Nathi Mthethwa | Libraries are fundamental in shaping our lives and future

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The author writes that libraries have formed an important part of educating communities about Covid-19. (Gaelle Marcel/Unsplash)
The author writes that libraries have formed an important part of educating communities about Covid-19. (Gaelle Marcel/Unsplash)

Libraries play an important role in communities and more so during the Covid-19 pandemic. Nathi Mthethwa writes that government has earmarked R1.4 billion for resources at libraries and that 26 new libraries will be built around the country.

The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted life in ways that we could never have imagined. It has changed every aspect of living, including routine activities often taken for granted, such as visiting our nation's libraries.

The spread of the Covid-19 virus has influenced the very nature of what libraries are and do. This important knowledge sector has been forced to re-evaluate its services and how it meets the needs of communities. The pandemic also brought to the fore the manner in which libraries will need to operate in the future.

In response to the upheaval caused by Covid-19, many libraries in our country operated in novel ways in order to remain relevant in the lives of their user communities. These information centres have stayed true to their role while equally embracing the "new normal".

From online storytelling to establishing remote access to databases, from curbside pick-ups to online programming, libraries have found innovative ways to continue to provide a service to our communities.

Access to information curtailed

Despite the sector's innovative undertakings, access to information and resources have been severely curtailed. This has been exacerbated by restrictions on the number of on-site library users and high data costs, which have impeded access to online library programmes.

Government understands that access to information remains important and libraries are fundamental in shaping lives. Libraries bring with them a spirit of intellectualism, culture of reading and reflect the ideas and directions taken by nations. They create spaces for debate and inspire others to write their own books in order to influence the world.

Africa has been at the centre of advancing knowledge with the earliest libraries in the world found on our continent. The great library in Alexandria in Egypt, established in the third century, was meant to house all the books in the world in its time.

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In their article The ancient libraries of Africa, authors Richard Jurgens and Yunus Momoniat point out that it is "more than a library, the institution was the prototype of the modern university or research centre, with columned walkways, a communal dining room, lecture halls and the library itself".

Another African library, established in a monastery in Sinai, Egypt, houses a collection of more than 3 000 manuscripts. It contains the world's oldest Bible and the most important Christian monastic collection. Perhaps the most popular is the great library of Timbuktu, established in the 1300s in Mali, which was a milestone in Africa's quest for an intellectual and literary culture.

As we appreciate these developments across time to advance knowledge, we are inspired to expand libraries in our nation. Government is committed to supporting the library sector to ensure continued provision of services to citizens.

We have earmarked R1.4 billion in the current financial year to provide and improve public library infrastructure, including Information Communication Technologies (ICTs), purchasing of library material in all formats including material for print-disabled readers.

Moreover, the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture is planning to support the building of 26 new libraries this year. The delivery of public library infrastructure provides a solid foundation for socially cohesive communities and life-long learning.

Libraries help in disseminating information on Covid-19

Today we see that libraries are also taking up the important role of reducing misinformation about Covid-19. They can support government by disseminating Covid-19 preventative information in all languages. This will enhance the understanding of Covid-19 and raise public awareness about this deadly disease.

Each year as part of our commemoration of Human Rights Month, we mark South African Library Week. This year's theme is "The Year of Charlotte Maxeke: Promoting Human Rights in The Age of Covid-19".

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In memory of Charlotte Maxeke, who advocated for social justice and equality, let us work to reposition our nation's libraries to ensure all South Africans benefit. There must also be inclusivity in content and a sense of shared national identity nurturing.

As part of celebrating South African Library Week this year, the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture in collaboration with the National Library of South Africa and the University of South Africa will host the National Reading Summit.

A culture of reading

The summit explores reading practices in the country and will work to strengthen our nation's reading programmes. It aims to inculcate a culture of reading in our communities and showcase effective reading programmes. Reading is a foundational skill on which all other learning is built. It creates the opportunity for access to career opportunities.

We call on South Africans, in particular parents, to support the culture of reading and incorporate it into their daily lives. Children who enjoy reading not only perform better in school but also develop a broader vocabulary and increased general knowledge. As a nation, it is important to encourage our children to visit libraries at an early age so that they grow up with a passion for reading and become meaningful contributors to our nation.

- Nathi Mthethwa is the Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture.

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