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Playing By(e) the Books

By Ilham Rawoot, Published Mon 30 Nov 2009 in The Teacher. (Click here for original article.)

Four thousand learners, teachers and parents marched from Salt River to the Cape Town city centre recently calling for the establishment of a library at every school in South Africa.

A staggering 93% of schools do not have functioning libraries, according to statistics of the department of education.

The march, Walk for School Libraries, was organised by Equal Education, a community-based organisation based in Cape Town with an activist base that includes learners, teachers, parents, academics and international volunteers. Its library campaign is part of its work for "quality and equality in South African education". The campaign demands the implementation of the government's National Policy on School Libraries. Its slogan is "one school, one library, one librarian."

"What makes this campaign fresh is that it's kids [participating]," says Professor Genevieve Hart, associate professor in the University of the Western Cape's department of library and information science, and member of the Campaign for School Libraries advisory committee. "Traditionally libraries weren't cool things, but learners seem to have grasped the need for them," she says. "If they want to leave school with the skills they need for university and for their careers, they need libraries."

One of the learners involved in the campaign is Siyasanga Qomayi, a grade 12 learner at Luhlaza High School in Khayelitsha, near Cape Town. Luhlaza is one of the few schools in the area that has a functioning library and Qomayi sees the negative effects on her peers who are at schools without libraries. "My friends at those schools struggle," she says.

"They have to go to a public library where there is not enough information. They have to travel long distances to get to a public library and it is not safe."

Also, says Hart, public library staff say they are "swamped" with learners. "In one rural community one public library serves 200 schools."

Hart says that, ideally, librarians should be able to work with learners on their projects. This is mostly impossible in public libraries. And many learners don't have access to public libraries anyway. "They come out of school at 2pm and a taxi takes them home — how are they doing their projects?" says Hart.

Equal Education's work started early in 2008 with six people who spent their mornings sitting in on classes in Western Cape township schools to check the situation there. In the afternoon they met to run workshops. After a few months they organised their first campaign, which was about the problem of broken windows.

A year later the libraries campaign started and so far the organisers have collected 17 000 signatures from people calling for:

  • A library in every school;
  • A full-time trained librarian or library administrator;
  • Books and equipment, including computers, and at least three books per learner;
  • 10% of the department of education's budget for learning and teaching support materials (LTSM) to be allocated for libraries, and
  • Workshops for teachers, parents and learners about the role of a library and its place in the school programme.

"Already the Western Cape education department has accepted one of our major demands," says Doron Isaacs, a coordinator for Equal Education. He says that is the demand for allocating 10% of the learning and teaching materials budget for libraries. But Equal Education says this commitment cannot result in the sudden provision of libraries. And there is also a critical shortage of librarians.

Hart says many schools have books that have been donated, but that these lie around in boxes. "A room full of wonderful resources is nothing without someone trained in literacy information who can engage with teachers and learners."

She says that the number of qualified librarians has dropped and that there is a vicious cycle. "Why would anyone study for a librarianship degree if there are no positions?" she asks.

Another key obstacle to the establishment of libraries at schools appears to be a policy impasse. The National Library Transformation Charter, which is in its sixth draft, was drawn up by the national department of arts and culture. It calls for a national policy on libraries. But it has not been implemented yet and there is no date set for this.

Hope Mokgatlhe, a spokesperson for the national department of education, says the department has focused on trying to ensure access to resources in a practical and implementable way.

This involves creating and improving classroom library collections, mobile libraries, resources for schools in community libraries and stand-alone libraries that serve a cluster of schools.

A stand-alone library for every school would be unattainable, given the historical neglect of this, Mokgatlhe says.

But there is hope, says Hart. "I don't think our advocacy so far has failed," she says. "This march should have happened a long time ago."

Yoliswa Dwane, Equal Education's head of policy, seems less positive. "I'd rather have the education department taking this up," she said. "I don't think the education department will push for something it was not a part of from the beginning."

Carla GoldsteinPlaying By(e) the Books