SA's public libraries need a new lease on life

The government is being asked to consider a new deal for South Africa’s 1 240 public libraries, currently floundering in the no-man’s-land of an “unfunded mandate”.

What an unfunded mandate means, according to Elisabeth Anderson, head of Cape Town’s Centre for the Book, is that provinces, which are responsible for the libraries, are not getting money from the central government to meet that responsibility.

Anderson, who is also a member of the National Council for Library and Information Services, says that in 1996, when the Constitution was finalised, public libraries were in “a very bad space”.

“There was a lot of racial conflict and they didn’t get their act together to present anything sensible to the Constitution-makers. So in the Constitution, libraries are made the total responsibility of the provinces.

“But no funding was allocated to that responsibility by national government. In the past, libraries had been run 90% by municipalities, which meant that, of course, no homeland had libraries, because no homeland had municipalities.
And all the province did was to supply books, in varying degrees, to public libraries.

“But since 1996, you’ve got the situation where the province is meant to control the library but has no money at all.”

Municipalities have, on the whole, continued funding two important aspects of library services—paying staff salaries and looking after the infrastructure, the buildings and grounds.

However, faced with growing demand for basic services such as water, cleansing and sewage, the “really stretched” municipalities are cutting back on library budgets, which leads to cuts in staff and opening hours, and even the closure of libraries.

A libraries working group set up by the print industry earlier this year did research in all nine provinces and made recommendations to the national Department of Arts and Culture, says Anderson.

The group, which she headed, recommended that there should be acknowledgement across provincial boundaries of the role, qualifications, salaries and job specifications of librarians.

“Currently, municipal officials say that library staff don’t fit into their little organograms, and they would prefer library workers to be designated as clerks or something, and be able to move them around within the municipal structures.

“In the Free State at the moment, there’s one library which is being run by the cleaner, and in [one municipality in] North West province the head of the library services is also chief of the fire department and does all the motor-vehicle licensing. It is extraordinary.

“I really do think that staffing should be a provincial competence—that salaries should be provincial, and that money should come [ultimately] from central government.”

But because librarians like the “local connection”, the group recommended that municipalities should continue to look after library buildings and other infrastructure.

A third recommendation, and one Anderson believes is vital, was that provinces should build capacity in libraries, so they are able to tell the province what books they want for their particular readers and appoint appropriate staff.

At present, provincial head-office library officials do the book buying, which is “mad”.

“In the Mdantsane library, there’s the latest Le Carre in hard cover, and the latest Jackie Collins, and there are these poor people sitting there ... it’s batty.”

Libraries are not the only unfunded mandate, she says.

“There are about 20 of them. Government has asked the Human Sciences Research Council to do research into what the best way to solve this is.

“It looks like the HSRC is going to recommend that all of those unfunded mandates fall under municipal control. I would plead very strongly that libraries must be considered on their own and not lumped together with all the others, because I think our solution is a little more thoughtful.

“And certainly it requires less messing around with where money comes from.”

She says the Department of Arts and Culture and the Department of Education are taking the working group’s report “very seriously”.

She senses interest and concern from both Minister of Education Naledi Pandor and Minister of Arts and Culture Pallo Jordan.—Sapa

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