Clem Sunter

A new great library of Africa

2016-09-26 08:30

Clem Sunter

I have been saying for some time that news on pockets of excellence in South Africa is sparse. Headlines are dominated by bad news in the political world. As I put it, the media here is obsessed with the fight amongst the rangers to the point that positive developments in the game park are ignored.

So this article is an attempt to correct the balance. I gave a presentation last week at a conference called Reinventing African Libraries held at the University of Johannesburg. It took place in the new library spanning six floors on the Kingsway campus and which is being replicated along similar lines on the other UJ campuses. It has been nearly five years in the making and has recently been completed. Last year it had 6 million visits.

I was shown around the library before the conference started. It is sensational. I would say that it is absolutely on a par with the best university libraries in the world at places like Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and Yale. It obviously does not have the historic stock of literature that these libraries have, but in terms of offering the latest in products that modern students want it has to rival them.

The last great library in Africa was the one in Alexandria in Egypt which was destroyed by soldiers of Julius Caesar in 48 BC. The UJ library proudly follows in the same fine tradition in that its mission is to be the best library in South Africa and by implication Africa. It wants to prepare every student for the knowledge economy which now exists around the globe. It is mainly an electronic library and works on the principle that every student needs a device and full Wi-Fi at high speed.

The library assumes that it is a basic right entrenched in the Constitution that students should be free to access any information or website on the internet. In that sense, it is the first step down the road of decolonising tertiary education in this country. All continents rank equally as potential sources of learning.

I listened with a mixture of fascination and growing excitement to the welcoming address of Dr Rookaya Bawa. She is the Executive Director of the library and comes across as a leader who is passionate about the academic cause to which the library is committed. In addition, she also shows a degree of toughness in ensuring that the plan is properly implemented and the key performance indicators that apply annually to all staff are met.

She likens a library to a shop, except that physical books are stock items that have to be returned. The shop is open from 7-30 am to 10 pm and its value is measured by volume of transactions and richness of customer experience.

Importantly, 98% of the journal collection is electronic and is the largest in South Africa. There is a functioning catalogue so that unused physical books can be kept in storage “in order to offer space and calm in every corner of our store for the students to succeed with their personal goals”. Apparently, 100 trucks of garbage were removed in cleaning up the old library to create the uncluttered space of the new one. The Executive Director personally helped in this task. As she said, they did away with all non-matching coffee cups and saucers!

Other features of the library include rows upon rows of computers; an IT team and tutors to help students with their programmes; research, learning, social and reading areas; project discussion rooms without ‘shush’ limitations on noise; a bindery where books or papers can be bound; training facilities; 24-hour secure spaces for all-night studiers complete with toilets and vending machines for food; a post-graduate research commons; a floor dedicated to law students with hard copy documents and a 24-hour response time on retrieving papers from the basement stockroom;  a large venue for a 100-event programme each year to raise funds for new projects but which can also be rented out; and support spaces together with technology and tutors for students with disabilities.

She finished off her address by saying that she was blessed with a diverse and funky team of 150 people. The library has an internal staff academy and members of staff are asked to attend 6 out of the 15 modules offered each year. Among their responsibilities are the welcoming of students and ensuring that they are aware of all the services available; the monitoring of noise in the areas where students are reading; and maintaining the whole library in tip-top condition.

The intention is to digitise the entire PhD collection; to partner companies and NGOs on certain initiatives; and to raise R10 million as a reserve for hard times. All in all, the new library is a reminder of how special this country can be even in times of unrest and division. It also reminded me that transformation is about satisfying the demands of the millennium generation in a constructive manner rather than turning ones back on them.

Well done to all concerned for setting an example of deeds not words. It is an example that everyone should follow to make South Africa a winning nation.

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