File photo: Librarians, like domestic workers and teachers, are among the unsung heroes in our society, says the writer.
File photo: Librarians, like domestic workers and teachers, are among the unsung heroes in our society, says the writer.

Striking librarians. Why not?

By Eusebius McKaiser Time of article published Sep 9, 2013

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In a weird way, it is incredible that some communities can have a librarian strike, because it means they have libraries – even if they are poorly stocked, says Eusebius McKaiser.

Johannesburg - Did you know that librarians are striking too? Please don’t laugh! This is a true story. I was supposed to go to Port Elizabeth on Saturday for a book event as part of National Book Week.

On Thursday night I got frantic emails, SMSes and missed calls from the organisers warning me that our event had been called off. It wasn’t safe to continue with the event because – cough – the librarians were on strike.

I have never laughed so hard in my life. I almost choked on my Nando’s. What do librarians strike about? A knitting subsidy from the state?!

A guarantee that e-books won’t replace the hard copies they’ve been friends with forever and a day?

And do they sing while they strike or do they maintain silence in respect of the signs around them that scream “QUIET PLEASE!”?

Now I’ve heard it all. Striking is obviously infectious, as South African as boerewors, commissions of inquiry, Thuli Madonsela, and Bafana Bafana not qualifying for major tournaments.

Who will be next though? Car guards? Or maybe domestic workers in Sandton finally protesting against their silly madams forcing them to walk the dogs?

Time will tell.

But once my chuckle and disappointment about the strike wore off, I actually remembered back to my childhood and just how cool, and incredibly important, librarians are.

Librarians, like domestic workers and teachers, are unsung heroes in our society. They are often surrogate moms who help raise us. How soon we forget.

I spent hundreds of childhood hours at the library in Curry Street, Grahamstown. I grew up in front of Auntie Margie, Auntie May and Auntie Val.

They would help me locate the next copy of the Famous Five, Secret Seven or Hardy Boys, and make suggestions that would be a little more challenging when it became clear I was outgrowing those series.

Auntie Val was the softie among the three of them, and if a book was late I would pray that she was on duty that day.

Auntie May, on the other hand, scared the living daylights out of us. She was stern, tolerated no noise and would happily tell your family if you had a fine that was overdue.

But we didn’t hate Auntie May. We knew her magisterial attitude was absolutely necessary to ensure a well-functioning library, and her meticulous organising skills would result in the annual library concert, which was always comical but cemented our sense of community, our sense of owning the library.

I cannot believe I go to Grahamstown so often and do not pop into the library. If I was still Catholic, guilt would come over me right now.

But perhaps if one accidental good comes from the cancelled book event in Port Elizabeth, it is that one of my first stops when I go back to my hometown next will be the Curry Street library.

When I posted news of the cancelled book event on social media platforms, many people responded with their own fond memories of librarians. Only an exceptional few recalled a librarian so nasty that they were put off books.

Most of the recollections were beautiful odes to the role of the librarian.

My friend Karima, for example, recalls a white librarian during the apartheid era letting her into the white section of the library in Claremont.

The mobile library for coloured people came around irregularly and did not have the same comprehensive book selection as the library for whites.

This librarian obviously did not care about the apartheid administration as much as she cared for the love of a coloured girl’s passion for books. Wherever that librarian is today – if she is still alive – give her a Bell’s!

But of course this entire column, sadly, rests on a huge tragedy. You probably did not know that there was a librarian strike in Port Elizabeth because there are so few libraries today in our communities.

There are not enough librarians for there to be a librarian strike that can make the national news.

In a weird way it is awesome that some communities can even have a librarian strike because that means they have libraries – even if they are poorly stocked, and even if the salaries of those librarians and their work conditions are not great.

We must value librarians more. So can the state honour the promises it made to the librarians and settle this labour dispute? Librarians, and not just libraries, need to be looked after appropriately in terms of rewards for an indispensable social role.

Most South Africans do not have access to a community library, let alone a poorly stocked community library. Is it surprising then that we struggle to deal decisively with poverty, inequality and unemployment?

* McKaiser hosts Power Talk With Eusebius McKaiser on Power FM 98.7 weekdays 9am to noon.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

The Star

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