Debate on School Libraries in South Africa

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On Tuesday, 21 June 2011, EE hosted a debate on school libraries in South Africa at the University of Cape Town (Read the transcript of the debate here). The night before, the debate took place at Wits University in Johannesburg. The panel brought together library experts from Europe, Australia, South America and Africa as well as local library experts. The panellists were asked to provide insight into the importance of school libraries, share unique perspectives on challenges in advocating for their provision and to address the challenges and opportunities that information technologies (e.g. e-books) present in the campaign for school libraries in South Africa.

The debates were timed to precede EE's People’s Summit for Quality Education, which is taking place 25-27 June at Khayelitsha and the University of Cape Town.

For the Cape Town event, the panel comprised:

  • Albert Boekhorst (International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions)
  • James Henri (International Association of School Librarianship)
  • Luisa Marquardt (International Association of School Librarianship)
  • Lourense H. Das (European Network for School Libraries and Information Literacy)
  • Daniel Mangale (African Network for School Librarianship)
  • Khanyi Dubazana (Director of ELITS, the library and information technology service directorate in the KwaZulu-Natal Education Department).

The discussion was chaired by Sandy Zinn, lecturer in the Department of Library and Information Science at the University of the Western Cape. Busi Dlamini, Head of the Multimedia Unit of the Gauteng Education Department, joined the panel for the Johannesburg event.

Here follows a brief overview of the discussion.  

The meaning of school libraries

The Chair initiated the discussion by asking panellists to share their own conceptions of school libraries. There were some common threads running through the responses. A number of panellists advocated for a re-imagining, or re-conception, of school libraries as something other than physical spaces (e.g. libraries as rooms). One panellist suggested that a library should be regarded as a function, with its resources tying in with the school curriculum and meeting the needs of both staff and learners. The need for integration between the teaching curriculum and a school’s library were echoed by other panellists. Much emphasis was placed on the transformative potential of school libraries, with speakers describing libraries as “agents of change” and “hubs of creativity,” and librarians as “transformational agents.”    

Ms Dubazana, however, drew attention to the so-called first and second economies of South Africa, a distinction playing out at the level of school libraries too. The meaning of a library, she explained, depended on “where you are in South Africa.” In many South African schools, the ‘library’ meant a store-room sized space with limited stock, staffed by an overstretched teacher volunteering to manage the library.

The prioritisation of school libraries

Ms Dubazana disagreed with the Chair's statement that school libraries have not been prioritised by policy makers. It is not that the provision of school libraries is not a priority per se, she argued. Rather, people had to realise that school libraries were competing with other priorities in the education sector, such as school feeding schemes.

Mr Mangale, however, expressed his concern over what he called the trend of viewing school libraries as “non-essential.” The value of school libraries could not be over-emphasised, he said. What was needed was an attitudinal shift recognising the transformative effect of libraries. Mr Henri agreed that there was ample evidence that the provision of school libraries played an integral part in tackling the problem of poverty.

As to the question of who should be leveraged in a national campaign for school libraries, Ms Dubazana observed the need for wider participation that included teachers, teacher unions, parents as well as policy makers.

Information technologies

The discussion then turned to the question of whether rapid advances in information technology were making school libraries, in the more traditional sense, and books redundant. The audience was first shown a video clip detailing the work of Worldreader, an organisation that makes digital books available to the developing world (read more about Worldeeader here).

The panellists were in agreement that while the digital information revolution could not be ignored, it did not undercut the value of libraries and skilled librarians. Ms Das drew a distinction between content and format, arguing that the medium through which information was disseminated was subsidiary to questions regarding the quality and relevance of the information accessed. Ms Marquardt agreed that while critical thinking certainly benefited from the exposure to multiple sources of information, school libraries helmed by skilled librarians were still important.

Questions surrounding the viability and desirability of for instance e-readers in the African and South African contexts were also discussed. Mr Mangale observed that much of rural Africa there is no electricity supply with which to charge e-readers, and no internet availability.  

Audience participation

The panel discussion was followed by lively audience participation, which included inputs from learners, activists, researchers and practitioners.

Carole Bloch of the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (PRAESA) told the audience that libraries should not be viewed in isolation and that in order to foster a culture of reading, the issue of language needed to be considered. There is a severe shortage of books in South Africa written in languages other than English. Those talking about libraries need to consider this question of the availability of books in readers’ mother tongues.

One audience member warned against oversimplification, and said that the issue of school libraries needs to be placed in its historical context as well as the context of South Africa’s transition. Learners in the audience who hailed from Khayelitsha spoke to the challenges they faced in their own schools.