Gather around. We have library stories to share. – Shagufta Pasta
Libraries. For some people, the word library evokes memories of squishy chairs and friendly librarians, the excitement of your first library card and regular family trips to get new books. For other people, libraries are spaces that simply exist in the imagination. 20,000 South African schools have no library, and many communities either have no library or a library with old, outdated and sparse collections. A library without books that speaks to your experiences and to the stories that matter to you can be as alienating as having no library at all.
What is your experience? These questions matter because great cities are home to exceptional libraries. Cities today need a mix of both soft and hard infrastructure. Hard infrastructure are things like roads that connect the city, whereas soft infrastructure creates pathways for people to meet one another, exchange ideas and develop relationships. Soft infrastructure means that a city has an abundance of “third places”, defined as “neither home nor work where people can be together”. Libraries today are one of the few non-commercial third spaces in the city. They produce public culture and are a physical manifestation of shared meanings and values of public life”. Such public spaces are critical because they allow people to venture past their personal and professional networks and allow for a space to discover new things, to expand one’s horizons, and to experiment and adventure.
In addition to public space, municipal governments need to provide opportunities for lifelong learning. Libraries make “visible a symbolic statement about knowledge in society”. For Johannesburg to be a world-class city it must have world-class libraries and over the next month as part of our fellowship with ASRI Future Leaders Program, we are exploring the state of Johannesburg libraries, investigating how Johannesburg libraries can serve residents better and advocating for the necessary changes to make libraries stronger. We are interested in the spectrum of library experiences had by different people in Johannesburg in different locations, and as we research, speak to people about their needs and advocate for needed changes, we want to invite you to be part of a public conversation about libraries. This blog will be a repository of our learning and our memories. Please engage with us. Share our posts and share your own thoughts about libraries with us through social media. On Twitter you can follow our conversation through the #myperfectlibrary, on Instagram you can find us @asri_flp and on Facebook we can be found as the ASRI Future Leaders Fellowship Program. Stay with us, it’s going to be an exciting month.
Literal Displacement – Li’Tsoanelo Zwane
I remember my first library experience quite vividly. I was at Barkley House Pre-primary School where we had a library on the school grounds. Every Wednesday was “library day” where our parents would be invited to choose books with us that we would then read to them to display our reading skills (which seemed like bragging more than anything). My mother would usually accompany me to school that day and I would sit on her lap and read to her. Reminiscing about that experience brings up very happy memories from my childhood and being exposed to a library as well as the culture of reading from such an early age has definitely had its perks.
I was a very introverted child, growing up and I have grown into an introverted young woman. Books were my sanctuary in terms of companionship and allowing my imagination to develop to its full capacity. I remember coming home from school and always being in a hurry to complete my chores so that I could lock myself away in my room buried in a book. Unfortunately, where I lived, the library was a bit of a distance away so not easily accessible, which meant that my only contact with a library was the one in my school. The downside of this was that I only ever read about white people, white lives and white spaces. My reading experience was never contextually relevant to my life as a working class black girl. The danger of being exposed to European writers like Shakespeare (who I absolutely adore) is that it inevitably framed my construction of blackness and what it means to be black. I never associated being black with an ability to tell stories or an ability to write. I suppose that is the reality for a lot of black children in South Africa; there is a constant feeling of displacement where we are not even represented even in literature.
My first experience of black writers was in first year at university, where we read Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga and I felt a strong sense of familiarity. I could relate to the characters in the novel as well as the central themes within the book. Our library at the University of the Western Cape became a safe haven for me: a place where I lost and found myself, a place where I interrogated my identity and found new ways of dismantling it yet simultaneously reconstructing it, a place where I felt affirmed and came to understand that being black was a constant interaction with all that is magnificent and godly.
What is #MyPerfectLibrary? A place where I can be myself, read books written by people like me.
Why I Believe in Magic – Shaazia Ebrahim
I read a lot. It’s like a disease. For as long as I can remember, I have never not been immersed in some or other story. I am always reading. I firmly believe in a culture of reading. And I am vehement that it was positive experiences with libraries that instilled in me this practice of reading.
I still reminisce about my experiences of the Sandton Library as a child. (I think my parents were forced to take me especially to the library because I would go through so many books per week and the alternative would mean spending hundreds of rands at the local bookstore.) I would look forward to the Saturday mornings that we spent as a family in the library because libraries were the collision of my two most favourite things: family outings and new books. And new books meant new faces and places and spaces. I remember staring up in wonder at the various floors and the sheer number of the books around me. There were just so many books.
So. Many. Books.
I would immerse myself in the children’s section. I could never imagine the time where I would be able to (or even want to) read the Grown Up Books. I still recall sprawling on those faded red cushions, blinking up at the dust particles floating amid cracks of sunlight through the windows – surrounded by books. Spoiled for choice. And the impact of access to so many types of books never escapes me.
Now I have always had a rather active imagination. My mother tells me stories of my imaginary friends, my existence in alternate universes, and my jumping off heights convinced that I would fly. And reading was the fuel for my imagination. In one day, I could tame dragons, host a tea party, bathe with mermaids and fly to exotic and distant lands. I could travel to Nazi Germany and pre-colonial America, I could attend a school for witchcraft and wizardry and live in a magical treehouse that could travel through space and time. So have I travelled the worlds physically? Maybe not, but I have perceived of most.
Reading is a continuous life lesson. Reading is escapism. It is possibility. It is imagination. And it is magic. And by virtue of housing these beautiful vessels for time travel and escapism, a library has all the significance in the world. For a child, a library is a place to expand your horizons, to learn, to confront and rebel against stereotypes, to embark on various adventures, to conceive of various possibilities, to embrace absurdity, to nurture daydreams and cultivate aspirations. And yes, to hone your reading and writing skills, I suppose.
Reading has revealed so much. It has taught me to never lose that childlike wonder. It has taught me to appreciate and ripen my imagination even in my reluctant adulthood (And if this means an intellectualisation of the debate on whether or not phoenixes, fairies, goblins and alternative realms exist then so be it.) It has taught me to be inherently curious and fascinated with this weird and wonderful planet that we call home. And to be open-minded of all that inhabit it.
So yes, I read a lot. It’s like a disease. But I wish it was contagious.
Re-imagining bodies as libraries – A Politic of Absence, visibility and Queerness – Mawethu Nkosana
Thoughts from Mawethu Nkosana (@mawethu_), the head of the ASRI Library Project Media Team, on libraries as people.
We cracked walls in the face of warmth. Vagabonds with shells to count fall and imperfect. Civilians from a deviant republic. Others. Different. Maybe different and confusing multiplied by erasure from lineage resulting from Patriarchy heads and their infantile allies refusing our blood flow, indicative of a half human construct. Exoticized while being thrown outside of the spectrum of ‘normal’, monstrous maybe. Abnormal Libraries inherently patriarchal but textually different –Unholy – the epitome of sin. But we are still Libraries aren’t we? Fluid. Dual. Scriptures of a natural truth. Aesthetics constructs failed to be hindered from loving. Amorous through rage and constitutional criminalisation. Alchemists re-imagining heaven on earth. Gods creating for life and truth sake. Lesbian. Gay. Bisexual. Polysexual. Transgender. Intersex. Queer. Asexual + Human.
Transgressing museums conserving artefacts and other ornaments of celestial, artistic, historical and human importance. Gender benders. Rogue and ground-breaking installation sky-scraping the realm of uncomfortable, counterfeiting the single story. Human Libraries paging through history to reference great grandmothers and fathers for familiarity. Words and culture sculptors stretching lexicons and crafting. Brave voices who are radical revolutions both mainstream and underground – Conceptual , Abstract, visible and alive. Libraries. Political Libraries fully aware that the personal was always political and make a decision to refuse to compartmentalise for a society formed on categories.
Complex libraries of intellectual suffer(age). Big bodies of work in the academy headed by scholars theorizing empirical out of Queer. Constitutional and political heuristics. Like we were never legitimate and only black and white could vote us closer to the human race. Like papers don’t burn when burning Libraries. Like schools and all other colonial institutions haven’t been burning. Like change in an ill society shouldn’t be violent. Burning for a new order. Burning as finality.
Burning Libraries. We transforming all bridges to ashes. Fallists. Understand negotiation as redundant if to be heard we still need to perform our misery. In the brink of a new world order where petrol and stones are proving tools for change: we are burning everything that is threat. Burning ourselves too. Burning Libraries: decolonizing, deconstructing and unlearning patriarchy induced knowledge systems. An abolishment of information and existing hierarchies to include previously marginalised voices. An array of activists for too many causes, definitely not homogeneous. Diverse and different. Intersectional Libraries. Black + Queer and nuanced as a result of the sum (a lived experience). A discourse on the positionality of the black queer body in Queer culture and the absence of positive narratives on us in most public library shelves. Total Erasure.
Walking Libraries navigating body through space, against the backdrop of micro aggressions, violence, rape, murder, profiling, difficult. To-ing and fro-ing. In Limbo – a two spirit and one body complex. Our bodies are museums and archive ancient traditions of fluidity expressed through oratory and written culture. Imaging ourselves as children of the corn. Spiritual libraries. God and writer scribing African spirituality as the only. Narratives transgressing the limitations of biased self-serving systems. Breaking free and a spectrum of hue. Freedom Libraries. #MyPerfectLibrary.
#Burning Libraries? By Lebogang Shikwambane
I remember myself, a little girl, with a tattered bag and hungry shoes in search of my story in the world. My dusty feet have always been in search of the door that separates my life of study from the library. I have come to find that there are many doors like this. In fact, there are too many doors like this. The schools I went to and the libraries I visit all have these doors that bridge the separation. I edit myself before I enter a library, I hold myself tightly and erase myself from my memory to engage in the stories that I find inside, stories and experiences that appear to be more important than mine because they occupy most of the shelves in the library.
This is the story of my first and my last encounter of the library. I walk past the shelves looking for something familiar, looking for my story, but what often happens is that I find myself disappearing. But I hold on to myself because there is still so much I have to remember or to share. At this moment however, all I see in the libraries is a menagerie of nightmares and hallucinations.
When I woke up this morning I heard news on the radio about the failed arson attack on the Wits Law Library. As a legal graduate from Wits University I couldn’t help but feel inspired by the failed attempt. Although there is a general misunderstanding as to why this is happening, I hope to provide a bit of clarity by simply stating my truth. I have spent many depressed and anxious nights in that library preparing myself for exams and working on assignments. The fact remains that many libraries remain irredeemable victims of colonialism.
There is a growing notion among the South African youth that the University is overrated as a citadel of knowledge in our society. Public and institutional libraries still fall under the many establishments where colour blindness remains the highest order. Many young people prefer using the internet as a research and a recreational reading tool. Its formless structure is not as prescriptive as the historic buildings that house antique book collections. This is the danger of not having young and contemporary literature in both public and institutional libraries that don’t represent modern thought.
Legends of previously banned African writers such as Dambudzo Marechera who tried to burn Oxford University because of his contempt of the place, its structures and its attitude towards people like him circulate among students. Local Feminist authors such as Mirraim Tladi, whose books are out of print to this day, is another street legend who wrote protest literature before the famous Staff Rider genre emerged. Their existence is a myth of literature whose eulogies we share amongst each other over a conversation in spaces that have replaced the function of the library in our lives.
Therefore, the attempt to reclaim from what was originally disinherited should not be out rightly condemned as pointless and meaningless. Patricia Williams writes in The Alchemy of Race and Rights that self-possession in the full sense allows for the breeding of self-knowledge. Yet claiming for myself the heritage of my disinheritance creates a profoundly troubling paradox.
This is to say although the content within the library is familiar to us, the storyteller or rather the gaze with which this inherited knowledge speaks from is no longer a present force. It has already become something remote from us and it is something that is becoming even more distant from us. When I walk around the library looking for the story that speaks to my lived experiences, less and less frequently do I encounter people with the ability to tell the tale properly.
My life of study and my perception is something that seemed almost inalienable to me, but the securest among my possessions ceases to exist when I walk into the library; the ability to share in my experiences. The burning of state property, of schools and libraries is a symptom of the angst of this cultural erasure. Simply condemning these acts as being inconsistent with the law is too narrow and makes less of hypnotically rhetorical truths. Trying to understand these rhetorical gestures is necessary for any conception of justice.
Legal philosopher and scholar Joel Modiri speaks on the crisis in legal education, he writes that it is an expression of a particular kind of political ideology and that if it is left to be understood as neutral then it will become the legal culture of our society. The fact that law is an instrument of politics and economics has generally come to be understood in our society. We must acknowledge that cultural needs and ideas change with the momentum of time; the ability to redefine our laws in keeping with the spirit of the cultural flux is what keeps the society civil and humane.
Patricia Williams writes on to say that “living solely according to the letter of the law means to live without spirit. The cynicism or rebelliousness that infects one’s spirit, the enthusiasm or dissatisfaction with which one technically conforms to the law is made unimportant. Such compliance is in many respects inconsistent with the will of the complaint.” In this light, the law becomes a battleground of wills. But the extent to which technical legalisms are used to subvert the human motivations that generate our justice system is the real extent to which we as humans are disenfranchised.
So long after the burning, when I have organised my dreams in anticipation and I have worked through my frustration, I want a place where I can go and record my thoughts. I want a library for my dreams, my intuitions, my ideas, my memories and my prophecies. I want a library that will serve to increase the wisdom of the stories untold. I want to go to a library where I can be inspired to compose books about a time when the people wanted to burn the libraries.
And You’re Never Alone – Sabeehah Motala
I have passed through many different library doors throughout my life. I was about 5 or 6 years old when I read my first novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. That experience took me rushing through the hallways of Hogwarts, taking classes in wand-waving and whizzing around on broomsticks. Ever since then, I was hooked. I could leave my body behind as I travelled on limitless adventures.
I remember walking into the Ilford Library in London, staring up at the shelves and wondering how on earth I would ever finish reading all of these books before I grew up! I would sit on the floor, devouring their collections of Asterix & Obelix and Tintin comics. My brother and I would take out 3 each, and then swap, so we could read more in each 2 week period.
As I grew older, my love for reading and books grew with me. Every birthday that passed, I received at least one book. My love for books was obvious to my teachers at Primary School in Johannesburg: I was made a library monitor when I was in Grade 6. I had, by that stage, read probably 50% of all the books in the fiction section, including every single Goosebumps book. But it was a new feeling, being one of those ‘in charge’ of the library – I felt a sense of power being able to lend out books, but also a very real responsibility towards the welfare of my paper companions. I thoroughly enjoyed spending my break time in the library.
My local library, Emmarentia library, was a lot smaller than Ilford library, but still cosy and well-stocked. It was there that I discovered the masterpiece that is Eragon, which was written by a 15 year old. Suddenly realising that young people, too, could write whole books opened a whole new world of possibility for me! I also remember donating my old books to Emmarentia library and being excited to receive a letter of thanks. I truly felt that I had contributed to my library, a more personal connection than just my weekly visits.
At Parktown High School for Girls, what I loved best about the library was that there was always a 1000 word puzzle set out, for anyone to come in and contribute to. Those puzzles provided alternative entertainment and the finished product was the combined effort of many hands, inspiring a sense of community.
At the age of 13 I moved to Switzerland with my family. I found myself in a new strange culture, surrounded by a level of privilege I did not yet understand, but in which I distinctly felt that I did not belong. I found it tough to make friends, and so the library became my sanctuary from the lonely lunch hall. I would pore over the books, or browse the Internet, getting my first taste of the phenomenon that is social media. Here, I was also introduced to literature in other languages, learning about great classics like Madame Bovary and La Peste. For a long time, the library was the only place at that school where I felt that I truly fit in.
My local public library in Geneva was the biggest library I had ever seen, with so many computers available, so many books, media rooms, study rooms – the contrast between the libraries of South Africa and the libraries of Switzerland was clear.
I studied for my final school exams in the University of Geneva library. It was my first taste of real academia, and I was inspired seeing so many young people, so focused on their education. So when I walked into the library of my alma mater, the School of Oriental and African Studies, I was ready to learn. This library was like no other. It is enormous, and has endless stacks of reference books and literature, in languages ranging from French to Arabic to Swahili to Hindi to Japanese. It has mysterious archives of rare books and ancient maps. I was eager and proud to join the hundreds of students enjoying the light, airy building.
Libraries have always meant a lot to me. I have inside me a thirst for knowledge and a love for books that has been developing ever since I picked up that first Harry Potter. They have been places of learning, adventure and safety. When you’re surrounded by books, you always have something constructive to do with your time. And you’re never alone.
Libraries Are Spaces That Keep My Mind Alert By Maryam Mphuthi
When I was at the Verulam Islamic Institute boarding school in Durban I embraced the culture of reading and fell in love with the library. My mind can still vividly remember that time of having a deep relationship with the library.
Because the library was within my boarding school, I used to go often. Apart from my room in the hostel, it was my second home. I read almost all the books in the library. Most days, I used to be in the library from morning till the evening, and because of this, I developed vision problems. Even during the short holidays that we spent at the hostel, I used to go to the library, re-arrange the books, clean the books and try and go through a number of books myself.
I even used to dream about being in the library, about the books I read and about being busy there, only to wake up and find myself in my room, on my bed. I felt so connected to the library that I used to know all the places where the books were placed. I was known about that in the hostel.
I remember one occasion when I was sleeping in my room and one of the girls came to me and asked me where to find a certain book because she had looked for it and did not find it. I was in a deep sleep when she came in, woke me up and asked me. With sleepy, closed eyes, I told her exactly where the book was, saying, “On the second shelf, fourth row, count from your left, the seventh book.” Before she could leave the room, I was already asleep, and she was doubtful that I had actually given her the correct instructions. Still, when she went inside the library, she followed my instructions and to her surprise, she found the book exactly where I described. She was astonished and told everyone about that incident.
That was the level of my closeness with that library. It was a real place that lived in my mind when I was awake, in my dreams and even in my sleepy condition. In the libraries, I read and re-read academic and Islamic books, watched videos, did research and even got new food recipes.
Because of the impact libraries have had in my own life, I urge all parents to plant the culture of reading into their children’s lives at their early stages. Parents are the teachers and role models of their children, and it’s important for parents to go to libraries to role model good literacy habits for their family. It’s important for children to see parents practicing what they preach. When families read, communities read, cities read and ultimately countries read. Ultimately this is how we can develop a strong reading culture in Africa as a whole.
I want African authors to write about their countries’ histories, to write and translate books of different subjects into different languages and to encourage others to be authors. Recently I attended a gathering on Africa Day at the Mayfair Library titled “Who is an African”, and as part of that discussion I suggested that we should have an African Library in one of the African countries. The library should have books written in African languages, and in particular the histories of African countries written by African people and capturing the stories of African people.
The Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute Future Leaders Program is on a mission of strengthening the reading culture of Johannesburg by strengthening the city’s libraries. Help us to realize these dreams together by supporting our Petition and by following and sharing our social media content. Follow us on Twitter through #MyPerfectLibrary, #1in10000 and #bylawreform and on Facebook.
Libraries for me have been places that provide me with a space to explore and excel, unleash my potential, and read, re-read, learn and re-learn. Help us create a city with libraries that everyone can connect to and access.
Life Begins With Paper by Safiya Umar
Life starts with paper. Life begins with birth certificates, hospital forms, and id bracelets.
As a child I was fond of reading. To live through grief, euphoria, success and courage all at once through the written page can be mind boggling and heart pouncing. Lived experiences can be found in books and the emotions they conjure up are exhilarating.
My first experience of literature began at home in the mid-1990s when my dad bought a series of books with glossy pictures that popped out of the books in splashes of colour. Those books evoke memories of a wonderland and safe haven. As my Mum read these stories to me I remember memorising the texts, captivated and charmed with the new lives one could read in a book.
My first visit to a library was overwhelming and exciting, I had never seen multiple shelves of books as tall as the walls lined up one after the other and packed up so evenly. That’s when it struck me that I had the world at my disposal and that everything I wanted to know about the world and its contents were in close reach.
Growing up I never ran short of asking questions. It was by regularly visiting my local library in Lenasia that I learned how reading develops cognitive skills, trains the mind to think critically and to question what one is told. My local library was my sanctuary.
It was through my University library that I learned that the art of reading and immersing oneself in knowledge is a weapon of mass destruction as well as a saviour. To gain knowledge and to use such knowledge to cause harm to others is shameful, but to use knowledge as a means of redemption is empowering. My local library immersed me into a culture of reading. From my local library I would borrow out books of different genres. It exposed me to the world in the comfort of my home. I have emotionally experienced war in Hiroshima; extreme poverty in East Asia, the Great Depression in the United States, war and mass killings in Germany, natural disasters in the Philippines and journeys though the lush and fertile mineral land of Africa.
It is through reading that one is able to have a deep connection with one’s emotional self. Through reading one gets the opportunity to experience success and failure, loss and heartbreak, jubilation and fear in the contents of pages. It is indeed a privilege to connect to so many different experiences and emotions because of an interest in reading. It is a privilege to be literate and to have libraries that house books that globalise the human mind. Because to inculcate a culture of reading is to facilitate justice for mankind.
It is the morals and lessons that we absorb from the context of a book that we should spread to society. People are born into the scripture of life from the birth certificate to the death certificate. Thus, the scripture of life should be meaningful stories of heroic deeds, failed attempts and an endless desire to succeed. These are aspects no school or institute can teach. Libraries should be the master kingdom of our intellectual gain.
The life of an individual commences on paper but ends as a story so let it be a pleasant one.
Youth Campaigning for Youth – by Shagufta Pasta
I feel that most libraries need to be upgraded so that everyone in the community can feel like they fit in. We have people who go to libraries for different purposes; some go there because of the love that they have for reading and others get information from there. If we could have enough resources such as computers and all sorts of books then I think every pupil in the country would use libraries more”. (David, Banza, 17 years old, Pupils Speak Out: Jo’burg libraries not easy to navigate, Mail and Guardian, Oct 7th 2015)
For the past several weeks Fellows in the ASRI Future Leaders Program have been campaigning to reform the bylaws that govern libraries and petitions. In terms of libraries, some of the key reforms we propose are that:
• 50% of the materials in Johannesburg libraries should be African content
• Each library has a Community Library Forum for local residents to plan programs, participate in their local library and select a portion of the material their local library purchases
• The City of Johannesburg libraries must have a stand-alone website with an online catalogue and functionalities that allow for online renewals and placement of holds.
• A library in every ward that conforms to minimum library standards so that Johannesburg residents have access to quality libraries regardless of where they live in the city
• Joburg libraries have Ebooks available for checkout
• 5% of the city budget is allocated to libraries
In terms of petitions, we propose that the petition process changes to a more direct and transparent process whereby if a petition gets a certain number of signatures, that petition has to be discussed at the council level. Currently, no matter how many signatures a petition has, it doesn’t have to be discussed by council.
To make these changes a reality, we are divided into different project teams, and since the launch of the campaign each team has been busy trying to spread the word of the campaign to as many people as possible. The policy team has been meeting with councilors and making a compelling case about why our proposed bylaw changes ought to be supported. It’s been encouraging to see councilors from different areas of the city and different parties coming together to bring about the vision of a city in which all citizens have access to vibrant, dynamic libraries.
To date, Councilor Phinda A. Khumalo from Ward 40, Councilor Themba P.Msibi from Ward 39, Councilor Jerry Musesi from Ward 58 and Councilor Amanda Forsythe from Ward 87 have signed to support our proposed changes. Today the team is meeting with DA Councilor Abdia Bennie in Lenasia and Councilor Peter Weir of COPE.
The team has also met with the Petitions Committee of Joburg and the Chief Whip of the City, and has been invited to the last Petitions Committee meeting of the year which takes place next week.
The grassroots team has been actively gathering signatures and creating awareness of our petition in different communities, and to date have garnered more than 2000 signatures in support of our proposed changes. Finally, the communications team has been spreading awareness of the campaign online through Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The media team has also done interviews with Radio Islam International, EyeWitness News and the Voice of Wits.
Next week our campaign concludes on Youth Day. Here to the power of youth to dream, imagine and campaign for change. Amandla.
We Need Empowered Libraries and Communities – Aslam Bulbulia
As a group, the ASRI Future Leaders Fellows have embarked on a month-long policy project to assess the state of Joburg libraries, to understand what Joburg residents need from their libraries and to advocate for library policy reforms and what #MyPerfectLibrary would look like.
I grew up just a couple of blocks from the Mayfair library. Over time it deteriorated and was closed for a long while. Last year I heard that it was renovated but just a few days ago heard that it was still closed. A couple of weeks ago I was in the area and decided to investigate further. I learnt the library is indeed still open.
As I stepped into the library memories of going to the library as a child with my mother and brother came back in flashes. At least on the inside, the library looks quite different now. The exterior retains its face brick, classic feel and I think the wooden door is over 30 years old, with stories to share. We were regulars there, knew our way around, had our own favourite sections and would attend many of the readings that happened in the holidays.
In the library, I started taking pictures of some of the things I found interesting: a notice about an upcoming youth talk against xenophobia, the library Customer Service Charter, books on Africa on exhibit and as I took pictures, I was reprimanded, “No photography allowed!” That’s when the fun began. I engaged with the young man sitting behind a computer in the children’s section of the library and checking his email who had just scolded me. I explained that I grew up here and that I wanted to share what the library now looks like but was told, “those were the rules.”
I tried to understand where he was coming from. We chatted about his background in transport management (what’s the library hiring protocol?) and his aspirations to go into business and then he got up to help some librarians who were having a meeting there. The regional library office is above the Mayfair library so librarians from other branches are regularly in and out. The phrase “I don’t make the rules” stirred something in me because interrogating and examining rules and who writes them is what the ASRI Future Leaders fellowship is all about. If the rules don’t make sense, as citizens in a democracy, we should be rewriting them so that they do. That essentially, is what our petition project is all about.
I took this chance to ask those librarians about some of the library rules. I am planning a storytelling event and was thinking of using the library as a venue for it. The visiting librarians told me that the library won’t open after their set hours (Mon-Thurs 9-5 and Fri-Sat 9-1, which made no sense to me because most people need a safe, productive place to go outside of these hours when they’d typically be at work or school) but I thought maybe a Saturday morning could work. The Mayfair librarian said the event would be “impossible” without hearing much of the idea or suggesting possible ways to proceed or people to talk to. I really don’t like that word. More than the words, the way it was said and the earlier “no photography” reprimand made me feel unwelcome in a space that is supposed to belong to all of us. It went right against the Customer Service Charter on the wall.
The person I spoke to initially sensed my frustration and invited me to the youth anti-xenophobia Africa Day event taking place the next Thursday and suggested I speak to people there. He suggested that maybe if I partner with the library the event could happen and I was all collaborating.
That day at the library left me thinking a lot about belonging in our communities. Belonging is unfortunately not a given. It took me explaining that I had grown up in the library, that the space had meaning for me and proving my credentials to be accepted. And even then, only the person I had shared all of this with accepted me. The rest of the library staff still treated me like a threat to their space. It takes a trusting community to allow for belonging, but in a country with low levels of trust that stem from so many past and present injuries the opportunities to build trust are few and the opportunities to break it are many. A Customer Service Charter on the wall won’t change this, but what will? How does someone who wants to improve public institutions navigate the spaces where negative attitudes pervade? A simple conversation with the person who initially shouted at me helped but in the past I wouldn’t have bothered. I would have left at that point and never returned to the library that made me feel so unwelcome.
The next Thursday I returned to the library for its Africa Day event. There were about 40 people in attendance (including the regional library manager and ward councillor), five speakers on the panel discussing the theme “Who is an African?” and a host who kept saying, “Being born in a garage doesn’t make you a car.” The event showed me how the library can be used to bring vastly different people together. The panelists were never really introduced with any descriptions beyond their names and the contributions provided were somewhat thin, however, the discussion from the audience was robust and insightful. One of the issues raised was that the library itself was very “un-African”; it only had books in English and some in Afrikaans despite the variety of languages spoken by the local residents. The regional manager agreed wholeheartedly. When I later spoke to her she seemed interested in my idea for a storytelling event and thinking about how we may make the library a more utilized space. The wheels turn slowly however, and I’m hoping to meet her soon to take that idea and others forward.
Over the weekend I had a conversation about the relevance of libraries in the information age. My experiences in the Mayfair library where my first exploration of books began reinforced the relevance of libraries for me as not just a place for books but as a place for community building and belonging. In order for this to happen we need empowered librarians and communities who claim the library as their own, along with systems that allow for this as fluidly as possible, like our bylaws propose.