Q&A with Library and Information Association of SA (Liasa) president Nikki Crowster

11 November 2019 - 10:07 By Carla Lever
Nikki Crowster.
Nikki Crowster.
Image: Supplied

Nal’ibali Column 6 Term 4 2019

UK author Caitlin Moran wrote a beautiful piece in passionate defence of the public library, saying they’re about far more than books. What roles do libraries play in SA communities today?

The Liasa slogan, “libraries: heart of the community”, perfectly sums it. Libraries can be spaces of learning, leisure, entertainment, collaboration, creativity, imaginary worlds, debate, support and service. These are just a selection of the myriad experiences on offer, alongside the opportunity to transform one’s personal circumstance and our South African society.

What role would you ideally like to see them play?

Libraries can change lives — I’d like to see more of that.

What is the general status and availability of library facilities across SA?

The number of public library facilities are growing, but we need more library services that respond to the needs of our people. Not just places where books are stamped. We also need more holistic support from government: buildings, staffing, books and other materials of continuous and consistent high quality need to be rolled out across the country.

Your job must bring you into contact with all kinds of people across the country. What are some of the highlights in a career working with people's access to books and information?

I remain amazed at the resilience of the human spirit: the South African attitude of selflessness in the face of dire challenges, such as abject poverty, and the notable dedication of library and information practitioners. Recently, I came across the situation where people have been volunteering in libraries for up to seven years, eking an existence from minimal government grants to feed their families. Yet they persist in the hope of permanent employment and because of the belief in a better life through education, reading and the contributions they are making to the communities they serve.

Despite the huge need for community spaces and resources, libraries are often underutilised. Why might this be the case in SA?

The value assigned to libraries varies across our country for many reasons, including differing levels of service and library collections that aren’t relevant to the community they serve. A core challenge is the lack of a sense of community ownership of the space. When communities burn libraries there’s talk of the perpetrators not recognising the value of the space. On the contrary, we suggest that it’s precisely because libraries are seen as meaningful that they are targeted as a means to hurt the authorities. We need to work more to reshape these perceptions and to deliver the kind of service that communities really value.

How can libraries integrate themselves fully into the lives of the community they serve?

Libraries are not inaccessible buildings, but rather services that originate from the needs of communities. We respond to national imperatives too. For example, 2019, the Year of Indigenous Languages, led us to work towards providing services in every community’s first language.

Some libraries are free, while others attract a fee. Why this discrepancy? 

All libraries, especially public and school libraries, should be free. Liasa invites submissions of any information to the contrary to president@liasa.org.za so we can engage appropriately.

Do you believe it's possible for us to get to a point where quality libraries are freely open to all South Africans?

As the professional body for the library and information sector of this country, Liasa is charged with the responsibility to protect the public, to ensure quality service delivery and to ensure continuous professional development of all LIS practitioners. We acknowledge that work is needed — we’re up to it and invite input in this regard to president@liasa.org.za. We undertake to engage with other stakeholders, such as government, to bring us to this point. 

What are some of the most innovative things you’ve seen libraries do to ensure their systems are accessible and non-intimidating?

Librarians are activists at heart, so annual marches in support of libraries take place around the country. I’ve also seen youth taking charge of their libraries, connecting with less privileged surrounding schools and making reading fun, with a photographic competition showcasing the craziest places to read a book. The repurposing of library spaces has a significant impact on making users feel welcome and at home.

How can we develop and support a culture of reading and, more broadly, storytelling in SA?

Practise what we preach and lead by example! By reading to our children and everyone else, by telling our stories with pride, by listening respectfully to the readers and the storytellers, by putting books in the hands of all South Africans, by valuing each language and person’s value to our society. Most importantly, by the government supporting the publishing industry, the creatives, the entrepreneurs and the booksellers through funding libraries as intended and running book clubs. All of this because “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”.

Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift to them. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success. For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign or to access stories in a range of SA languages, visit www.nalibali.org.