriculture. Hence, a model called CAINS (Community Agricultural Information Networking System) is proposed. CAINS must be housed in a branch library equipped with basic reference tools and telephone service.

The objective of CAINS would be to link the user who needs information on agriculture to a source of information or advice that can fill that need. The CAINS conceptual model for information services can be interpreted as follows. First, the users have been identified as small scale farmers and household members. Second, the information required by the farmers engaged in various agricultural activities is divided into categories:

  1. Agricultural activities based on small scale farming: This relates to all activities related to crops such as cocoa, oil palm, coconuts, corn, rice, rubber, tobacco, vegetables, and fruits, as well as to rearing and care of livestock;

  2. Agricultural technology applicable to small–scale farming: areas include budgrafting, use of fertilizers, machinery and other equipment, irrigation and water supply, harvesting methods, pest and weed control, care of seeds and seedlings, soil conservation, and protection and weather control;

  3. Marketing and its outlets: a wide range of information should be made available with regard to regular and potential buyers (names, addresses and telephones, agricultural marketing authorities, market prices, farmers associations and pasar tani (farmers market);

  4. General information: particularly about education and scholarships, courses on farming, family planning, health and nutrition, infant care, loans and financial aids, motor and other vehicle repairs, religion, sports, and taxes.

The third aspect of the IRS framework is the mechanics of information transfer, which focuses on several major activities, as follows:

    Resource files maintenance: cross indexed files of all services and programs available in the area being served, developed after conducting a comprehensive community study;

    Information giving: this provides information about services and programs. It also includes a user’s profile (the inquirers background). It is used in the Singapore model [17] to provide factual information in answer to straightforward inquiries;

    Referral: while this service guides a person towards the source of information, it is also thought of as an activity that will include "directing" or "steering" the inquirer to the appropriate agencies capable of handling his problems. It can include fixing of appointments with the respective agencies;

    Follow through: this is a process whereby contacts are made to determine whether the inquirer has reached the agency, whether the referral was appropriate, and whether the inquirer received the service requested;

    Escort: escort services can be provided voluntarily by making available transportation facilities to the agencies being referred, to help the enquirer to fill in forms if necessary or to answer questions at the agency on behalf of the enquirer;

    Outreach: an activity geared to reach the potential enquirer by going out into the community to encourage and stimulate the use of the existing program;

    Advocacy: speaking, writing, and acting on behalf ofthe enquirer to see that appropriate services or benefits are in fact provided [10].

The last part of the model, Information Resources, provides a comprehensive listing of all the relevant agencies, their functions, locations, officers in charge, addresses, branches, and publications (if any) available. These agencies will have direct linkage with CAINS and can be referred to at any particular time.

The establishment of CAINS would not require the restructuring of the existing library systems, but rather an expansion of the present programs. It may require additional full–time staff with experience in reference services.

The other aspect of the service is the actual role of the I & R staff involved in CAINS, who should not give advice to farmers on farming technology and pretend to be agricultural scientists. Their main role is to refer the inquiries to the relevant sources or to escort them to the appropriate agencies. They should neither duplicate the role of district agricultural officers nor interfere with activities conducted by information officers.

Public library services in Southeast Asia have expanded to the rural areas. However, bearing in mind the experiences in some Western countries indicating declines in library circulation, and considering that a high proportion of the rural population in Southeast Asia is dependent upon small–scale farming, it is proposed that information on agriculture be disseminated through the proposed CAINS, which is adapted from the CHIN model, successfully implemented in Britain. The proposed I & R service has the potential to reduce the information gap between the urban and rural areas in Southeast Asian countries.

Finally it should be said that while the above discussion is theoretical, there have already been significant steps to set up I & R services in the region. Five of the 13 Library Corporations in Malaysia introduced I & R in the 1980’s. The concept was well received. Other countries have created similar services, perhaps under different names and controlled by various ministries. They range in coverage, including child abuse, drug abuse, consumer questions, AIDS, cottage industries, freshwater farming, and marketing. Singapore is the leading nation in the implementation of I & R at this time.


This article is a modified version of a paper presented at the 1990 IFLA Conference in Stockholm.

 Bibliograpy and Key to References

[1]American Library Association. Community Information Section, Public Library Association. Guidelines for Establishing Community Information and Referral Services in Public Libraries. 3rd ed. Chicago: American Library Association, 1989.

[2]Kempson, Elaine. "Rural Community Information Services: Guidelines for Researching Need, Setting Up Services and Evaluating Performance." IFLA Journal 16 (1990): 429–439.

[3]Assegaff, D. H. quot;Koran masuk desa (Newspaper for Villages): An Indonesian Experience to Redress Urban and Rural Imbalance in the Flow of Information." In Access to Information: Proceedings of the Fifth Congress of Southeast Asian Librarians, Held in Kuala Lumpur 25050;29 May 1981, ed. D. E. K. Wijasuria, et al., pp. 325–331. Kuala Lumpur: CONSAL, 1982.

[4]Kadir, Mariam Abdul. "Reaching Out Through Postal Loan Services in Malaysia." In Proceedings of the Seventh Congress... , op. cit., pp. 119–124.

[5]Lee, Olive. "Urban Community Information Center." In Access to Information, op. cit., pp. 301–311.

[6]Gesmankit, Kullasap. "Rural libraries in Southeast Asia: Thailand." In Proceedings of the Seventh Congress ... , op. cit., pp. 77–90.

[7]Usherwood, Bob, and Ann Ryde. "Promoting A New Image." In The New Information Professionals: Proceedings of the Singapore Malaysia Congress of Librarians and Information Scientists, Held in Singapore, 4–6 Sept 1986, ed. A. Thuraisingham, pp. 46–57. Singapore: Gower, 1987.

[8]The Economics of Developing Countries. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1984.

[9]Quebral, Nora C. "Information Needs and Services for Rural Development." In Proceedings of the Seventh Congress ..., op. cit., pp. 184&$150;189.

[10]Kibat, Katni Kamsono. "National Information Needs." In Building Information Systems in the Islamic World, ed. Ziauddin Sardar, pp. 107–115. Petaling Jaya (Malaysia): Pelanduk Publications, 1988.

[11]Conrado, David. "Mobile Library Services in the Philippines." In Proceedings of the Seventh Congress of Southeast Asian Librarians, Held in Manila, 15–21 Feb 1987, pp. 125–142. Manila: Asia Foundation, 1987.

[12]Prakoso, Mastini Hardjo. "Rural libraries in Indonesia." In Proceedings of the Seventh Congress ..., op. cit., pp. 52–59.

[13]Wijasuria, Donald E. K. "Rural Libraries in Southeast Asia: Malaysia." In Proceedings of the Seventh Congress ..., op. cit., pp. 60–71.

[14]Munasque, Narcisa V. "Rural Libraries in Southeast Asia: Country Reports (Philippines)." In Proceedings of the Seventh Congress ..., op. cit., pp. 72–76.

[15]Gartenfeld, Ellen. "The Community Health Information Network: A Model for Hospital and Public Library Cooperation." Library Journal, Oct. 1978, pp. 1911–1914.

[16]Long, Nicholas. "Information and Referral Services: A Short History and Some Recommendations." In Libraries and Neighborhood Information Centers, ed. C. Kronus, and Li Crowe, pp. 1–14. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois, Graduate School of Library Science, 1972.

[17]Liew, Cheong Kwai. "Community Information Service in the Public Library with Special Reference to Singapore." In The Library in the Information Revolution: Proceedings of the Sixth Congress of Southeast Asian Librarians, Held in Singapore, 30 May–3 June 1983, pp. 339–347. Singapore: Maruzen Asia, 1983.

 About the Author

Katni Kamsono Kibat is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Library and Information Science, MARA Institute of Technology, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia; he is a former Dean of the School. He has an M.L.S. from Western Michigan University and a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Kibat is engaged in research in the areas of reading interests and rural library services.

© 1990 Katni Kamsono Kibat

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