A delegation of 54 authors, publishers, school and public librarians, and other children's literature specialists met with colleagues in South Africa November 2-16 to discuss strategies for the promotion of reading and family literacy in the changing nation.
Authors Virginia Hamilton and Zena Sutherland; Louise Pelan of Harcourt Brace; Marianne Cams, editor-in-chief of Cricket magazine; Julie Cummins, head of children's services at the New York Public library; and Grace Ruth, children's materials specialist at the San Francisco Public Library, were among the distinguished delegates.
The information exchange also covered the training of children's librarians, trends in children's book publishing, the historical development of children's literature, and library collection development. Under the auspices of the People to People Citizen Ambassador Program, topics for examination had been planned and negotiated over the six months preceding the visit. Nevertheless, the delegates were surprised by the richness of the exchanges that took place, as well as by the sights and sounds of the activity in South Africa that surrounds children's literature.
Visits to a one-room library in Soweto and to the four-year-old public library in Pretoria - with its coffee shop and its music room enclosed by glass etched with images of great composers - impressed the delegates with the genuine warmth and dedication of the librarians who staff the facilities.
The South Africans shared their concern for introducing books into a society with a history based on an oral tradition and an illiteracy rate of between 60 and 70%. The challenges facing librarians, teachers, publishers, and parents would appear to be overwhelming, but South Africans see this as an opportunity to support a democratic society, and they were optimistic that with some help any obstacles could be overcome.
Members of the delegation met with Sandra Olen, senior lecturer in the department of information science at the University of South Africa in Pretoria. With over 1,000 library school students, they were told, the challenge to meet the educational needs of these students is handled with distance learning as well as in traditional classroom settings.
Public library setting
Pretoria Public Library was the setting for the first in the series of meetings between delegates and their South African counterparts. Public libraries charge a membership fee, but are free for children and young adults. Although it was early in the day, all of the seats were filled with students studying for their end-of-the-year exams.
Delegates also met with educators in the Greater Soweto Association for Early Childhood Educare. There the group talked with the trainers of teachers who work with preschoolers. The enthusiasm for the education of the next generation was apparent throughout the presentations.
Meetings were arranged in the Johannesburg Public Library by children's librarian Sue McMurray. Library staffers there said that the high crime rate in the city is a challenge for delivering library service and is one of the obstacles they must overcome in order to attract and hold young users. The exchanges at this library centered on the promotion of reading and convincing "street children" of the importance of reading.
Interested in promotion
Along with public and school libraries, the delegates visited READ, an organization that trains teachers and librarians on introducing books and reading to school-age children. Deposit collections of books from READ are placed in classrooms to encourage children to learn the skills of reading and to experience the joy in reading for pleasure.
With 11 national languages, the challenge is to introduce books in a variety of languages and still maintain high quality.
During the second week of exchanges, the delegates went to Cape Town to talk with colleagues there. The first day of discussions took place at the University of the Western Cape, where topics included barriers to reading in South Africa, the significance of the role of school and public libraries in reading, the significance of oral literature in the lives of South African youth, what young people enjoy reading, and the importance of parent education when it comes to raising a reader. …