I’ve griped in the past about the state of the library in Sandton, the wealthy Johannesburg suburb where Mtuseni goes to college. Across a small plaza from a towering bronze statue of Nelson Mandela and steps away from a luxury mega-mall, the library cuts an impressive figure — from the outside. When I went inside with Mtuseni to see where he’s been hitting the books, I was surprised to see torn carpet, dying plants, and a woeful collection of dated books.
The biggest surprise was the lack of public access computers — only two! I finally understood why my badgering Mtuseni to “use the library computers” to do schoolwork during his first year got no traction. I’m accustomed to the main library in Boston having dozens of computers for public use; my suburban town library has about twenty. I find this lack of library computers shocking in what’s called “Africa’s Richest Square Mile” — and in the shadow of gleaming corporate headquarters. A library should be the pride of a city and a center of free learning for everyone.
Recently I did a Google search for the Sandton library website to see if the building has free WiFi for Mtuseni’s new laptop. (It doesn’t… and I can’t even find a website for the library.) But my search did turn up local newspaper articles about the poor state of the Sandton library. One article had a contact name and e-mail, so I sent a letter expressing my surprise at the library’s poor facilities, and asking why the corporate community doesn’t step up with monetary and in-kind donations.
I got a response from Keith Elliot, a member of the Friends of Sandton Library. He agreed with my assessment and sent a copy of a Sandton Chronicle newspaper article on the library conditions. He also acknowledged the irony of a subpar library surrounded by business wealth.
Why indeed do the inhabitants of the Ivory Towers in Sandton not help out with our Library! I wish I knew the answer!
Keith explained that the Friends recently met with the local business community to discuss the problems facing the library. One bookseller donated 1,000 books, which is certainly commendable. Keith also said another company is paying the library a stipend of R1500 a month… which sounds great until you realize that translates into about US $180 — not even enough to fill the water coolers!
Because I’m a firm believer in the broad social value of libraries, I sent Keith some links to US library web sites, listing the various levels of corporate and other donor support they receive as well as the fundraising activities of the libraries and their Friends organizations. I also suggested approaching Mtuseni’s school to ask students to create fundraising marketing campaigns — a great way for the library to get some free creative labor and for students to build their portfolios. Keith shared my ideas at a recent meeting and said one member is communicating with US library groups… and the Sandton Friends group has elected to pursue a student marketing project. Yay!
When I get into my Norma Rae mode, my advocacy isn’t limited by miles!
I’ll share progress updates as they come from Keith. And for South African readers, please donate to the Sandton Library — or to your local community library. Because as Benjamin Franklin, founder of America’s first lending library, once said,
“An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.”