Self-help? Help yourself

South African struggle history and self-help books are all the rage with book thieves in Johannesburg.

Recently retired librarian Jane McArthur told the Mail & Guardian, “The last three years I was working at Rosebank public library it just became a joke.

“The most commonly stolen books are ones on political leaders or self-help books. We actually didn’t buy self-help books any more because as soon as we could get them on the shelves they were gone,” said McArthur

Student setworks regularly disappear, another Johannesburg librarian said. And trying to hang on to a copy of Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom is impossible.

“It’s the same books all the time, like Long Walk to Freedom.
Never mind the freedom: every copy walks out the library.”

“When you phone up other libraries to check if they have a book nine times out of 10 the book will be missing,” said McArthur.

Popular self-help titles include Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus by John Gray, How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, and Who Moved My Cheese: An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life by Spencer Johnson.

“Another book that gets stolen is Conversations with God [by Neale Donald Walsch]. I just can’t believe these people want to have a conversation with God and the first thing they do is steal the book,” said a Johannesburg Librarian.

“I think our library had a number of copies of Who Moved My Cheese and they have all disappeared except the version in Afrikaans.”

Atilla Lawrence, deputy director of libraries in Johannesburg, said that they were busy with the first half of a book stock take this year and so did not know the extent of book loss.

Lawrence said the theft problem had not been raised in any meetings by librarians.

“What we normally do if we know certain books are at risk we would remove them from the shelf and put them behind the counter. When someone looks for it on the catalogue they will be directed to the librarian counter,” said Lawrence.

Johannesburg has 82 public libraries that house roughly 1,5-million books and have a membership of 250 000 readers.

McArthur said the libraries are in desperate need of a security system that uses electronic tags for books.

“We looked at security systems for the libraries but they cost R100 000 per library and that is just completely unaffordable,” said a Johannesburg librarian

Libraries have secured their computer systems this financial year, Lawrence said, because they had previously lost 100 computers in six months; and the electronic book security system would have to wait for the 2005/2006 financial year.

“We have 82 libraries in Johannesburg and if you put a security system into each one at R100 000 per system, how many books are you guaranteed to save? Never mind the operational costs of putting tags into books,” said Lawrence.

The president of the Library and Information Association of South Africa, Tommy Matthee, said library theft is a problem that requires a “comprehensive strategy to address it”.

Lloyd Gedye

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