Thursday, September 06, 2007

Off to IFLA Conference: 19-23 August 2007, Durban, South Africa (part 10)

Rajen, my friend and NLB colleague, is a South African. He was on vacation in Durban (his home town) and was kind enough to take my colleagues and I for a tour of two public libraries located in the suburbs.

I didn't catch the name of this first one [update: it was the Whetstone Commmunity Library]. The entrance of this building had a sign that says "Library" and "Biblioteek" (this would be Afrikaans for "Library").

There were some male youths loitering at the steps leading to the library building. Smoking. Hands in pockets. They stared. Watched us like hawks. Maybe they weren't used to seeing Asian faces.

Whatever it was, I felt uncomfortable. I had my camera in my hand. We were constantly warned (by the locals) not to openly hold cameras. Sure giveaway that we were tourists and a target that we were vulnerable.

I felt a little ashamed of myself, thinking the worse of them. But delegates have been talking about fellow delegates being mugged in the past few days... it just got to me.


Inside the library, it felt slightly better. Felt safer than outside.

Mostly youths using the library at that time. Quite a few were looking at us. But less intense that the boys outside the library. A handful were clustered at the photocopier. The one Internet terminal was being used by three teens. There was a buzz in the air.

It's a relatively small library. I estimate it to be around 1000 to 1200 square feet -- around a 5-room HDB flat (did I get my "square feet" estimate correct?).

One teenager (maybe 16 or 17) walked close to me. He asked me, "Are you from China?"

I replied, "No. We are from Singapore".

He didn't look like he knew where Singapore was. I had an urged to pick out the Atlas and point out Singapore to him. To show him how far it was from South Africa. Must be the librarian in me. But alas, my colleagues were leaving. I suddenly lost that "safety in numbers" feeling.
Biblioteek - 5

We hurried back to our cars. I know it's irrational. I can't explain it. It just felt that way.


The next library was located in Firwood. Huge contrast to the previous one. It was very obvious that this part of Durban was more affluent. Much quieter.
firwood public library - 1

Though the entrance was a blank brick wall (unlike the previous one that had a huge Welcome sign), this one was much more cozy inside. Which was why I have more pictures of this library than from the previous one.
Firwood public library -2

Firwood public library - 3

Much larger library that the first one. But fewer users. More youths using the library than adults, but more adults than the first library. Most adults were browsing the newspapers.
Firwood public library -4

It's funny, but the teens here didn't stare at us. Nobody stared at us. It was like the youths behaved differently here. There was one security guard standing near the counter. Maybe he's making the difference. I don't know.

The one Internet terminal was being used by two teens. They only turned around once to look (at us) but quickly turned back to what they were doing. The security guard looked over their shoulders from time to time.
Firwood public library -5

There was a Mills and Boon section (we saw such a section in the Durban Central Lending library too).
Firwood public libary - mills and boons

The sign (above the books on the table) says "Recommended Reading for Book Reviews".
Firwood public library -6

A ramp led to the Children's section.
Firwood public library -7

I like the design of the combined book-bin/ seat.
Firwood public library -8
Firwood public library -9

Both libraries were better maintained that I expected. I thought they would be run down but they weren't. Shelves and furniture were clean and neat. Library interiors were bright and attractive.

One obvious difference was how the users at both libraries reacted to us. I'm guessing that the first one served a less sophisticated neighbourhood. It showed in their level of curiosity towards us. I'm OK with being looked at. You know, the "quick glance and look away" kind. But being stared at with something that went beyond the kind of curiosity that I was used to -- that was quite uncomfortable. A sort of Culture Shock there? For both sides? Maybe.

At the first library, the threat of crime played up my sense of paranoia. Even within the library, to be honest. I knew it was irrational. I felt quite ashamed, even now. I should think better of people. They were young people who were curious at who we are, and how we looked. But fear often is irrational. Maybe I'm less sophisticated than I thought I was.


What I spotted right away, for both libraries, were the teens using the library as a social space -- chatting away with their friends. Same as any public library in the world.

At the first library I saw a teen jotting notes while referring to a library book. At both libraries, I saw teens doing their homework assignments.

Overall, I sensed that both public libraries were making a positive impact in the community they serve.

[Reference: Part 9 & Poetry Interlude]

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