A reading culture is the foundation of any successful civilisation. A nation that reads is a nation on the path to prosperity.
Knowledge is empowering and not knowing can be a serious handicap for anyone’s ambition.
While every human being learns from their lived experiences, it is through the consumption and processing of information that we acquire true knowledge.
It is from the written word; from books, journals, periodicals, newspapers and magazines that we imbibe knowledge and stay abreast of various issues.
The role of libraries in the ecosystem of knowledge and information-sharing cannot therefore be underestimated. They remain, among others, a valuable resource for learning and knowledge accumulation.
What, then, should be done to position our libraries to play their rightful role in our civilisation? But, first, what is our history concerning access to libraries?
South Africa has a long and enduring history of social exclusion. Apartheid created barriers to knowledge. The majority of black people grew up without access to libraries.
A black child in a township or rural South Africa would come of age knowing the gates of a prison or the doors of a bottle store, rather than setting foot in a library.
This was not because black people were allergic to books. The architects of apartheid did not see value in empowering black people with knowledge. They did not invest in building libraries in black communities.
They fed us an education designed to perpetuate enslavement and dependence. They sought to create a nation of “hewers of wood and drawers of water” – a people whose purpose was to be servants to their masters, not independent thinkers and masters of their destinies.
Whereas the vestiges of apartheid still endure to this day, with the advent of democracy things had to change. Not only did the democratic government prioritise changing the school curriculum, but it also sought to broaden access to knowledge by establishing more libraries in communities.
The Department of Arts and Culture was then given a constitutional mandate to oversee the provision, support and maintenance of public libraries. In line with the injunction of our Constitution which promotes the devolution of powers and functions to other tiers of government, this mandate is executed through provincial and local governments.
However, almost 30 years since the advent of democracy, the number of public libraries still leaves much to be desired. With our population estimated at 60.4 million people, South Africa has only 1,879 public libraries.
The Joburg City Library has been closed since May 2021 and shows no signs of reopening.
It should not be surprising, then, that democratic South Africa still has not established a deep-rooted culture of reading.
The number of copies that make a bestseller tells a lot about a nation’s culture of reading. In South Africa, you need to sell only 5,000 copies for your book to be considered a bestseller. This is because we have such a small reading population.
Our literacy levels are not impressive either. A report by the Department of Higher Education revealed that in 2019, “4.4 million adults in South Africa were illiterate. The illiteracy rates stood at 11.6% for men and 12.5% for women.”
A recent Progress in International Reading Literacy Study revealed that “82% of the Grade 4 learners cannot read for meaning”.
We cannot improve these literacy levels without fostering a culture of reading. Community libraries are integral to the development of such a culture.
Libraries are crucial facilities for communities. Scores of people rely on library facilities to lay their hands on a newspaper. Millions depend on community libraries for job hunting.
We owe it to these people and future generations to improve access to libraries by building more facilities that are user-friendly and welcoming.
Although the Department of Arts and Culture must account for the low number of community libraries, South Africans must, individually, introspect about their appetite for books.
Most people ascribe their lack of appetite for reading to the price of books. They complain that books are too expensive, yet they indulge in other pastimes that are more costly.
Booze vs books
In his typical frankness, George Orwell challenges us to put our money where our mouths are. In his essay Books vs Cigarettes, Orwell insists that “of course, all prices are now inflated, including the price of books: still, it looks as though the cost of reading, even if you buy books instead of borrowing them and take in a fairly large number of periodicals, does not amount to more than the combined cost of smoking and drinking”.
It is rather the choices we make, what we value and where we place the importance of reading in our hierarchy of priorities.
The irony, though, is that despite the Department of Health’s insistence on inscribing warnings like “alcohol is dangerous to your health” or “smoking kills” on the packaging of these substances, the majority of South Africans have cultivated friendly relationships with these toxins while maintaining unhealthy, distant and hostile relationships with books.
South Africans spend way more on alcohol than they do on books.
The online publication, Statista.com, estimates the annual average spend per consumer for 2023 at R3,196 for alcohol. It is even more for cigarettes, estimated at R4,715 – but far less for books, at a mere R184.67.
A caveat is necessary, though, as some readers lubricate their way to penetrate abstractions through Scottish waters and other alcoholic beverages. A lot more, too, get their minds energised by smokey pipes and stuff like that.
Be that as it may, it would seem we are more of a boozing than a reading nation.
Most people would attest that they only read for tests, exams or job interviews, and not for leisure. This is, as Orwell puts it, “because reading is a less exciting pastime than going to the dogs, the pictures or the pub, and not because books, whether bought or borrowed, are too expensive”.
Meanwhile, those who globetrot will attest that one common thing in Eastern and Western societies is that the majority of commuters spend a lot of their time in trains, buses or taxis – reading. They make reading such a cool culture.
In South Africa, this is unusual. You’re likely to attract unwanted attention if you open a book in a taxi, bus or train here at home. You would be lucky to finish a paragraph without being badgered by rowdy commuters.
We need to start making reading fun and a part of who we are. We need a Ministry of Arts and Culture that understands the role of libraries in the making and shaping of culture.
Our ministers of arts and their directors-general have always been quick to release millions of rands to fund a music awards ceremony, a soccer derby or a homecoming event for the Springboks (albeit they deserve it) rather than buy Cloud space for libraries to secure learning resources.
You would not hear of a minister attending a reading tournament for school kids, but you are guaranteed to see them clad in fancy garments and shiny makeup at the Durban July.
The fact that the literary awards receive the smallest share of funding from the arts and culture budget vote indicates where our priorities lie. This must change!
However, in changing this culture we cannot be oblivious to the demands of the unfolding industrial revolution. Truth be told, the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is not only altering the workplace – information, communications and technology have not been spared.
Access to information is no longer dependent on physical printouts in the form of books, magazines, newspapers or journals. People have access to information at their fingertips.
Similarly, the concept of a library as we know it is evolving. Whereas libraries may in the past have been characterised by shelves and stacks of books, the library of the 21st century is different.
In their 2015 report on Future Libraries that covered four cities (London, Sydney, San Francisco and Melbourne), a group of researchers at Arup University in London observed that “the ‘walls’ of a library” were expanding “beyond the physical space”.
Libraries are growing in the clouds!
Growing a reading nation
In growing and positioning our libraries in the new digital age, certain things must be considered:
The first is the question of space. Optimisation of space is crucial; we need to do much with little. Community libraries must be given adequate resources to secure and maintain high-speed server systems in line with the demands of the new age.
Second, it is the extent to which the operations are swift and efficient that would make our libraries remain relevant with a new generation of users. Staff in the libraries need to be au fait with new technologies and new trends and must be trained, skilled and re-skilled to use modern technologies.
Third, there need to be strong collaborations between the private sector, big business and philanthropy to foster a culture of reading. Relations with companies such as Google, Amazon, Microsoft and so on should be cultivated to fund and upgrade our libraries.
Fourth, we must start challenging each of our 400 parliamentarians to adopt a community of their choice and spend a day every quarter with young people, reading a book.
Last, we must learn from other developing countries how they are adapting and optimising opportunities for growth in the 4IR. Studies must be conducted to benchmark our libraries against our peers and ensure that we are not left behind by the information revolution that is unfolding.
A reading nation is a nation on the path to prosperity. Let us shun ignorance.
An hour a day reading, whether from a gadget or a hard copy, is a good start. That is how we will become a reading nation rather than a boozing nation. DM