libraries in South Africa        0  815 reads

Introduction to public libraries

The following report is drawn from the material identified and read in preparation for the Bibliography, and is intended to reflect the views of the professional librarians active in the public library field in South Africa. Views of national, public and academic librarians in addition to those of academics with a specialist interest in public libraries were sought. A list of acknowledgements is given at the end of this paper. Nevertheless, responsibility for the views expressed lies with the authors.


Numerous publications, falling outside the scope of the bibliography, attest to the sophistication of the library system in the Republic of South Africa. A number of very good overviews have been published, notably those by Kesting,1 Manaka2 and Zaaiman.3 These and other documents describe the library system in South Africa that was the foundation from which the current situation developed. They give the background to the period covered by this investigation.

It could be said that the library system in South Africa, with its roots firmly in the British and American library traditions, was the most sophisticated on the continent. However, like the society of which it was part, for all its sophistication the public library system was deeply flawed, principally because it was not developed or funded for the sort of democracy that emerged in South Africa after 1994.

It is not the purpose of this report to analyse the political developments that gave rise to the situation in South African public libraries. An article by Christine Stilwell traces some of the trends influencing the political climate and the way public libraries were viewed both
 inside and outside the profession.4

To some extent, the situation in the post-apartheid public libraries could have been anticipated from the experience of those public libraries that had had the courage to open their doors to all race groups in defiance of the laws of the time. Both the Johannesburg Public Library and the Natal Society Library in Pietermaritzburg opened their doors to all race groups in 1975. The flood of users who responded - mainly school children and students - had to be accommodated initially on the floor, and later in specially constructed study areas. The experience of these two libraries anticipated by twenty years what happened in the other public libraries after democratization in 1994. The difference between the experiences of 1975 and 1995 are also largely affected by the political events and technological developments that have taken place in the rest of the world. The emergence of what has been termed the 'information society' is colouring the common view of the role of books and the way that information is generated and used.5 In Africa there is a perception that the information society will provide opportunities for developing countries, including South Africa, to benefit by leap-frogging into a new economic dispensation. Nassimbeni explores these influences on South Africa, emphasizing in particular the creation of partnerships in the development and spread of Multi-Purpose Community Centres (MPCCs).6 Ralebipi also reports on MPCCs and similar community initiatives.7 However, the same perceptions are changing the way that politicians perceive the need to provide funding for educational materials, school and public libraries. The idea that developments in information technology, and especially the Internet, will do away with the need to provide public libraries, or books in schools, has gained an unfortunate but politically expedient currency.

For the purposes of this paper, the earliest and most influential investigation that identified the problem was the report by the Public Libraries Division of SAILIS to the Executive Committee in 1995.8 At the request of the Executive, the report was then sent on by the then President of SAILIS, Prof. Hennie Viljoen, to:
- the Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology;
- the relevant ministers in the nine provinces;
- the Inter-ministerial Work Group on Libraries;
- the American Library Association; l the Library Association in the United Kingdom;
- the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions; and
- the press.

The responses were indicative of the political climate of the time. The Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology politely recorded that 'complex issues are involved, which unfortunately will only be solved over a period of time'.9 Other correspondence was more stridently defensive10 and evoked a firm but courteous response from the then President of SAILIS.11 Other correspondence on the subject is not available.

The SAILIS report having identified a growing problem, the matter came up for further attention in 1998. By then SAILIS and the African Library Association of South Africa (ALASA) had disbanded and their memberships merged to form the Library and Information Association of South Africa (LIASA). The then Chair of the Transitional Executive Committee, Dr Peter Lor, presented a memorandum to the Portfolio Committee on Arts, Culture and Languages, Science and Technology on 23 March 1998.12 His report was drawn up by a quick survey of public libraries initiated by a letter to relevant practitioners.

An analysis of Peter Lor's memorandum reveals the following concerns:
- An alarming deterioration of library services in many parts of South Africa;
- School libraries closing down as teacher/librarians are retrenched or allocated to other duties;
- Nation-wide, according to the School Register of Needs Survey, 8 million out of 12 million learners do not have access to library facilities;
- Public libraries have been badly affected by the disruption caused by the reorganization of the provinces;
- Funding for provincial library services has failed to reach certain of the library services in the newly established provinces;
- Cash-strapped local authorities are cutting back on library services;
- Academic libraries have all suffered from reduced purchasing power, combined with a declining value of the rand, resulting in a significant reduction in the ability to meet the information needs of staff and students;
- The national libraries - the State Library in Pretoria and the South African library in Cape Town - are in a state of decline owing to steadily declining levels of funding and threatened by poor accommodation and staff retrenchments;
- The country's book industry has been hard hit by declining sales of school textbooks, with newspaper reports indicating the losses being as much as R4 billion;
- Many imaginative initiatives are being taken to compensate for the reduced funding, 'but such measures can seldom be more than palliative and short term'.

In his introduction to the memorandum, Lor states:

It has not been possible to verify most of the newspaper and other reports on which the memorandum is based. Heads of provincial and metropolitan libraries to which a draft version of this memorandum was sent for comment, have been reluctant to commit themselves on paper. Certain newspaper reports which we have attempted to corroborate have proved to be alarmist and inaccurate.

Arising from Lor's memorandum, Leach undertook a more structured investigation of the nine provincial library services (PLSs) and the ten independent public libraries (IPLs).13 Leach's survey was intended to establish the accuracy of Lor's observations from the people actually involved in the public library sector. As such, it is worth quoting from in some depth. Leach's article records precisely what the provincial and metropolitan librarians identify as the situation in which they find themselves. The following extracts deal with the major issues:

- On rationalization (also known as downsizing, amalgamation, transformation, etc.):

the responses were predominantly negative and related in the main to staff shortages and the negative impact this has had on service delivery. . . . With few exceptions it does appear that any momentum in terms of service delivery which may have been in place prior to 1994 has been lost to a greater or lesser degree with the change and restructuring taking place. It is evident that the lack of funding . . . is making the task of regaining that momentum increasingly difficult if not impossible.14

- On funding:

with the exception of one provincial library service (PLS) whose funding has been 'stable' all the remaining eight PLSs have experienced or are going to experience decreases in funding to a greater or lesser degree. . . . Numerous effects . . . were listed by respondents . . . staff shortages . . . negative effect on service deliveries . . . cut back on library and information material delivery to affiliated libraries . . . cut in purchase of materials . . . no building of new libraries in townships and rural areas . . . inability to provide provincial (statutory) subsidies to the (independent) municipal libraries, networking plans with schools not being realized, ageing and irrelevant book stock, less training, fewer professional visits and monitoring, inadequate and insufficient information technology, lack of research and an inability to effect 'meaningful transformation'. . . . With the exception of one Independent Public Library (IPL) which has had no increase in the budget for library material over the last two years (despite a nearly 100% increase in client base), and another which is operating under a 'no growth' budget, all eight remaining IPLs indicated that budget cuts had taken place. One respondent refers to the budget having been cut 'dramatically'; a second to 'ad hoc cuts throughout the financial year'; a third to funding having been 'cut a lot' and the fourth to 'severe budget cuts, up to 80%'.15

- On user fees:

The issue of user fees is a complex and, in the South African context in particular, a politically sensitive one as well. One PLS noted that the issue was not applicable. Six of the remaining eight PLSs were categorical in their rejection of user fees. One of the reasons given by respondents was the need to bring about equity and address past imbalances - 'The poor will be deprived of a service they so desperately need'. . . . Four of the IPLs were quite emphatic in their rejection of user fees as an alternative source of funding. One pointed out that 'the income generated from user fees is minimal in comparison with our expenditure' while a second noted that 'Funds generated this way form 1% of the Library's total expenditure'.16

- On staffing:

Six of the PLSs have had no staffing cuts per se. However this is misleading in that two cannot fill vacant posts (accounting for 35% of the posts in one instance) because of a lack of funds, one was a new service and hence had posts created but not filled . . . one had made no new appointments since 1994 with the exception of five managerial positions and one stated that posts are frozen when staff resign (although four managerial appointments had recently been made). When asked what the effects of the staff cuts had been a range of replies were given. These vary from inability to 'move' (that is to actually provide a service) and 'tired and de-motivated personnel in many instances'. . . . There is the realization that much needs to be done but staff shortages . . . 'are crippling'.17

- On affirmative action:

The need for affirmative action has been recognized in order to ensure that the 'LIS human resources should reflect the composition of South Africa's population'.18 While one could list numerous other reasons why affirmative action should take place. . . . according to respondents affirmative action was occurring in all the PLSs. Interestingly it was largely interpreted as correcting racial imbalances as opposed to gender and the disabled . . . 'Most top management is now black'. As far as the effect of affirmative action is concerned, most IPLs did not comment, or said they were experiencing little, if any, problems. . . . one referred to de-motivated staff as a result of promoting staff. . . . A second respondent mentioned the need for a more intensive training programme and longer periods of supervision but noted that a better understanding of the needs of some clients has been achieved.19

- On services:

One PLS mentioned the integrated nature of their service. Unlike in the past the service now being responsible for school and government department libraries in addition to public libraries.. The reasons given for such a change are interesting ones. The need to have a holistic approach in addressing post-apartheid imbalances, to improve access to budgets, to improve lines of accountability and the need to have a unified voice to push the library agenda provincially were referred to. . . . One IPL listed 19 changes relating to 'adapted/ expanded services' and as a result of the amalgamation of two large black areas with the existing city. Seven of these changes concerned either educational material or educational initiatives. Four other IPLs also mentioned a greater emphasis being placed on education with more study material and more study space being made available. One respondent noted that 99% of the use of their reference library was for these two purposes.20

On materials selection:

Probably the most significant change adopted by six of the nine PLSs is in terms of the selection process. Critically, participation in the selection process has been broadened in that the librarians of the affiliated libraries and, in some instances, the community are directly involved in the selection of material. . . . In the context of monetary shortages, one IPL referred to the selection process being 'stricter - 'no nice to haves' and [fewer] copies of a title bought'. The change in user needs was noted with one respondent observing that needs were 'more student and scholar oriented to the detriment of the old traditional library user'. Three PLSs mentioned the purchase of literacy materials and two mentioned the issue of vernacular literature.21

- On users:

Seven of the PLSs (affirmed) that their user base had indeed changed . . . The user group most frequently mentioned by respondents was that variously referred to as 'scholars', 'students', 'learners', 'young African persons' and 'black students'. . . . One respondent remarked that the 'Reference Library has become a study centre' with a lack of study space being common. . . . at one of their community libraries '2000 to 4000 persons are searching for study places daily' . . . and that the influx of students at this library is keeping other reference library users away. . . . the impression gained was that PLSs were very much aware  of the need to maintain some form of balance between traditional and new clienteles . . . but that there were no easy solutions . . . but the issue requires creativity and sensitivity.22

- On the role of the public library in formal education: Apart from the various PLSs which are (or should be) providing a school library service, no formal links between the services and formal educational institutions exist. . . . Despite the absence of formal linkages, given the serious lack of libraries in schools . . . affiliated libraries are playing an increasing role on supporting formal education. . . . The result is a swamping of community libraries by students in search of study materials . . . Despite the obvious pressure and expense . . . little or no responsibility appears to be borne by the educational authorities. . . . The vast majority of IPLs considered their role in formal education as having increased and it was patent that all were playing a substantial role in this regard.23

- On the role in non-formal, informal education:

All the PLSs were involved in literacy promotion in some capacity. É As with the PLSs all the independent public libraries mentioned that they were involved in some aspect of literacy promotion.24

- On information technology: it is with those PLSs whose funding has been reasonably secure over the last three or four years . . . that IT developments are taking place. . . . All IPLs are using computer technology to a greater or lesser degree.25

- On research:

Given the financial and personnel constraints .. very little formal research is taking place amongst the PLSs. . . . The lack of research is of concern given that it is research. .. that can contribute towards underpinning and reinforcing the PLSs requests for recognition and funding.26

- On staff training:

All PLSs reported that they were involved in some form of 'training and staff development' . . . directed at the staff of the PLSs themselves as well as those of the affiliated libraries. . . . All IPLs mentioned that some form of training or staff development was taking place.27

- On the three most important problems facing the public library sector. funding, or the lack of it, was by far the most frequently mentioned problem mentioned by seven of the nine PLSs. The next most frequently mentioned problem concerned the low level of LIS awareness - 'by politicians in particular' (and hence the need to lobby effectively). Other factors include the effect of affirmative action on staff morale and motivation, and the problem of competing with other services such as housing, health, roads, etc. It also records the confusion existing in government structures at provincial, metropolitan and local level, resulting in duplication of functions, lack of co-operation, waste of scarce resources, and empire building.28  

At the pit-face, the reality for the public librarian is one of great challenge. Some are amazingly positive and see the challenges as achievable. Others are weighed down by the burden of over-demand, under-supply and the reality of the diminution of a consumable resource. Leach makes some final observations that are worth recording:

It is clearly becoming increasingly difficult (if not impossible) to achieve redress let alone maintaining existing services. . . . the need for effective lobbying is underscored. . . . Without this research, calls for more funding will probably fall on the deaf ears of those who provide the funding. . . . it is evident from the survey that the situation is not all bleak. In spite of the funding and other constraints . . . it is apparent that that change which responds to transformation in society is taking place within the sector. . . . It is evident that the public library sector in South Africa is growing in accordance with Ranganathan's Fifth Law. . . . to lobbying and research should be added the need to publicize, on an ongoing basis both at local and national level, what has been achieved and what the sector would like to strive for, in order to mobilize democratic grass-roots pressure upon those who hold the purse strings.29

Leach's findings are substantiated to a large degree by the subsequent work and comments of Hendrikz and the earlier work of Hansen and Gericke.30

The authors of this report are conscious that, throughout time, disadvantaged communities sought the cultural benefits of well-ordered societies. Rome did not fall through military conquest. It was swamped by large numbers of people from the rest of Europe in search of the advantages of a structured society with such amenities as water-borne sewage systems, a legal and government system that worked, education, security and other advantages. That is what the cities of South Africa appear to offer the vast masses of desperate people in the rest of Africa, lashed by famine, war and pestilence. The purpose of the democratic struggle in South Africa was to give such amenities to those who were denied them by apartheid. The problems of the South African public library system are merely reflective of this situation.

The future

The authors have been asked 'to suggest practical ways in which (the public library system) might be developed or improved'. Lor makes the following proposals in his memorandum, based on contributions from practitioners in the field:31

- It is essential to raise awareness among decision-makers of the crucial role library and information services have to play in the promotion and dissemination of arts, culture, indigenous languages, science and technology, and innovation.
- It is essential to raise awareness among decision-makers of the current deterioration of library and information services.
- The problems described above should be addressed in a concerted manner. This implies consultation and co-operation between:
- national and provincial authorities; and l the various national ministries that have a stake in libraries and information.
- Better use should be made of existing and planned infrastructure for the delivery of library services. This implies:
- co-operation between provinces; and
- the incorporation of library service points in multi-purpose community centres and the like.  
- The establishment of the proposed national council for libraries and information services (as provided for in a draft national libraries amendment bill currently being drafted by the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology) should proceed as rapidly as possible.
-The proposed national council for libraries and information services should be a body with 'clout': its composition should be such that it will carry weight with the relevant government departments. l State funding for libraries should be at least proportional to the funding allocated to other services; libraries should not be allowed to be treated as a 'soft target' when budgets have to be cut.
- In addition, every effort should be made to redress past imbalances by extending library and information services in cost-effective ways to communities and groups that are currently unserved.
- Various means should be considered to increase funding levels for library and information services. Possibilities are:
- lottery funding (used quite widely overseas for significant library projects);
- library levies on the proceeds of sports events and rock concerts.
- a one cent library levy on every can of beer sold; and
- recognition of public and national libraries as educational institutions for purposes of company and personal income tax.
- The cost burden on libraries should be eased by measures such as:
- reduced telecommunications rates for libraries (this will become particularly relevant as we move towards providing school and community libraries with access to the Internet);
- reduced postal tariffs for inter-library loans and document delivery; and
- zero-rating of educational and academic books for purpose of VAT.

For the authors of this report to go beyond these suggestions would be inappropriate without a more comprehensive investigation and a longer opportunity to understand the current position, both of local public libraries and information centres. We would like to endorse the view that more research needs to be undertaken, and offer to contribute to any further investigation in whatever way we can.32

Tony and Val Hooper
P.O. Box 34034 7707
Rhodes Gift
South Africa
Tel.: +27 21 683 8347

1 J. G. Kesting, 'South Africa, Libraries in the Republic of.' In Encyclopaedia of Library and Information Science, vol. 28. New York: Marcel Dekker, 1978, 129-259.
2 S. Manaka, 'South Africa.' In World Encyclopaedia of Library and Information Services. Chicago: American Library Association, 3rd. ed. 1993, 780-783. 3 R. B. Zaaiman et al. The Use of Libraries for the Development of South Africa: Final Report on an Investigation for the South African Institute for Librarianship and Information Science. Pretoria: University of South Africa, Department of Library and Information Science, 1988.
4 C. Stilwell, 'Democracy and its emergence in South African public librarianship, or why public libraries plus a change of name don't equal community libraries.' Innovation 15 (1997): 17-29.
5 P. G. Underwood and Mary Nassimbeni, 'Dreams and realities: Building a new information society in South Africa.' In Kathleen de la Pena McCook, Barbara J. Ford and Kate Lippincott (eds.) Libraries: Global Reach - Local Touch. Chicago: American Library Association, 1998.
6 M. C. Nassimbeni, 'The information society in South Africa: From global origins to local vision'. South African Journal of Library and Information Science 66, no. 4 (1998): 154-160.
7 R. Ralebipi, Agricultural Information Resource Centre: Information Needs Assessment Report. Phase One. March 1999. [Unpublished report known as the CABI Project.]
8 South African Institute for Library and Information Science (SAILIS). Public Libraries Division. Report from the Working Group Regarding Public Library Services in the Nine Provinces. Report submitted to the Executive Committee of SAILIS, 29 November 1995. [Unpublished.]
9 N. S. Ngubane, Letter to Prof. J. H. Viljoen, President of SAILIS, on the Crisis in Provincial and Public Library and Information Services, 1996. [Unpublished.]
10 J. Moshoeshoe, Letter to Prof. J. H. Viljoen, President of SAILIS, on the Crisis in Provincial and Public Library and Information Services in the Provinces. Undated, but date-stamped by Gauteng Provincial Government 25 July 1996. [Unpublished.]
11 J. H. Viljoen, Letter to the M.E.C., Department of Education, Sport and Culture, Bisho, on the Crisis in Provincial and Public Library and Information Services, 5 August 1996. [Unpublished.]
12 P. J. Lor, 'Memorandum on the state of libraries in South Africa, March 1998'. The LIASA Letter 2, no. 1 (1998): 7-12.
13 Athol Leach, 'An overview of the public library sector in South Africa post 1994'. Innovation 16 (1998): 3-19.
14 Ibid., 5
15 Ibid., 6
16 Ibid., 7, 8.
17 Ibid., 8, 9.
18 Arts and Culture Task Group. Library and Information Services Sub-committee. 'Report on library and information services.' In Report of the Arts and Culture Task Group, as presented to the Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology on 31 July 1995. Pretoria: State Library (for the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology), 1995, 44.
19 Leach, 'An overview of the public library sector in South Africa post 1994', 9, 10.
20 Ibid., 10, 11.
21 Ibid., 11, 12.
22 Ibid., 13.
23 Ibid., 14.
24 Ibid., 15.
25 Ibid.
26 Ibid., 16.
27 Ibid.
28 Ibid., 17.
29 Ibid., 18.
30 F. Hendrikz, Public Libraries in South Africa 1998: An Overview. Paper presented at the annual conference of the Library and Information Association of South Africa, held in Bloemfontein, November, 1998. Pretoria: LIASA, 1999; B. Hansen, 'Gauteng: Provincial Library and Information Services.' Cape Librarian 40, no. 10 (1996): 13-15; E. M. Gericke, 'Serving the unserved in the year 2000.' IFLA Journal 24, no. 1 (1998): 20-28.
32 Grateful acknowledgement of the valuable contribution made by the following librarians is recorded:
Mrs Elisabeth Anderson, Director, Centre for the Book, South African Public Library, Cape Town; Dr Karen de Jager, Senior Lecturer, School of Library and Information Science, University of Cape Town; Ms Brigitte Hansen, Director, Gauteng Library and Information Services; Ms Elke Hansen, Pretoria Community Library and Information Services; Prof. J. G. (Deon) Kesting, Professor Emeritus, University of Cape Town; Dr Peter Lor, Director, State Library, Pretoria; Mrs Koekie Meyer, Deputy Director, Gauteng Library Services; Mr John Morrison, Deputy Director, Natal Society Library, Pietermaritzburg; Assoc. Prof. Mary Nassimbeni, School of Library and Information Science, University of Cape Town; Ms Ilse Swart, Bellville Public Library; Mr Johan Swiegelaar, Director, Western Cape Library Services; Ms Elsje van der Merwe, Kimberley Public Library; Prof. Hennie Viljoen, Senior Director, Library Services, University of Stellenbosch.

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