Deana Arsenian: Library Provides Community Hub in South African Township

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If there is any question about the ability of libraries to transform a community and lift people up through knowledge, the answer can be found in the township of Khayelitsha in Cape Town, South Africa.

Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Deana Arsenian recently visited and was struck by what a difference five years can make. In a 2008 trip, Arsenian saw Khayelitsha as primarily a sprawling shantytown where children grew up in crowded, one-room shacks. In November 2013, Arsenian and Tade Akin Aina, Program Director, Higher Education and Libraries in Africa, returned in a visit organized by the former director of libraries in Africa program, Rookaya Bawa, to see a spectacular, new library that’s become the hub of the impoverished township.

Describe what you saw in Khayelitsha and at Harare Library.

Khayelitsha started as an informal settlement. It now has 800,000 residents and is still growing. Before several nongovernmental organizations and funders, Carnegie Corporation among them, came in and mobilized this (library) effort, there was no public space in the area. Today we see an oasis, a community resource for both the adults and the children. So the need for the library is phenomenal because there are really very few resources available for kids or adults in these developments.

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I was flabbergasted by what I saw. We saw a library that is much better than libraries I've seen in American towns. It's big. It's beautiful. It's bright. It's clean. It's functioning. There are nice bathrooms, a luxury for the residents. There's running water. There is a section with computers for adults and teenagers. The section for the younger children is immaculate, equipped with toys and comfortable bins where the kids can sit for reading and learning. The children’s section looks like the kids’ section of the bookstore where I used to take my daughter back when they had afternoon readings.

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What has been the response in the community?

The users are primarily teenagers, or younger kids for whom this is an escape from reality, but the adults use the space for education and social services as well.  One of the things that was mentioned to us by the director of the library is that kids come because it's quiet in the library. Where they live, the way the dwellings are structured, they never have quiet time because basically, you live among all your neighbors in extremely difficult situations.

The library staff emphasized that there has not been a single act of vandalism in the library since it opened in 2011. They said that this is unusual given the circumstances of the residents. So there's a community ownership and oversight of the library. It was clear from our conversations with the township’s councilmen and women that the library stands as the community’s pride.

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Can you give us the sense of the library’s impact on Khayelitsha?

The success of this first library had led to (plans for) a second, much larger library. And the first library is not just a library. It’s a whole development area anchored at the library that includes a community center, residential buildings, shops, a gas station. It's bringing other amenities to the community that are really essential for their everyday existence.

There is a picture of Andrew Carnegie hanging prominently on the wall above the entrance. If you look up, you will see the picture of him looking at the entire space of the library. I think he would have been very happy to see what I saw.

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In Andrew Carnegie’s view, a library was “a never-failing spring in the desert,” the number-one investment a community could make to help its people.  In the age of technology, with a global economy focused on knowledge and information, libraries are critical in meeting the needs of South Africans.

Hear from the community and see more photos on Harare Library’s Facebook page.