What Are Libraries For?

By Hayden, Carla D. | American Libraries, November 2003 | Go to article overview

What Are Libraries For?


Hayden, Carla D., American Libraries


As a keynote speaker during the Library Information Association of South Africa (LIASA) annual conference, September 22-26, in Rustenburg, a provincial administrator and former freedom fighter asked: "What are libraries for?" After announcing an increase, from $5 million to $21 million, in his province's library budget, he challenged conference attendees to consider the true relevancy of libraries in a country that is 10 years into the start of a democratic society--a country that has experienced decades of apartheid and has a 70% illiteracy rate.

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The entire conference provided many opportunities for drawing parallels between South Africa and the United States. South African provinces are coping with the same woes we here in the U.S. face daily--shrinking budgets, library closings, the lack of necessary materials, the need for additional staff training, and the need to boost advocacy efforts with legislators. But one of the country's biggest obstacles is trying to weave together people from various backgrounds, who have suffered forced separation and unequal treatment, into an informed citizenry destined to thrive in a new democracy.

Taking the initiative

The LIASA conference theme, "Tsoga O Itirele: Libraries as Agents of Change," centered on the need for librarians to make their institutions the focus of community empowerment efforts and a driving force for self-enlightenment and self-improvement. Every session encouraged attendees to view the library as a change agent for democracy with the library worker as a key ingredient in the equality equation. Organizers and speakers emphasized the need to return next year with concrete examples of how libraries are contributing to alleviating the country's struggles and improving lives. The do-it-yourself aspect of the conference theme was a direct call for librarians to take the initiative and not to expect legislators to take the lead or even to understand the importance of libraries in the new order.

Back in the United States, a similar focus was at the heart of the Pennsylvania Library Association conference, October 2-5, in Pittsburgh. …

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