Alexander Matthews
Alexander Matthews
Image: Karl Rogers

One of the many things I’m grateful to my mom for is the bag of regularly replenished library books she made sure we always had when I was a kid. Of course when I was very young, Mom would choose the books for me, and read them to me before bedtime. When I got older I was unleashed among the shelves of the Rondebosch Library, spending hours poring over books about aeroplanes and the Second World War, before picking out my favourites to take home. It was like being in a sweet shop — but better.

Of course, thanks to apartheid’s devastating legacy and the battles to ameliorate it, many of South Africa’s libraries aren’t nearly as well stocked as the one I was privileged to visit while growing up. The scale of the challenges to make all of our country’s libraries vibrant catalysts for learning, dreaming, escaping, and imagining might seem daunting, but US émigré Griffin Shea isn’t deterred. Not content with recently having established Bridge Books (one of Joburg’s loveliest independent bookshops), he’s also on a mission “to grow readers and preserve our stories” by bringing South African books to the nation’s libraries. To achieve this, he’s established the African Book Trust (ABT), along with a heavyweight board of directors: former banker Harry Ntombela; Zurina Saban, the International Finance Corporation’s head lawyer for Africa; and Sahm Venter, the former journalist, researcher, and author of Conversations with a Gentle Soul.

To start with, Shea has selected 10 different titles — including The Memory of Stones by Mandla Langa, London Cape Town Joburg by Zukiswa Wanner, and The Sculptors of Mapungubwe by Zakes Mda — that the ABT will distribute to 50 libraries by Mandela Day on July 17. They’re all remaindered books, Shea tells me, “hidden treasures that had been destined for pulping. I didn’t know what remaindered books were until about 18 months ago, but it’s amazing what you can find on those lists. There are a lot of books that could find more readers if they were more widely circulated. So we started with these because they’re all fantastic books that deserve to have a more dynamic life. And also because they were available cheaply, so it’s more bang for our buck.”

Those keen to support the ABT’s mission can go to booktrust.org.za, choose a title they want to donate (for a fee of R100), and pay for it then and there. Can’t decide on a title? You can just determine how many books you’d like to give, and the ABT will make the selection for you.

“Next year, the goal is give out 5 000 books — five books to 1 000 libraries,” Shea says. “To decide which five books, we’re asking authors and book lovers to nominate #5books on social media.” Until July 31, anyone can share their suggestions by using this hashtag on Facebook and Twitter.

“Later this year, we’ll have a panel sort through the suggestions and choose five,” Shea says. “The idea is to build up a collection of essential South African reading, books that everyone in the country should be able to read for free. We’ll have other books available as well, but the goal is to build up a conversation around a few books to encourage people to read them. Hopefully the number will grow every year. The long-term plan is to make books available to every library in the country that wants them.”

Shea estimates that there are about 1 900 public and community libraries serving a population of about 55-million, and only 3 400 proper school libraries in a country of more than 23 000 schools — about half which, he says, “have some kind of library service short of a separate, centralised library, like maybe a space in a classroom used for shelving library books, or a mobile library service”.

Shea is optimistic, though. “There’s actually quite a lot of work being done to improve library services, especially by librarians,” he says. He cites, as an example, Equal Education’s campaign for a library and librarian for every school; its sister organisation, The Bookery (thebookery.org.za), accepts new and used donated books which it uses to stock school libraries. The government, he says, “has budgeted R3-billion to build and improve libraries… There are also government efforts to experiment with new models of libraries that could serve both a school and the surrounding community at large. We’re trying to find ways to support those existing efforts with books.”

While the state of our libraries won’t improve overnight, the efforts of ABT and other organisations with similar aims can have a dramatic impact if we give them the support they deserve. Let’s get involved. booktrust.org.za

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