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School libraries matter

October is celebrated worldwide as school library month. School libraries are cherished as safe, physical spaces for children and young adults to read, inquire and build new knowledge. In the 21st century, school libraries are increasingly identified as digital spaces too, in which reading for personal and social development, research and exploration are encouraged. However, in South Africa, school library month went by largely uncelebrated.    

Functioning school libraries are sadly not the norm in South Africa. While we have pockets of excellence, mainly in private and ex-Model C schools, the vast majority of public schools fall short of international benchmarks. There are two main school library service shortcomings: firstly, there is no systemic implementation of the school library funding formula, of 10% of the learning, teaching and support materials’ budget for library-based material, whether for central or classroom models of school libraries. Secondly, there is no funded position for a professionally trained school librarian for each school. 

In South Africa, we have come to dread national and international reports on the state of learning and teaching at school level, which repeatedly highlight the low literacy levels of learners. The reaction to these reports is usually short-lived reading campaigns or quick fixes. 

What South Africa needs are school libraries driven and sustained by a Department of Basic Education’s directorate of school librarianship (that does not yet exist), and to support and celebrate those who bring reading and stories to life in their schools and classrooms. There needs to be a policy for school libraries, an implementation plan that includes qualified school librarians in each school, and a support service at the provincial level. The benefits and value of a functioning school library under the leadership of a professional school librarian have been recognised globally and shown to boost learner achievement.  

Nal’ibali – a national reading-for-enjoyment campaign that promotes the value of reading for enjoyment in children’s school success – has seen evidence of the need and desire for reading corners in classrooms and libraries in schools, resulting in the pilot mobile-library project. Intended for use in homes, many recipients reported using their multilingual libraries in school settings where their novels and picture books in home languages were quickly snapped up. 

A qualified school librarian has sound knowledge of the curriculum and the literature children and young people like to read. The librarian integrates this knowledge into an active school-library programme. The advantages of employing qualified school librarians are manifold: they are able to inculcate reading for enjoyment and pleasure; they understand that being able to read to learn is fundamental to making meaning from multi-modal texts; they address deep learning as learners engage with information in research-based assignments; they understand and convey the message to learners that information in any format, from print to digital, needs to be evaluated and not taken at face value; they know that information should be used ethically in the creation of new knowledge; and they nurture learners to continually ask hard questions of society  as they participate in social and cultural spaces as informed citizens.   

This appeal for school libraries does not detract from the important contributions made by literacy organisations to reading and literacy. And, while we wait for well-organised and sustained, active school library programmes run by qualified school librarians to become part of policy-driven, research-based measures, used by government to address literacy learning in the 21st century, Nal’ibali is offering free literacy training to volunteers through its FUNda Leader programme, access to stories and other literacy materials in a range of South African languages, and continues to grow its multilingual reading strategies deeper into homes, schools and communities. 

Dr Sandy Zinn, senior lecturer, Department of Library & Information Science, University of the Western Cape 

For more information about the Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment campaign, or its FUNda Leader volunteer programme, visit, or find us on Facebook and Twitter

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