As many as 15 libraries in the Eastern Cape have closed over the past year. Considering South Africa’s unequal access to data, internet services and poor access to existing public facilities – a renewed, innovative approach to the design of current and new library facilities is imperative.

Last month – we celebrated National Library Week (18 – 22 March), aptly falling within Human Rights month in South Africa. Libraries offer far more than just the physical structures and books lining their shelves. Run well – even the most modest of community mobile libraries can provide an educational haven and a sanctuary for children and adults alike. Libraries offer real opportunities for lifelong learning for people of all socio-economic backgrounds.

A library card of one’s own can potentially provide access to a range of empowering resources (human and otherwise). For users in township and rural communities in particular – the importance of this access cannot be overestimated. For children in households where recreational books are an absolute luxury – access to spaces where reading for pleasure is not only a possibility but is encouraged is vital. This is especially important in a middle income country like South Africa’s with its infamous high-input, low-outcome public education system. It is an accepted fact that adults with poor literacy and numeracy are more likely to be unemployed or – if employed – receive lower wages. This in itself is an obstacle to exercising other basic rights.

Over a week in March, Members of the Executive Council (MECs) for Finance across South Africa tabled their budget speeches; setting out spending priorities for 2019 and achievements of the year past. Prior to that, the Minister of Finance, Tito Mboweni, tabled his 2019 Budget. In it – the Minister allocated R 4.8 billion to the community library services grant between 2019 and 2021 out of the R 14.8 billion allocation to the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC). The grant is intended to transform library infrastructure in rural and urban contexts and facilitate access. It is channelled directly to provincial departments and either administered by departments themselves or via service-level agreements with municipalities. The grant is also supposed to fund libraries that serve both the community in general and schools.

In recent years, however, the implementation of this grant has been less than seamless. In the Eastern Cape, for instance, the closure of numerous public libraries was directly attributed to delays or complications in the transfer of grant funds to municipal entities. This resulted in the closure of as many as fifteen (15) of the Eastern Cape’s 203 public libraries between 2018 and 2019. The reasons given were varied but answers provided by MEC Pemmy Majodina to the provincial legislature indicated that the resulting lack of basic amenities such as water and electricity were at the core.

In other instances – internet services were unceremoniously cut off to public libraries as happened in the Sarah Baartman District. The handover of the relevant grant administration from the DAC to the Department of Sports, Recreation, Art and Culture (DSRAC) and the resulting failure to plan accordingly meant that free internet services were cut off for more than nine months between 2017 and 2018. This service delivery failure was profiled by community print media, Grocotts Mail. The overall reasons for these failures are ambiguous at best.

Interestingly – trends in public funding failures are observable elsewhere in the world – in larger economies too. In response to the closure of more than 120 public libraries in England, Catherine Stihler of Open Knowledge International lamented that;

“… closing down a library has to be one of the most short-sighted decisions that public officials can make, with serious consequences for the future of local communities”

The closure of UK libraries resulted from funding constraints in the public sector. She further decried the notion of libraries being characterised as irrelevant institutions;

“There is a widespread misconception that the services offered (in public libraries) are out-of-date – a relic of a bygone age before youngsters started carrying smartphones in their pockets with instant access to Wikipedia, and before they started downloading books on their Kindle.”

Considering South Africa’s unequal access to data, internet services and poor access to existing public facilities – a renewed, innovative approach to the design of current and new library facilities is imperative. The most recent General Household survey indicates a high number of South Africans still count public spaces (and their workplaces) as their primary sources for internet access.

So what might public libraries offering free internet services, safe working spaces, digital learning materials and spaces for community-oriented develop workshops look like? Could funds for personnel development be used to train and recruit trained librarians and support youth internships? Could the DAC and its provincial implementing agents actively advocate for social partnerships with ICT companies and non-profits? What kind of partnerships could be created with local schools not only to sustain public libraries but – more importantly – to fill the immense resource gap faced by the majority of public schools.

In a 2018 paper published in the journal Information Development, Samuel Mojapelo states that only 7% of South African public schools have adequately stocked libraries. And, according to a 2015 report on the state of libraries in South Africa, the DAC indicates that of the county’s 23 740 schools – only 4 795 were located near a community library and only 31 had proper school libraries.

In addition to general public and school-serving libraries, South Africa has a diverse range of higher education and research libraries. Amongst key sectoral challenges, DAC lists library closures, the imminent retirement of many experienced librarians and diminishing budgets as key challenges for academic and research libraries.

The challenges are arguably more acute for public and school libraries. Many of these are intended to service learners and are often the sole (potential) source of relatively reliable internet services, print media and reading resources. Here too – public libraries have a significant role to play in reducing the unequal access to ICT and bridging the ‘digital divide’ that characterises South African communities.

Another objective of the DAC funding over the next three years is to transform facilities in historically disadvantaged communities. The plans include the construction of an estimated 105 new libraries and the upgrading of 165 existing community libraries. In collaboration with the Department of Basic Education, the DAC also plans to build 70 dual library service points that serve as both community libraries and school libraries.

The 2018 conditional grant framework for community libraries obliged provinces to establish “intergovernmental forums with municipalities” to be funded through the grant. These fora were expected to meet at least three times a year. It would be of interest to explore the efficacy and inclusiveness of these fora. Are civic actors and users of community libraries invited to participate? This should be the space within which social partnerships are fostered given the inescapable reality of libraries as community hubs. For each new public library built – members of the relevant community must be consulted through participatory processes.

By March 2020, the DAC intends to have digitised three archival collections, financed the construction of 32 new and/or modular community libraries and upgraded 50 existing community libraries. The spread and reach remains to be seen but the general silence in tabled provincial budgets is of concern given that the implementation of these plans must occur at the provincial or district level.

Furthermore, with an average expenditure of 17% as a proportion of the total budget between 2015 and 2018 within the grant allocated for community libraries in provinces – this too does not bode well for continued capital development. Expenditure at the provincial level may be of still greater concern. In the Eastern Cape – there was a decline in the relevant budget line within the DSRAC budget within the first half of 2018. The reason? Delayed grant payments to several municipalities for community libraries with dire consequences for members of the public.

There is also a worrying reduction to capital expenditure of approximately R 480 million between 2015 and 2019. The impact on the sector will likely serve to further delay infrastructure delivery. The non-capital budget, however sees a nominal increase between 2015 and 2018 of 36.1% which is encouraging if it is channelled to critical areas of need.

There are, encouragingly, some positive plans within the 2019 fiscus to influence the policy context. A draft library information services policy was approved by cabinet in December 2018. The policy intends to provide a framework for the provision of all library services in South Africa. It is reportedly in its final stages of consultation with implementation planned for 2020/21.

Aside from the more extreme steps of library closures – the threats to the sustainability of the sector are clearly wide-ranging and deserve more attention than they currently receive.

Knowledge is true power and until access to information and literacy through enhanced public library services is meaningfully realised – our arsenal against inequality in South Africa will continue to be limited. Innovation and public participation must be genuinely central to the process of developing a responsive, sustainable, development-oriented public library system.