Protecting our historical legacy

2008-07-11 00:00

The alleged theft of bound volumes of 19th-century editions of The Natal Witness, reported this week, is the second known incident where an attempt has been made to pillage the city's historical archives.

The first incident happened about 19 years ago and involved a city fireman who was in charge of checking fire and safety compliance within the library.

According to reports, the fireman knew the lie of the land and at closing time would hide in the basement. As soon as the library was locked, he would switch on lights, help himself to material, switch off the lights and slip out through the fire escape doors.

He tried selling the material to a dealer in Africana who grew suspicious of the origins of the publications and alerted the library. To ensure that the fire escape would not be used as a conduit for stolen goods, special seals were placed on the doors and librarians checked daily to see if they were broken.

The Msunduzi Library collection is a unique repository of all that has been published in South Africa, including books, newspapers, journals, magazines, posters and pamphlets. This is because it is one of five legal deposit libraries in the country.

The Legal Deposit Act was first promulgated in 1916 and comprehensively revised in 1997. According to the act, every publisher in the country is compelled by law to send a copy of every publication it produces to the legal deposit libraries. These have to be catalogued, preserved and stored as the intellectual and historical record of the country to be used by the current population and to be left for future generations to learn from and to build upon. For example, the Msunduzi Library has every copy of The Witness from the very first issue published in 1846 — 162 years’ worth of newspapers which, for the most part, have been published six days a week. Similarly, its holdings contain copies of newspapers such as the Sunday Times, the former Rand Daily Mail, The World and Drum magazine. The library holds 32 000 different titles, all of which are produced either daily, weekly, bi-weekly or monthly. This meant that literally hundreds of thousands of copies under each of these titles had to be moved into temporary storage earlier this year, before construction work began to revamp the basement periodical section.

The Msunduzi Library almost lost its legal deposit status when the act was being revised in 1997 and the national government wanted to cut down on the number of such libraries in the country. Former chief librarian Shona Wallis lobbied extensively to encourage members of the KwaZulu-Natal Legislature and other key personalities to support the library in its battle to retain its legal deposit status. The campaign proved successful and when the revised act was passed, the library retained its status and Wallis went on to become the first chairperson of the Legal Deposit Committee under the new Legal Deposit Act of 1997.

Today the library is viewed by national and international scholars as a rare and unique archive, and, as stated earlier, a repository of the nation’s intellectual output. This is why the theft of any item is considered in a very serious light as it is robbing future generations of their historical legacy.

The Legal Deposit Centres are:

• the National Library of South Africa both in Pretoria and Cape Town;

• the Mangaung (Bloemfontein) Library Service;

• the Msunduzi Municipal Library;

• the Library of Parliament; and

• the National Film,Video and Sound Archives in Pretoria.

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