Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa: Reflections of an Emporia Student

Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa: Reflections of an Emporia Student

by Beth Denker, Emporia State University, SLIM, 2015

In November 2015, twelve Emporia State University students and two professors travelled to Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa for a Masters in Library Science class on the Impact of Libraries and Archives in South Africa. The trip included several library and archives visits and multiple cultural activities. Readings and discussion boards were completed for the class prior to the trip with the focus being the history and current state of libraries in South Africa. Additional components of political and cultural readings provided context to prepare us for this experience. The trip started in Johannesburg and Pretoria and ended in Cape Town. This blog post contains some short reflections from this trip.

At the National Library of South Africa (NLSA) in Pretoria, we were graciously welcomed and treated to formal presentations that detailed many of their initiatives. It was great to hear how they work to benefit library services in South Africa and their initiatives are modern and informed in library theories. They highlighted access to the internet and grant funding received from the Gates Foundation to get internet access at more of the libraries in South Africa. They are also working to print more books in some of the eleven official languages of South Africa at the Centre for the Book. They took suggestions from their communities on what books were classic to their tribes or community and then they selected books, worked to get copyright permission, worked with translators and the families of the authors to produce satisfactory translations, and printed the translated books. We also received a tour of the NLSA building that included the various library areas and services they offer in addition to back areas where we saw some fascinating digitization and preservation projects.

Deacidification equipmentDeacidification equipment for book preservation at NLSA.

The Library and Information Association of South Africa (LIASA) has offices in a building on the NLSA campus. The current LIASA President, Segametsi Molawa, spent time with us at NLSA and spoke with us about how LIASA supports librarians in South Africa and the challenges they face. She is a great advocate for librarianship, LIASA, and International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA). We were given a tour of that building and met the staff. They had gift bags for us, as did NLSA. NLSA provided a light lunch with tea at the end of the tours.

We were welcomed into the Innovation Studio at the Rosa Parks Library in Soweto. This library is a project of the U.S. Embassy and serves the local community. The room is newly remodeled and includes a 3-D printer and several computer workstations with specialized software. The focus is on entrepreneurship and building skills such as graphic design, web design, and software expertise in young South Africans. Unemployment in South Africa is very high, so these skills are one way that young people in Soweto might create their own jobs and start businesses that will eventually contribute to the community and economy. The librarians there clearly care about providing access to the resources that make it possible to learn these skills. The Innovation Studio also provides a great meeting space for workshops they have been sponsoring.

At Constitution Hill, the use of art and personal narratives was effective to allow us to relate to what prisoners experienced at this prison. The level of human rights abuses and degradation were appalling and really drove home why apartheid was such a terrible time period. We were also able to go into the Constitutional Court building and courtroom. Our guide talked about the design being inclusive of all in the country but allowing each group to maintain their identity. There were also themes of transparency and building from the past, and all of this was in such stark contrast to what we just saw documented from the prison.

The Johannesburg Public Library visit had many comparisons and contrasts to public libraries here in the United States. They are trying to do so much with so little and doing their best. Materials are scarce, so they hold onto everything they can. The African Studies room was newly opened and it was quite a beautiful room with a lot of resources available. I liked their signage as it did not just list the Dewey Decimal call number range, but also some subject headings that would guide users in browsing. In the music area, the librarian pointed out that they host music lessons on Saturdays and there was a beautiful piano. The newspapers and periodicals room was really busy with users, as were all of the computers in the library. This is a great library for the community and offers many services which are sorely needed.

Dutch BibleDutch bible from the 16th century stored in the sublevels at the Johannesburg Public Library.

At the Apartheid Museum, there was a special exhibit called “Ahmed Timol: A Quest for Justice”. This exhibit highlighted how police during that time were killing people reporting the deaths as suicides. When you are an oppressed people and those that are in power are committing heinous acts, you have no recourse to try to get resolution until power changes hands. Even now, there are many people in South Africa who have not had their questions answered regarding what happened to their loved ones.

We met with representatives of the non-profit Room to Read. It is inspiring that they get so much buy-in from the communities and schools to support the program before they implement it in a community. They spend time training and mentoring teachers to be effective teacher librarians. In the US, it might be easy to take for granted all of the support systems that are in place to encourage literacy in young children. It is remarkable what it takes to start this support structure where there has been no support in the past.

The Cape Town Public Library was a contrast to the Johannesburg Public Library, so I was glad we visited both. They took considerable time to talk about how they function, their challenges with governmental support, what they offer, and the other 205 libraries in their province. They discussed how they prioritize where to spend grant funds, but when buildings are falling apart, the money does not go nearly as far as you think it might. It was interesting to hear about how they advocate for the library to elected government officials. I loved the art library area with displays and art on the walls and the gallery above where they are planning on having art exhibitions. This library was also incredibly busy. We visited the American Corners Library within the Central Branch of the Cape Town Public Library. They were closed for a remodel and were set to re-open in a few weeks. This project was geared towards study abroad and entrepreneurship skills. They have test study books (e.g., LSAT, SAT), an iPad bar, a great makerspace with an audio booth, and a meeting room.

The experience in the prison at Robben Island was much different for me than Constitution Hill. Former prisoners give the tour of the prison and they speak from their own experience. This makes it easier to connect with on a personal level, but I wondered how traumatizing it might be to start working at the place where you were a prisoner. I was struck by how the people stuck to solidarity to enact change and how that is still happening in many ways in South Africa. Our guide spoke about how prisoners planned for the future government and constitution at Robben Island and how they always worked towards a consensus. This set up an atmosphere of inclusiveness from the beginning. Nelson Mandela and many of the other prisoners made conscious decisions to defy the government or commit acts that they knew could get them thrown in jail and possibly even killed. They were willing to sacrifice years of their own freedom to try to create a better world for future generations, with no assurance that things would eventually change.

At the University of Cape Town Library, they were in the midst of finals. There had been protests about a raise in tuition a few weeks earlier so I was surprised that the student population seemed to be fairly affluent, but many of the students were protesting because it would be unaffordable for some. This main library was quite nice and fairly recently remodeled. There are eight other branches on campus that focus on specific subject areas, plus the Archives. Much thought had been put into various areas and uses of this library. There was a lot of cool art on display and I was impressed by all of the types of study areas (desks, carrels, slanted desks, a room filled with desktops for computer work, other areas with computers that were more private, group work areas, comfy chairs, individual rooms that were first come-first served, a business corner with dedicated computers for specific databases). There were elevators and ramps in all areas of the building to provide easy access and two large 24/7 study areas. All students have to badge in during library and non-library hours and security guards are on duty. The issue of security with metal detectors for entry and exit was common at all of the libraries we went to, and for many of them you had to show ID to gain access. This library is on scale with many other large university libraries that are state schools here in the United States.

University of Cape Town LibraryStudents preparing for finals at the University of Cape Town Library.

We visited the University of Cape Town Archives. This visit was added while we were there and was not scheduled, so they were very kind in accommodating our group. They have a lovely reading room with two archivists and it was quite busy with researchers. A third archivist gave the tour and showed us fun items in the archives, but if they had had more warning that we were coming they may have prepared a different type of presentation. The archives had a rack system for their shelving units, which is a great way to gain additional storage.

At each of the libraries, they spent a considerable amount of time giving us tours and presentations and answering our questions. They were such gracious hosts, offering us tea at each visit. The hospitality was so welcoming, and it is good to remember that even modest refreshments are such a thoughtful gesture for when weary travelers may visit our libraries.

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