Conversation with Russell Bowden …. Celebrating the SL Library Association & More

Nanda P Wanasundera, Courtesy of  Sunday Island, 3 Oct. 2010

The Sri Lanka Library Association (SLLA) initiated by a few dedicated library personnel headed by S C Blok, Librarian of the Peradeniya University, in 1960, appropriately celebrated its 50th anniversary with its President Upali Amarasiri, Director, National Institute of Library and Information Science (NILIS), heading the several committees that organized the various events, its finale being the upcoming International Conference scheduled to run through October 6, 7 and 8.

 Bowden at another function –marking his production of A Passage to India inat the Lionel Wendt in 1968


It is planned as a momentous and memorable event. Momentous because of the large numbers of presentations in the Professional Programme by SLLA members; varied because of the themes for the twelve sessions ranging from ‘access to information’, information empowering people especially in rural areas, ‘access to health information’, ‘information literacy’, ‘community information’, ‘indigenous knowledge’, the ‘National Library’s services’ and the education of information professionals through ‘curricula developments’, to the role of libraries and their services which can contribute to national unity in diversity.

It will be memorable not only for the numbers of participants but also because of the presence of the presidents of library associations from the SAARC countries. It will provide a fitting celebration for the fifty years of Sri Lanka Library Association’s achievements.  The annual general meeting of the SLLA held on June 26 was special as it was an AGM marking, to the very day, the fiftieth year of the Association. It was most definitely a celebration of its expansion in membership; contribution to the country’s development and greater service given increasing numbers of students of librarianship and members of the SLLA.

As a founding member of the Organisation of Professional Associations, the SLLA’s clout within the professional fraternity of the Island increases as does its influence over librarians spread throughout all parts of the Island managing public libraries, educational libraries – school, university and institutes of higher education, and special libraries attached to private sector institutions and government departments.

The SLLA Golden Jubilee one day Colombo Regional Seminar was held on August 28 at the Industrial Technology Institute where was held the inaugural meeting of the then Ceylon Library Association. Titled Libraries: access to information and empowering people, it had two main presenters of papers. Kamalika Peiris, detailed the growth of the SLLA and its services, while Russell Bowden dealt with the “SLLA’s looking forward to the next decade”.

His chosen title was: “SLLA – Professional Role and Income Generation”. The SLLA, Russell believes, has a great deal to be proud of in the 30 years between his first involvement with it and this current commitment. However it must move more with the times and it needs to go more into e-learning and also initiate ‘out-house’ provision of training and education mainly to the private sector whilst firmly keeping hold of what is taught and the related standards particularly keeping control of entry to the Register.

Membership subscriptions and fees earned from students are the financial mainstay of the Association as of now. Income earning must be broadened out to other avenues such as provision of added value services; one avenue being consultancies accepted by members of the SLLA whereby income earned is for the SLLA plus the consultant. Russell succinctly sums up what the future thrust of the SLLA should be – “Open up but maintain standards”.

The final big event of the Golden Jubilee celebrations is the International Conference with its Professional Programme to be held on the 7 and 8 of October. Its inauguration is on the 6th at Ceylon Continental Hotel. The chief guest will be the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, Hon D M Jayaratne with Ministers S B Dissanayake and John Seneviratne also attending. The President of the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) – Dr (Ms) Ellen Tise – will grace the occasion with her presence and of course participate in the two day conference following. Foreign participants expected are the presidents of the library associations of Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Nepal and Pakistan

The gathering will provide an opportunity for the attending nations’ representatives to meet and move further forward the Regional Federation of South Asian Library Associations (REFSALA). Russell had a strong hand in initiating its formation at the October 2004 workshop titled Empowering Library Associations of South Asia funded by IFLA and held in Kathmandu. REPSALA came into being in 2005 in Nagarkot at the foot of the Himalayas overlooked by Mount Everest. Invitees from Sri Lanka for the occasion were Deepali Talagala, then president/SLLA, Upali Yapa, and Anton Nallathamby as resource person. A resolution to meet the need for library cooperation among SAARC countries was passed. Russell drew up the project proposal and raised the monies for this salutary venture.

Who is Russell Bowden?

It is both interesting and appropriate to introduce to my readers Russell Bowden, Honorary Fellow IFLA, Fellow SLLA and Hon. Librarian, Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka. As mentioned earlier, he is a distinguished resident of the country, having settled down in Kottawa from as far back as 1996.

“When I considered settling down in Sri Lanka after retirement, a vision I had was a strong push in deciding on the move. Going according to the traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism, religions I had read much about, I wanted to give back what I had gained in Sri Lanka as Librarian of the British Council (BC) in the years 1966 – 70. Gratitude is a highly prized human quality according to the teachings of the Buddha and gratitude I had towards the Island since it had been good to me, so also its people. I traveled very widely in Sri Lanka when I headed the BC library and met many librarians and forged lifelong friendships with them. I wanted to return with the intention of taking Sri Lankan librarianship out of the comfortable goldfish bowl it was in and open it more to the outside world and to encourage it to move forwards.”

That was Russell Bowden chatting with me. I asked him whether his decision to settle down in Sri Lanka was the correct move and how he felt about it now. He assured me it was the right decision he made, though the encouraging forward movement of the Sri Lanka Library Association to be on par with library associations in developed countries was not easy, did not move fast enough or always meet with full success. “But I am happy and completely busy.”

This last I know for sure, since with Upali Amarasiri – President SLLA – and others, Russell is shouldering some of the responsibilities for organising the forthcoming International Conference, which is certain to be a success.

Russell is a man of many parts who gets things going and done. Born in Manchester, his first ambition was to be in theatre so he joined the Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Art in London. He left, to become for two years, an assistant stage manager with the Arts Theatre off Leicester Square. He said his theatre training was not wasted since he produced Passage to India which had been staged in the UK in Stratford on Avon and in London. He directed this local production at the Wendt whilst still with the British Council. The principal actors were Dhamma Jagoda, Ernest McIntyre and Winston Serasinghe. Critics agreed that Serasinghe’s portrayal of Prof Godbole surpassed that of Alec Guinness in David Lean’s film! On giving up his theatre stint, he set off for India but stopped however in Baghdad and it was there that he got into librarianship in 1957.

He came to Sri Lanka as the Librarian of the British Council after stints in India and Nigeria. On returning to the UK he enrolled at Loughborough University to read for his master’s degree. This had him being asked to help establish a new course which led to an MA titled Archives, Librarianship, Information Science and Education open to all library personnel worldwide with the objective of modernizing traditional curricula, supported by Unesco and the BC. Thereafter he became the deputy chief executive of the UK Library Association, the senior-most librarian on the staff since the chief had always been a non-librarian.

After nineteen years he retired and came over to Sri Lanka. Working voluntarily for 24 years as a member of the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) he ended up as its First Vice President for four years. This was an achievement since IFLA positions are voted for by the world community. Apart from Russell other Sri Lankans who have served in IFLA are Harrison Perera, Upali Yapa, Deepali Talagala, Sumana Jayasuriya, Upali Amarasiri, Prof Piyadasa Ranasinghe and Premila Gamage who holds a prestigious position as of now.

What has Russell been doing in his retirement in Sri Lanka? Plenty! He’s served the Sri Lanka Library Association, as mentioned earlier. Befriending Ven Dhammavihari and Prof Y. Karunadasa, Russell’s interest in Buddhist studies was fired and so his M Phil in Pali and Buddhist studies. His research for his doctoral theses is: The transmission of the Dhamma from the 4th century B.C. to the present The research has taken him seven long years. Of the Tripitaka he says: “The early history of scholarship and amazing intellectuality, as shown in the Tripitaka, was not known to the ancient world but it surpasses the philosophy of Plato and other Greek writers as well as Shakespeare and Goethe. It is an astounding result of academic and intellectual excellence and scholarly research.” Having taught Sunday School at 16 years of age, Russell claims to be 80% Buddhist now.

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