At IFLA conferences, I try to chat with at least one or two IFLA volunteers. They were often local librarians and/ or library students helping out at the conference. I've found that such informal chats are a good way to understand more about libraries and librarianship in the host country.
Ms. Ntutu Sogoni (L) and Mr. Ishewakatipa M. Dube (R) were academic librarians. I spoke to them during a break in the conference proceedings. We were able to converse in English very fluently.
"What made you become librarians?"
Basically, both of them didn't enter the the profession by design. More by chance. And they stuck with it (inspite of the low pay and recognition) because they loved what they do.
"How does it feel to be a librarian in South Africa?"
Perception-wise, they told me people still think librarians stamped books. Ntutu said the popular image of a librarian was still an old lady with glasses and hair tied in a bun, and stamping books (wow, talk about universal misrepresentation!). Most people didn't know that the libraries already had electronic services and resources. Librarianship was often not on the radar screen of government officials. Ishewakatipa said libraries were only included upon hindsight when the university had plans to expand facilities and premises.
The South African situation (as they explained to me) sounded similar with what singapore faced in 1994 or 1995. I shared with them about how more public libraries were built, how staff pay and working premises and conditions were improved, how services were more customer oriented. Of course i mentioned about government funding. Which led me to explain that singapore only had a population of 4 million, over 640 sq km. How most our water and food were imported. The only resource we have are the people. They looked at me and it was all new to them.
ASIDE: I asked them if they have blogs, or heard about blogs. They looked quizzically at me. Ntutu said she heard it mention in an advertisement (non-library related it seems) but no, they didn't really know about. She asked what it was about. I said it was a free service, just like Internet email services, that allows the user to create accounts a start their own websites or online diaries. Suggested they try www.blogger.com or wordpress.com. So maybe they might start blogging after this.
I also learned from them that public libraries in South Africa were well used but under-funded. Regular users were schools that didn't have the means to have their own libraries. Generally, opening hours were 8am to 5pm on weekdays, 8am to 1pm on Saturdays, and closed on Sundays (very much like the opening hours of public libraries in Singapore 10 years ago).
Ntutu said many school children in rural areas do not have access to public libraries. I said that in their Cultural Minister's speech at the opening ceremony, there was mention of plans to fund and develop libraries in South Africa.
They said that they have also heard talks about funding but progress seemed to be slow. Then they said "We just try our best, given what we have".
Ishewakatipa was from Zimbabwe. I asked what made him decide to come to South Africa. "For a better life," was his earlier reply. Ntutu said she studied in a Bantu school and did well enough to go to better schools.
That, plus their professional attitude of "trying their best given what we have" -- I couldn't help but admire and respect them.
We parted with smiles and laughs. They taught how to do handshakes, African-style.
[Reference: Part 4]