How long is it since you heard a library praised for its true value?
“One test of a democracy, they say, is whether it grants equal access to the tools that make knowledge possible. The Freedom Charter certainly understood the significance of access to knowledge – and information – to a democracy. All the cultural treasures of mankind shall be open to all, by free exchange of books, ideas and contact with other lands.” (1)
I can’t remember the last time I heard the words ‘democracy’, ‘knowledge’ or ‘culture’ used in relation to Australian public libraries; the biggest issue seems to be their ‘relevance’ to the community (services like cafés, dog registration, parking permit clearance and speed dating.) (2)
Even our professional association has joined the rush to prove that libraries are ‘more than just books‘, as if providing books and encouraging reading were old-fashioned services that we used to offer when we had nothing better to do. (And don’t get me started on the libraries that are triumphantly throwing out their books with the unthinking mantra that ‘no one reads print’ any more because everything is available on a mobile phone.)
Johannesburg Library gets my personal vote for ‘Library of the Month’ because the people here remember what it was like to live in a country without freedom or democracy – they value ‘the tools that make knowledge possible’, the books and reading that educate and enlighten. They have restored a truly beautiful building to its former grandeur (Italianete architecture, marble columns, teak floors, Georgian wire glass), updated it with elevators and computers, and lovingly rehoused their books.
Johannesburg Public Library has ‘over 1.5 million books in its collection and more than 250 ooo members’. It was reopened this year after extensive renovations – they have every reason to be proud of it.