I was invited to give a talk at the School Librarians Conference about FunDza, and how we are getting young South Africans reading. (It was in Durban and I was hoping for warm weather, but sadly they were having a cold snap!)
There were passionate and committed librarians from all over the country. The theme this year was appropriately ‘leading out loud’. It is always lovely to be amongst fellow believers in the power of books, and the importance of getting young people reading.
I was asked to talk about how to get young people who do not speak English as their home language to read for pleasure. I described FunDza’s work, particularly our online resources on fundza.mobi. Participants were particularly interested in our stories in other South African languages, as there is so little for-pleasure reading material in indigenous languages. The need for this had been highlighted in earlier sessions at the conference.
The conference explored the pressures that school librarians experience given current conditions. As more than one speaker pointed out, school librarians are a rare breed and are fighting for space on all sides. Setting up school libraries is an expensive option for under-resourced schools, and for the private, very privileged schools, the push is often towards technology, with more money for IT and less for book buying. So, as Rookaya Bawa (Executive Director of the University of Johannesburg) said, school librarians have to make themselves indispensable, and try to collaborate with all subject teachers, and to keep up with the developments in technology.
Nic Spaull (Senior Researcher in Economics at Stellenbosch University) presented South Africa’s sobering literacy statistics, and said that school libraries cannot cut themselves off from the rest of South Africa, and that to stay relevant they needed to look at how they could support the communities near them who did not have access to resources. He cautioned against going in with answers and solutions though, recommending a humble, listening approach before any action is taken.
Barbara Band (a very experienced British school librarian and now consultant) gave interesting perspectives from the UK, and her talk on diversity was very useful, as she described the range of issues, and how librarians can use the South African constitution as protection for getting ‘controversial’ books!
School libraries – when they work well – can serve such a vital role. This conference was energising and inspiring, it seemed from the chats at tea time. I hope that there are new ways found to preserve the school libraries that we have and also to create new ones, so that more learners can have access to books and develop a deep love of reading.