Chapter 4: South Africa – Public Libraries and their National Policies


South Africa


Since the end of apartheid, public libraries have struggled to find their place in the new democratic South Africa. Confusion over which branches of government fund which library services, a lack of library presence in rural areas, and an overreliance on Western ideals and languages have all contributed to a lack of effectiveness. Libraries are also struggling against negative public perception and uneven geographical distribution. Several pieces of legislation and studies on the national level in recent years have attempted, or will attempt, to rectify at least some of these problems. The recent effort to have public libraries assume some of the duties of school libraries, which South Africa largely lacks, is also discussed.

Key words

native language information systems

non-Western library models

information infrastructure in developing countries

Historical background

In general, public libraries in Africa are in a disadvantageous position. Historically, they are underfunded, they lack the information infrastructure that libraries in other countries have come to rely on, and they have not always been able to adjust the Western methods of library service to unique local needs (Adetoro, 2010). South Africa’s public libraries exhibit all three of these problems.

South Africa’s national government began paying real attention to public libraries after apartheid fell in 1994. Prior to that year, the responsibility for public library service was largely left up to ‘market forces’ and public libraries, like everything else in the country, were racially segregated. Libraries were administered on the regional level by four provincial library authorities. After the nation’s first free and fair elections, however, legislative progress began to be made (Stilwell, 2007).

In 1992, prior to the end of apartheid, the Library and Information Services Report of the National Education Policy Investigation made available the report they had been compiling for the previous two years. Among other things, it called for ‘a national library and information’ that would be ‘properly planned and funded’ (Fourie, 2007). Several pieces of legislation were enacted to create a governance structure for public libraries, including the Local Government: Municipal Structures Act, the Local Government: Municipal Systems Act, the Library and Information Services Act, the White Paper on Transforming Public Service Delivery, and individual acts for the three provincial libraries (Stilwell, 2007). This flurry of legislation resulted in a fair amount of confusion at the practical level, as it left unclear which units of government were responsible for which aspects of library service. Some salaries are paid by local authorities; some are paid by provincial authorities. In the provinces, different departments such as the Department of Social Development; the Department of Sport, Art and Culture; or the Department of Culture Sport and Recreation are responsible for library services (Fourie, 2007). This organizational confusion is a contributing factor to the significant funding problems faced by South Africa’s public libraries.

One of the major barriers to comprehensive public library service in South Africa is the high cost of Internet connectivity. While there is no nationwide policy to help make broadband access more affordable, such as the E-rate program in the United States, the national government has taken some steps to attempt to relieve this burden. One such step is the formation of state-owned broadband capacity provider Broadband Infraco (Stilwell, 2008), although libraries in South Africa do not benefit directly from this move since Broadband Infraco sells broadband access only on a wholesale basis, for example to Internet Service Providers. However, part of Broadband Infraco’s mission is to establish Points of Presence (PoPs) in rural South Africa so it seems likely that public libraries in these areas will benefit greatly, although indirectly, from Broadband Infraco’s presence (Broadband Infraco, 2011). The idea of Broadband Infraco is to introduce broadband capacity into the country, in the hope that private businesses will pick up the baton and run with it. In 2010, FibreCo Telecommunications announced plans to further develop the nation’s broadband network to ‘improve connectivity and further reduce internet costs in the country’. While there was a 50 percent jump in broadband users in South Africa between 2009 and 2010 (, 2011), the majority of this connectivity growth was in the commercial sector and 74 percent of South African public libraries still lack Internet access (Hart, 2010). In 2009 14.8 percent of South Africans had a computer in their home and of those only 4.8 percent had access to the Internet (Stilwell, 2011). Another recent development that may have a lasting impact on South Africa’s connectivity is the completion of the $650 million West Africa Cable System (WACS) connecting Africa to Europe that is supposedly to double South Africa’s broadband capacity, a project of Broadband Infraco and its partners in the WACS consortium (‘New cable to double SA’s broadband capacity’, 2011).

Another problem faced by public libraries in South Africa involves physical access to library buildings. Although since 1994 libraries have been open to all citizens of South Africa, the library buildings are often located in places that many rural South Africans simply cannot get to (Hart, 2010). This is at odds with the fact that 88 percent of librarians in South Africa feel that their libraries are physically accessible in terms of distance (KPMG, 2007). There is clearly a disconnect between how accessible librarians see their own institutions and how their users see them.

Current framework

Beginning in the year 2000, a multi-year, multi-phase attempt called the Public and Community Library Inventory of South Africa (PaCLISA) was made to create a nationwide inventory of South Africa’s public libraries based on the principles of a geographic information survey (GIS) so that the inequality in the public library system could be visualized and addressed. In other words, the authors of the inventory wanted to create a continuously updated database of ‘what library and community service points were in existence where’ (Lor et al., 2005, emphasis in original). The inventory aimed not only to plot the distribution of physical library service points, but also to include major descriptors of the library such as size and composition of collections, expenditure data, and information on who exactly was using the libraries. This ambitious project was unfortunately undone by the library community itself, as the authors of the inventory could not achieve a high enough participation rate from the library community to gather sufficient data. Data collection was performed via the distribution of a survey. Response rates from librarians were high in some areas, but in others there were many cases of surveys being returned incomplete or simply not returned at all. Among the ‘lessons learnt’ by the authors of the survey were that the political situation of many libraries at the time of the survey was very chaotic, as libraries were being shuffled about and reassigned from cities to provinces and vice versa, and this may have affected response rates (Lor et al., 2005).

Stemming from the unequal distribution of public library service points is the significant problem of perception. Public libraries in South Africa must battle considerable image problems. Being located primarily in towns and cities gives the impression to some that they are places for the educated, urban elite (Suaiden, 2003). Research shows that there is some truth to this perception, with library users tending to be middle-class and literate. This, plus a lack of many services beyond basic book lending (KPMG, 2007) lead many South Africans to conclude that libraries are simply not worth their time.

While this attitude towards public library service would be distressing in any country, it is particularly so in South Africa. South Africa is one of the more developed countries on the continent, but more than a quarter of South Africa’s population live in what the United Nations Development Program calls ‘extreme poverty’, subsisting on less than US$1.25 per day. This translates into a wide gap between the haves and the have-nots.

As part of a relatively new democracy, South Africa’s public libraries are in a unique position to elevate literacy levels, and therefore the citizenry’s investment in a type of government that demands a certain degree of voter education. However, it has been pointed out that despite recent progress and development, public library service has so far largely failed to reach many rural villages and this failure is due at least in part to the Western model of library service employed in many African nations. In a 2007 survey, fully 100 percent of libraries surveyed indicated that they did not stock materials in indigenous South African languages, despite the fact that the majority of South Africans do not speak English as a first language. A library collection comprised solely of material that patrons may not even be able to read creates an obstacle to education and literacy efforts for reasons that are obvious (Raju and Raju, 2010).

Some efforts are being made to move public libraries, and the reading culture in general, away from the Western model. In 2009 the National Library in Pretoria began reissuing classic works of literature translated into indigenous South African languages. The Masiphumelele Library, which is partly funded with private funds, has engaged in such efforts as a reading enrichment program, computer instruction classes and career information sessions. The decision-making process of the Community Literacy and Numeracy (CLING) project is driven by the community, in keeping with the rural South African custom of convening imbizos where community members gather to participate in decisions and processes. One result of CLING’s activity was the establishment of a ‘shack library’ which was opened by the provincial authorities (Stilwell, 2011).

Decisions that take place on the local level in this manner have, perhaps not surprisingly, been found to increase the effectiveness of library services on the local level. A 2006 workshop in Mpumalanga Province trained a group of public library employees, none of whom had a professional background in librarianship, to conduct information literacy programs in their home libraries. Mpumalanga Province reports the third lowest literacy rate of South Africa’s nine provinces, making its need for ground level outreach especially acute. The library workers were provided with a two-day workshop that provided training on the broad philosophical concepts of information literacy as well as practical instruction on how to create outreach campaigns on topics the library workers chose for their specific libraries. While in the end some of the topics strayed from the core concept of information literacy (one project was a partnership with local schools and NGOs to grow vegetables on library grounds), the workshop facilitators reported that the campaigns were generally successful and experienced healthy responses from the communities in which they took place. It is notable that funding for this project was donated in its entirety from UNESCO’s Information for All Program in the absence of any similar funding at the national or provincial level (de Jager and Nassimbeni, 2007).

Legislation and legal structure

The South African Community Library and Information Services Bill, introduced in 2010 and available online at, aims to address many of the concerns listed above. One of its stated objectives is to ‘promote co-operative governance and the co-ordination of responsibilities for community library and information services’ as well as to ‘provide for the determination of national policy and principles for community library and information services.’ If two units of government find themselves in conflict over the administration of public libraries, the bill calls for the problem to ‘be dealt with in a manner and spirit consistent with the principles of co-operative government and intergovernmental relations contemplated by section 41 of the Constitution and in terms of the relevant provisions of the Intergovernmental Relations Framework Act, 2005.’ To achieve this, the bill would create the National Community Library and Information Services Committee, which would be responsible for carrying out the goals and objectives outlined in the bill, including the unenviable task of ‘achiev[ing] intergovernmental co-operation.’ The committee would also advise on the adoption of national public library standards, policy, and legislation by the government.

Another effort on the national level to develop policy recommendations for public libraries was the 2008 (currently in its sixth draft) Library and Information Services Transformation Charter drafted at the request of the National Council for Library and Information Services (NCLIS) and the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC). This document calls specifically for national legislation and standards for libraries, but it also advocates the creation of a ‘culture of reading’ that it says does not currently exist in South Africa. It is noted that half of all South African households do not contain books. While the lack of indigenous language reading material surely contributes to this, what little material is available in indigenous languages (often religious texts) is read ‘deeply and passionately,’ suggesting that if reading material were available in relevant languages and on relevant subjects, a reading culture could indeed be created. Structurally, the Charter calls for the establishment of ‘norms and standards’, but notes that these will be difficult to implement because of the current inconsistent state of the library system across the nation. Its recommendations are very basic and include such things as the development of library policies by all levels of government and the establishment of various groups to come up with standards that deal with a recommended list of metrics, which the authors admit could be expanded upon (DAC and NCLIS, 2009).

The literature also suggests that the involvement of national and international library organizations in the training of South African library workers would be beneficial to those workers’ efforts to improve the services offered by their library. When the World Library and Information Congress, 73rd General Conference and Council of IFLA was held in Durban, South Africa in 2007, a series of focus groups was held to judge the meeting’s effectiveness. Public librarians were the second-most represented group of library professionals that were represented in the focus groups (the first being employees of tertiary education institutions). The general consensus among attendees was that it was a helpful, educational experience, although it was prohibitively expensive and it has been suggested that a fund be established to support the attendance of younger professionals. It was also suggested that IFLA takes steps to implement ideas discussed during conferences at the local level, perhaps through a system of IFLA local representatives (Underwood, 2009).

Public libraries in South Africa may also have a key role to play in the formal education system, however whether this is a positive or a negative for public libraries is a matter for debate. Only 30 percent of public schools in South Africa have a library of their own. Students flocking to public libraries to complete school assignments have long been documented in the South African public library literature, but have heretofore been looked upon as a problem, as they have in many other countries. This has continued to be a problem as South Africa has adopted a resource-based curriculum in its public schools. That is to say, the idea of public education in South Africa is to turn students into independent thinkers and learners, capable of digesting information and thinking critically about problems. Schools without libraries are hard pressed to provide their students with information resources with which to gain these skills, and it has been suggested that one solution might be that public libraries step into the breach. This has been proposed at the national level as far back as 1998. The result is that students are flocking to public libraries, however many public librarians are now finding themselves faced with tasks they feel are the work of school librarians and do not appreciate it. Even where school learners are the biggest patron group, they are not mentioned in mission statements or policy documents. Also, public libraries have been coping with cutbacks during this same period, so while their workload increases their resources decrease (Hart, 2004).


Overall, the literature suggests that South African public libraries may be at a turning point. Or at least, if not quite a turning point, a point at which the main obstacles to better library service have been identified. As libraries begin to stock material in native languages, extend service beyond simple circulation and reference functions, and gain access to a steadily (but admittedly slowly and unevenly) growing level of Internet service, the reading public will hopefully respond by adopting a more complimentary view of the public library. The clarification of the role of various government organizations in the provision of library services will hopefully result in the resolution of funding disputes and the overall streamlining of library funding. The adoption of national standards that have been created with input from practicing librarians as well as impartial observers will be a step towards building on the solid foundation of public library service that already exists in South Africa but has not fully realized its potential. Hopefully the increased attention that South Africa’s government seems to be paying to public libraries will be mirrored in the general public, resulting in an improvement in the perception of the public library as a place that is open to all. All of this relies, of course, on the public libraries receiving adequate funding. If they do not, then any improvements in governance could very well be moot.

Useful websites

Broadband Infraco:

National Library of South Africa:

South African Community Library and Information Services Bill:


Adetoro, N. Globalization and the challenges of library and information services in Africa. PNLA Quarterly. 2010; 74(2):38–42.

Infraco, Broadband. Online General FAQ. Available at, 2010.

De Jager, K., Nassimbeni, M. Information literacy in practice: engaging public library workers in rural South Africa. IFLA Journal. 2007; 33(4):313–322.

Department of Arts and Culture and the National Council for Library and Information Services. The Library and Information Services (LIS) Transformation Charter. Available at, 2009.

Fourie, I. Library and Information Service Structure in South Africa. In: Bothma T., Underwood P., Ngulube P., eds. Libraries for the Future: Progress and Development in South African Libraries. Pretoria: Library and Information Association of South Africa; 2007:25–42.

Hart, G. Public libraries in South Africa - agents or victims of educational change? South African Journal of Library and Information Science. 2004; 70(2):110–120.

Hart, G. New vision, new goals, new markets? Reflections on a South African case study of community library services. South African Journal of Library and Information Science. 2010; 76(2):81–90.

KPMG, 2007 Status quo report. 2007 Available at.

Lor, P., van Helden, P., Bothma, T.J.D. Developing a GIS-based inventory of South Africa’s public libraries: The Public and Community Libraries Inventory of South Africa (PaCLISA) project. South African Journal of Library and Information Science. 2005; 71(3):268–274.

New cable to double SA’s broadband capacity. 2011. Available at.

Raju, R., Raju, J. The public library as a critical institution in South Africa’s democracy: a reflection. Library and Information Science Research Electronic Journal. 2010; 20(1):1–13.

South African Community Library and Information Services Bill. Available at 2011. Available at.

Stilwell, C. Library and Information Services in South Africa: An overview. IFLA Journal. 2007; 33(2):87–108.

Stilwell, C. Mapping the fit: library and information services and the national transformation agenda in South Africa, Part I. South African Journal of Library and Information Science. 2008; 74(2):149–159.

Stilwell, C. Poverty, social exclusion, and the potential of South African public libraries and community centers. Libri. 2011; 61(1):50–66.

Suaiden, E. The social impact of public libraries. Library Review. 2003; 52(8):379–387.

Underwood, P. Diffusion of professional norms: the impact of IFLA in South Africa. IFLA Journal. 2009; 35(2):131–140.