A little oasis on the Flats

Important information gathering skills can be learnt outside school

THE Valhalla Park public library near Elsies River in the Cape Flats serves an estimated 16 000 people. Like many libraries in disadvantaged areas, it is crammed with schoolchildren in the afternoons, ranging from the smallest grade ones to the largest and most threatening kind of matriculant.

The library isn’t big, but it’s quiet enough to work in.
Scholars sit in twos and threes pouring over magazines, or in larger groups at the tables in the reference section. Their friends walk the aisles, hunting books and quizzing the librarians.

The library is one of the only public amenities in Valhalla Park. So it is no wonder that this place has become a kind of sanctuary, even for students from further afield. They’ll tell you that their parents are very happy knowing that their children spend the afternoon here.

Nazeem Hardy started working as a librarian in Valhalla Park four years ago, although the library itself opened three years ago. That extra year was spent in preparation, and it shows. Entering the library is like walking into an oasis. Soothing light streams in from high windows, a radio plays discreetly in the background, and pot plants and display boards close off certain sections, giving the whole area an intimate feeling. This is clearly a place where the community is made to feel welcome.

Hardy and his colleagues spend most of their afternoon time with their student clients, explaining concepts, demystifying homework requirements and finding reference material, as well as helping the mostly Afrikaans-speaking students translate texts into English.

The role of “surrogate teacher” is willingly accepted by the librarians at Valhalla Park, although they despair at the lack of skills of many senior learners. These librarians are not unique in compensating for the shortcomings of the education system. By consistently going beyond the call of duty, they make a significant impact on the development of a culture of learning.

A culture of reading has yet to really take root here, although some of the librarians have been very busy planting the seeds. They established a book club for eight- to 12-year-olds last year, which is proving very popular. Fortnightly book-lending visits are made to a school further from the six schools which surround the library. Grade four classes in the local schools also receive library orientation lessons.

“However,” says Hardy, “books aren’t things that people appreciate. At the end of the day, people are really concerned with survival.” The local police assist the library in the recovery of unreturned or overdue items, when they can. “But people can’t understand paying a fine for a book when they need bread or cigarettes,” says Hardy. A security officer is also on duty at the library. Hardy admits that this is a deterrent, but also claims that the library staff have changed the situation around.

“After three years, the library is now an accepted institution. Before, the kids used to play havoc. But now, even elderly people are unafraid to ask them to quieten down if they threaten to make a noise.”

It’s not uncommon for videos and CDs to be sold for money to buy drugs. “One of the library members had a video machine stolen with one of our tapes in it,” says Hardy. “The gangster who stole it made him buy the video back.” Although this library, like all others, is engaged in a constant battle for resources, Hardy says that the librarians at Valhalla Park do the best they can with what they’ve got.

“This year we will be trying to consolidate on our advances of the past,” he says. “It will be hard work. But luckily we love it.”

—The Teacher/Mail & Guardian, June 19, 2000.

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