Writers and Public Libraries

It seems to be a well kept secret that during Pallo Jordan’s tenure as minister of Arts and Culture, the national network of public libraries was allocated over R1 billion for book acquisitions and for the building of new libraries. I say it is a secret because, though this budget allocation is advertised in a pamphlet released by the department and is rightly a source of great pride, in practice very little delivery has taken place. And in a country where functional illiteracy is so high amongst adults and where 70% of children do not have a library at their schools, it is criminal that the library service is so slow to take advantage of this massive cash pile. However, this should not surprise us because, in general, transformation of the library service, like so many other organs of state, whether with respect to understanding its social role and then setting up a delivery mechanism that succeeds in meeting working class needs, has been inconsistent and largely ineffective.

Public libraries should be more than just places for book lending. They should become cultural centres which provide a space for study, for readings by writers and poets, for book clubs and for discussion groups. As such librarians have to go beyond their present administrative functions and become coordinators and initiators of cultural programs for people of all ages. They should also be able to liase with local schools which do not have libraries so that children can still access books and share the excitement of readings and other literary activities. Sadly there is minimal recognition by the library service of this potential.

With regard to making new and classic South African and African books of all genres available, the library service is similarly ineffective. The current system of book purchasing is highly bureaucratic in that each province has a single procurement office which is dependent on an incomplete (if very glossy and expensive) catalogue and rarely engages with small local publishers. Moreover, the library officials responsible for purchases do not seem familiar with our new writing and make very little effort, even when new books are purchased, to display them prominently so that people are aware of their presence. As such, the large commercial publishers selling prescribed education books and American and British best sellers have a considerable advantage.

As far as building new libraries is concerned the pace is similarly slow. To my knowledge the service has not advertised its program. We are aware that many new residential areas (both formal and informal) have mushroomed over the past twenty years and do not have a library – not to mention long existing ones that never had a library or had a poorly resourced one.

Another factor to consider is the role of the public library network in sustaining the publishing of contemporary writing. The book market in South Africa is very small. The high price of paper combined with the high margins charged by booksellers and distributors means that publishers of new creative writing struggle to reach financial self sufficiency. Many of these publishers rely on grants from the National Arts Council, the National Lottery Development Trust and other foreign funders to survive. The local state and parastatal funders have become increasingly indifferent to literature and put up bureaucratic obstacles that slowdown and/or kill projects. The time taken to process applications is often years rather than weeks or months; the requirements such as tax exemptions etc are unfair and seem designed to frustrate rather than ensure accountability.

Botsotso has proposed to these bodies that they convene a meeting with the national library service, the different education departments and publishers of new South African writing to map out a way in which the library service and schools/universities/colleges purchase the books generated by these publishers. This would ensure both a new level of mass distribution/readership as well as building financial self sufficiency brought about by the economy of scale of large printing runs. If the 2,000 national library/education system libraries each purchase such books – whether of creative writing genres or non-fiction – the face of South African publishing will certainly be strengthened and our general cultural level will be greatly raised.

For any liberation struggle, self expression of its authentic identity and freeing the mind of colonial and racist stereotyping is as important as the satisfying of material needs. The national library service needs to act accordingly.