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Challenges of a South African Librarian in a Barely Literate Society

My favourite part of my job is when I go out into a community to attend the opening of a new library. I get excited about the opportunities and possibilities that a library represents to the community – especially to the children. The role of libraries has long since changed from being purely keepers and preservers of books. Now, many libraries are vibrant spaces that facilitate information sharing and lifelong learning opportunities with an emphasis on serving the community.

The importance of libraries cannot be over-emphasised, especially when you consider that six out of every ten South Africans older than 16 live in households without a single book, according to a recent survey by the South African Book Development Council. Considering the positive effects that reading and access to books have on creativity and language skills development, this is a crippling shortcoming. 

Lack of access to reading materials and textbooks has been identified as among the main reasons that 78% of South African children in Grade 4 cannot read for meaning. Research shows that in 2008, only 60% of the cohort of learners who had started school 12 years earlier had progressed to write their matric exams – and, of these, only 37% passed. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that literacy in South Africa is such a hot topic.

So, what challenges do our librarians face in a barely literate society? 

  1. Attractive distractions. Sadly, there is a perception that there are more fun things to do than read! One of the biggest challenges we face is how to motivate children and adults to read for self-study and pleasure when competing against smartphones, social and other online media, instant messaging, television and computer games. 
  2. Information ignorance. Ask the librarian! Regrettably, many parents are either unable to or shirk the responsibility of helping their children with school projects. Many children require guidance on how to structure or write projects – a task that is diverted to librarians. While noble in principle, this poses various challenges. Firstly, not all librarians are trained to provide that kind of learner assistance. Secondly, although we really want to help, libraries are insufficiently staffed for that level of individual attention.
  3. Language barriers. Some library staff speak just one official language, which means that they are often unable to help patrons who speak other languages – or to provide reading assistance or homework support in any language other than their own. 
  4. Resources. Insufficient resources, too few qualified staff to manage the facilities and a lack of funds to buy textbooks and other library materials are also a reality. A lack of stocked and functional libraries in most schools puts huge pressure on public libraries. Public libraries, therefore, need a wide range of materials to meet the curriculum-related needs of learners and teachers. In the current economic climate, this is unfortunately not always possible.
  5. Socio-economic problems certainly contribute to the challenge. In many communities, living spaces are small and cramped, with inadequate lighting and not much space to sit and read. Many parents are illiterate and so cannot read to their children. Many children do not attend any form of pre-school and are not exposed to books. This is a vicious circle that sets them at a huge disadvantage from an early age.
  6. Our library buildings are not immune to civil unrest. Being vulnerable, libraries are sometimes targeted and damaged when a community has a grievance against the municipality.

The critical role libraries play in people’s lives is unquestionable. Not only are they important for providing books, films, internet access and other future-enabling information, but they ensure a community’s vitality and promote strong social ties. 

The good news is that library workers are an awesome bunch of people. They chose the profession because they are passionate about books, literacy and the upliftment of our communities. Libraries constantly reinvent themselves in the face of ever-changing technologies. The staff in each library adapt and develop programmes that work for the community they’re in. With partners like Nal’ibali – South Africa’s reading-for-enjoyment campaign, which facilitated the reading to almost 1.6 million children on World Read Aloud Day in February and is currently running a library card sign-up drive – I believe that we are making a difference.

Certainly, as the Western Cape Library Services, we are committed to providing library and information services that are free, equitable and accessible; to providing for the information, reading and learning needs of people; and to promoting a culture of reading, library usage and lifelong learning.

The calling is enormous, but then so is the reward in seeing the betterment of our people.

Cecilia Sani is the Director of Library Services at the Western Cape Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport.

For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign, its library card sign-up drive or to access children’s stories in a range of South African languages, or find us on Facebook and Twitter: nalibaliSA.


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