Our schools need books, libraries and librarians

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As it appeared in the April Edition of Muslim Views

Article by Shehnaz Cassim-Moosa


On 21 March 2010, thousands of high school learners gathered in central Cape Town to petition the government to adopt a national policy on school libraries. The event was hosted by Equal Education (EE), a movement of learners, parents, teachers and community members that are striving for quality and equality in education.

 Of the thousands gathered on the Grand Parade in Cape Town, members of the Muslim community were only a small fraction of those who participated in this landmark event. This was perplexing, as the call for school libraries is an important campaign and relevant to every parent, teacher and learner in South Africa.


There is widespread international recognition of the importance of education as a key tool for development. In post-apartheid South Africa, education gained primacy as a public policy issue, as the democratically elected government attempted to right the imbalances of the past. Despite the many strides that the government has made in improving education, the effects of apartheid education continues to linger.


In 2006, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) tested the literacy levels of primary schools learners in more than 40 countries. South African learners scored poorly, indicating that most learners are unable to comprehend basic written information.


The poor test scores highlight not only the problem of literacy but also those of quality and equality in education. In 2005, 42.1% of Grade 6 learners in the Western Cape could read and write at the appropriate level. However, at schools previously classified as White 86.9% met the standard in comparison to 35.5% in formally Coloured schools and just 4.7% in formerly Black schools. 


Libraries are an important and cost-effective way of helping to improve literacy rates. Major international studies have determined that, all things being equal, the provision of a well-stocked and adequately staffed library can improve learner academic results by between 10% and 25%.


Only 8% of public ordinary schools in South Africa have functional libraries and these are almost entirely situated in Model C schools, 13% of schools have a physical space for a library but no book collection, while 79% of schools have neither a library space nor books. This means that a staggering 92% of schools in South Africa don't have a functional library.  


The libraries campaign should be of particular interest to the  Muslim community, as the written word is integral to Islam. In Surah 96, (Al-Alaq) of the Holy Quran the angel commanded the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) to read.


Read! in the name of your Lord, who has created (all that exists)

Has created man from clot

Read and your Lord is the most Generous.


This verse emphasises the importance of reading and the pursuit of knowledge. The Islamic tradition has long promoted the value of reading. Ibrahim B Syed of the Islamic Research Foundation states that during the Battle of Badr, prisoners would be released on condition they taught ten Muslim children to read and write.


In 1499, during the Spanish conquest of Andalusia, Cardinal Francisco Jimenea de Cisneros ordered for libraries and books to be burned. Libraries were targeted to eliminate material evidence (Arabic books and documents) that could remind future generations that people of different ethnic and religious traditions once lived in southern Spain.


Libraries are a valuable asset to communities and school libraries play an important role in the development of a student. By including a library session as part of the school curriculum, schools would be able to foster a culture of reading and an appreciation for the written word.


It is entirely possible for every public ordinary school in South Africa to have a functional library. Equal Education conducted a costing exercise and found that if the initial provisioning of infrastructure, materials, training and salaries were implemented over ten years, those costs would collectively amount to between 1.6% and 2.6% of the education budget for that period. Support the call for 1 school, 1 library 1 librarian.


Equal Eduction has established a book collection centre at 20 Roeland Street. New or good quality second hand books can be donated to the Bookery. These books will in turn be distributed to schools that have a physical space for a library but aren't adequately stocked.