My favourite part of my job is when I attend the opening of a new library. I get excited about the opportunities and possibilities that a library represents to people, especially to the children.
The role of libraries has long since changed from being keepers and preservers of books. Now, many libraries are vibrant spaces that facilitate information sharing and lifelong learning opportunities with an emphasis on serving residents.
The importance of libraries cannot be over-emphasised, especially when one considers that six out of every 10 South Africans older than 16 live in households without a single book, according to a recent survey by the South African Book Development Council.
Considering the positive effects that reading has on creativity and language skills development, this is a crippling shortcoming.
A shortage of reading materials and textbooks has been identified as among the main reasons that 78% of children in grade 4 cannot read for meaning. Research shows that in 2008, only 60% of the cohort of learners who had started school 12 years earlier had progressed to write their matric exams and, of these, only 37% passed. It is hardly surprising that poor literacy levels in South Africa is such a hot topic.
So, what problems do our librarians face in a barely literate society?
l Attractive distractions. There is a perception that there are more fun things to do than read. One of the biggest challenges we face is how to motivate children and adults to read for self-study and pleasure when competing against smartphones, social and other online media, instant messaging, television and computer games.
l Information ignorance. Many parents are either unable to or shirk the responsibility of helping their children with school projects. Many children require guidance on how to structure or write projects — a task that is often diverted to librarians. Although noble in principle, this poses various problems.
First, not all librarians are trained to provide that kind of learner assistance. Second, although we really want to help, libraries are insufficiently staffed for that level of individual attention.
l Language barriers. Some library staff speak just one official language, which means they are often unable to help people who speak other languages by providing reading assistance or homework support in any language other than their own.
l Resources. Insufficient resources, too few qualified staff members to manage the facilities and a shortage of funds to buy textbooks and other library materials are a reality. The absence of stocked and functional libraries in most schools puts huge pressure on public libraries. For this reason, public libraries need a wide range of materials to meet the curriculum-related needs of learners and teachers. In the current economic climate, this is not always possible.
l Socioeconomic problems certainly contribute to the difficulties librarians face. In many households, living spaces are small and cramped, with inadequate lighting and not much space to sit and read. Many parents are illiterate and so cannot read to their children. Many children do not attend any form of pre-school and are not exposed to books. This is a vicious circle that sets them at a huge disadvantage from an early age.
l Library buildings are affected by civil unrest. They are sometimes targeted and damaged when people have a grievance against the municipality.
The critical role libraries play in people’s lives is unquestionable. Not only are they important for providing books, films, internet access and other future-enabling information, but they ensure people’s vitality and promote strong social ties.
The good news is that librarians are an awesome bunch of people. They chose the profession because they are passionate about books, literacy and the upliftment of people.
Libraries constantly reinvent themselves in the face of ever-changing technologies. The staff members in each library adapt and develop programmes that work for the people they serve.
With partners like Nal’ibali, South Africa’s reading-for-enjoyment campaign, which reached almost 1.6-million children on World Read Aloud Day in February and is running a library card sign-up drive, libraries are making a difference.
Libraries are committed to providing services that are free, equitable and accessible to providing for the information, reading and learning needs of people and to promoting a culture of reading, library usage and lifelong learning.
The calling is enormous, but then so is the reward of seeing the betterment of our people.
Cecilia Sani is the director of library services at the Western Cape department of cultural affairs and sport