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Libraries: an escape, an investment

The South African National Library was established 200 years ago in 1818. The fact that it still exists today is a testament to the courage and dedication of many generations of librarians, whose love and passion for maintaining the records, literary works and vast volumes of collected knowledge have kept the institution of the library going throughout our country’s turbulent past. Peter John Moses explains why he believes we owe libraries and their custodians a debt of gratitude for giving us access to our history, for providing safety, and for the opportunity to build a better future.

Last week saw the launch of the bicentennial celebration of the South African Library, an opportunity for national government to showcase the importance libraries play in a democratic society, and for South Africans to reflect on the contribution these buildings have made to our lives and the potential they hold.

Libraries have always fascinated me and are places that I can get lost in for hours on end. The history of the library in South Africa is no less interesting. Until November 1999, South Africa had two national libraries, the South African Library, founded in 1818 in Cape Town, and the State Library, founded in 1887 in Pretoria. The origins of the South African Library date back to when Lord Charles Somerset, Governor of the Cape Colony, issued a proclamation launching the South African Public Library. Somerset used a wine tax to “place the means of knowledge within the reach of the youth of this remote corner of the globe, and bring within their reach what the most eloquent of ancient writers has considered to be one of the first blessings of life, 'Home Education'.”

Today, Cape Town is home to 104 library facilities on record, expanding that number to 130 with the use of mobile libraries. The oldest public library in the mother city is in Simon’s Town, which was established in 1884. It is also one of the smallest libraries and has brought the joy of reading to the people of Simon’s Town ever since the first librarian, Miss W.G. Gillard walked through its doors.

Libraries provide a quiet and revered space where I can indulge my love of reading without interruption. I can research those many little thoughts I have during the day and expand on my knowledge without having to sit in a class and listen to a lecture. But on the Cape Flats, libraries have an additional role: they have become safe zones and places where kids can go and spend time with their peers without the worry of a stray bullet hitting them or being accosted by gangsters while they are within the library’s walls. Librarians have become superheroes that keep the monsters at bay.

The Cape Flats are not the only place libraries serve as safe havens. Children all around the country can make use of their local libraries while waiting long hours for their hardworking parents to collect them. Libraries are lifesavers while at the same time opening the doors of opportunity that are so often closed. For some, like myself, a library can become your stronghold, just like the icy fortress of solitude that Superman always escaped to in the comic books – my introduction to reading. There are too few of these types of places for the young and old of the community to run to. This is a shame that falls at the feet of the government. A park or sportsground is a good facility to have, but it provides little safety when bullets start flying. If for no other reason than to provide a safe place where artistic and intellectual endeavours can be explored this needs to be addressed and built upon by the powers that be. A bonus is that by encouraging the pursuit of knowledge, a major blow will be dealt to the ignorance of many who fight daily for their substance and are caught within the machine of corporate slavery without any exit signs lighting the way to freedom from the stress of servitude.

Today in the world of digital, everybody is eager to move toward a paperless society and embrace the many new technologies with gusto. While we are moving forward with virtual this and virtual (the South African Library included) that doesn’t mean that we should just leave behind the wonderful world of physical books, newspapers and magazines. I don’t mind calling it quits on pamphlets and flyers to save a few trees and I’m a big fan of recycling, but the truth is that, especially here and in the rest of the third world, not everybody is connected to the world wide web and we still have a very long way to go before that is a reality. For knowledge to be spread effectively throughout the country and in surrounding countries we still need to make sure that books get into eager hands at every opportunity.

In an increasingly visual world, the power and habit of reading is being overlooked; there is not enough being done by society to remedy this. Schools regularly complain about the struggle to get textbooks from the education departments, and students at tertiary institutes struggle to afford the expensive text books they need to complete their studies. This is where the libraries also have a very big role to play in making it easier for people to get the educational information that they need. In a perfect world, all libraries would be well stocked and access will be free and easy, but this world is far from perfect and libraries are struggling like many other public institutions. The service delivered is at times poor and the resources provided are at best inadequate for only the most basic purposes.

The department of arts and culture, which oversees all national libraries, needs to double their investment into these depositories of knowledge – not just by expanding their stocks of books, but also in expanding the spaces that libraries take up. Make the buildings bigger, employ more staff to help maintain the building and the books and to enhance customer service and support. Provide double the number of computers, printers and scanners that are available now. Put in more plug points for people to charge their electronic devices or add more charge stations for mobile gadgets. Make a visit to your local library feel like you are at your home away from home.

Let's make heroes out of library patrons and the likes of Cape Town's John Nicholson, who set up a library in his garage with 5,000 donated books. The Lavender Hill family man wanted to create a safe place for the kids in his neighbourhood to come after school and explore the many worlds that books provide. A big sign greets you as you enter the doors proclaiming proudly “Siyafunda – we are reading”. John’s initiative relies heavily on donations and limited funds from his own pocket. This man is a giant of change in my eyes and he humbly goes about his business without much fanfare and is the kind of South African that our country needs more of.

A love of reading and books may not save every child, but it is near impossible to count the beneficiaries of 200 years of the library in South Africa. Investing in more libraries, that can help set many minds free, makes more sense to me than investing in more prisons that traps the body and slowly kills off your humanity.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.