A librarian's story

2011-05-18 00:00

IT'S awkward having to write a column that will appear on election day. By now election fatigue has set in, so who will want to read anything more about politics? Then, there is the danger that you could tread on toes or say something that will be misconstrued as favouring one or other party.

So my brief to myself was to find a neutral topic. This was easier said than done, because politics permeates everything. However, there is an issue that I've been dying to touch on for weeks, ever since my features editor approached me for a quote for an article on World Book Day.

In the eighties I took a break from journalism. In that time I worked in libraries. For years one of my favourite jobs was as a children's librarian at the Truro Library in Northdale. I soon got to know the regulars and the funny thing is that when I meet them as young adults today, I can distinguish the readers from the non-readers by their approach to life and to their work. The readers come across as successful at what they do. Just talking to them I realise that they bring an extra dimension to their jobs, they are often questioning and always willing to learn. So when my editor asked me for a comment on books and reading, the first thing that came to mind was a quote I once saw that said: "Readers are leaders".

There was a child who did not interact much with the librarians but would sit in the corner of the library every afternoon, reading. We later found out that he was what is commonly known in the library world as a latchkey kid. His mother, a single parent, worked. He went to school with the house key pinned to his vest or inside his trouser pocket. After school he was expected to let himself into the house, lock the door and stay inside. He learnt that it was less lonely at the library so he would sit there day after day surrounded by books. He loved the comic books — the adventures of Tintin and Asterix — which he read over and over again, and he would often laugh out loud. He also made good friends in that library, with other latchkey kids like him, I suspect. Today he is a lawyer, and a good one. Quite by chance I heard him arguing a case down in the local court. Impressive.

Another regular, and not a latchkey kid, was Primarashni Gower, a former Witness journalist who is currently the editor of the Mail & Guardian publication, The Teacher. She was a young schoolgirl when I worked in the library. She loved reading and from the age of about 13 or 14 knew that she wanted to become a journalist. I found her fascinating and quite frankly eccentric because she loved reading William Shakespeare and I'm certain she went through the entire series of comedies, tragedies and historic plays, possibly twice over.

Lucky Mbatha, who attended one of the township schools in Edendale, worked as a gardener at some of the homes, and around the library on weekends during the holidays. He was quite young when he popped his head in the door one day and asked: "What place is this?"

In those days libraries could not be found in townships and under the system of education that prevailed all you required was one textbook per subject. Soon Lucky was also cutting short his gardening time and sitting in the library. He was able to give up weeding when he got a job in the library as a part-time book packer — placing all the borrowed books that had been returned back onto the shelves. Today Lucky is a teacher with a couple of university degrees under his belt. He always says books changed his life. He has started his own book club where members exchange technical books.

Economists say that one of the reasons for South Africa's high unemployment and why we cannot grow our economy faster is because of the low literacy rate in the country. We are not a nation of readers.

Another basic fact I learnt in my time as a librarian is that while some people love reading, most do not. Reading is a habit that can be engendered over time in homes and by parents. A starting point is to get children to join the local public library.

Sometimes I am struck by how simple the solution to many of our woes really is. We could change our world if we could get more people reading.

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