Despite the allure of tablets, Kindles and high-res paraphernalia, books just keep bouncing back. One of the essential pantheons of page turners is the National Library of South Africa and its story is almost as captivating as the ones it houses.
Peruse the shelves, smile at the familiar titles, and stare inquisitively at the array of more unfamiliar spines. Think of the possibilities. My word, is there anything more therapeutic than floating down the mysterious isles of a library? No, there is not.
The National Library of South Africa was formed back in 1999. This new and inspirational institution was formed by amalgamating the State Library in Pretoria and the South African Library in Cape Town, while also incorporating a specialist unit—the ‘Centre for the Book’.
The library is the proud custodian and provider of the nation’s key educational resources. It collects and preserves published documents, making them accessible to thousands of people every year.
This astonishingly versatile institution contains a wealth of fascinating items, including rare manuscripts, books published in South Africa, periodicals, government papers, official foreign publications, maps, technical reports, Africana and newspapers. Many of these priceless documents are available on CD or microfilm, in digital format or online.
Head of Communications Andrew Malotle believes that the library’s passion for sharing its impressive collections have been pivotal to its success. “We ensure that knowledge is not lost to posterity, and that information is available to research for everyone,” he enthuses. “The library still has an essential role to play in the community.”
On the books
Skilled and dedicated staff in the ‘Reference and text retrieval’ departments of the Pretoria Campus, are there to offer information services with a dedicated manifesto of service.
Their responsibilities include promoting optimal access to published and unpublished documents, providing references to specific subjects and delivering services to clients in the language of their choice.
‘Reference librarians’ assist patrons in identifying and finding information they need. In addition, they provide research assistance to clients, advising them of search strategies and showing them how to use online resources and the hugely impressive Online Public Access Catalogue (OPAC).
The reference librarians also correspond with clients via e-mail, letters, telephone, fax, and the ‘Ask a Reference Librarian’ function on the library’s webpage.
Meanwhile, ‘text retrieval’ staff collate identified material from the collections and make photocopies and microfilm printouts for client projects.
Carry on Campus
The facilities for clients at Pretoria campus have proved immensely popular, attracting students, business people, kids, older folk and archive enthusiasts from all over the country.
Among its facilities is the majestic ‘reading room’. This inspiring area provides tranquillity and plentiful space for reading and study. It has reference collections kept on the open shelves, assisting clients in their search for information sources and government publications. The Reading room is also equipped with state-of-the-art computers to access online resources and databases.
The Map Library, as its title suggests, contains a vast array of maps which visitors request and make use of in the aforementioned Reading Room.
The Microfilm Room provide microfiche and microfilm readers for clients to make view extensive materials. Text retrieval staff assist people on the use of this equipment.
Another very useful facility—the Discussion Room—caters for clients who wish to work as study groups and need to discuss and exchange ideas for their research projects.
The National Library of South Africa acts as national preservation library and provides a leadership role in the South African library and information profession.
The task of the ‘Preservation Services Programme’ is to ensure that the Library maintains and develops world-class policies and practices, capable of providing vital conservation services on a national basis. This mandate includes preservation awareness, care of collections, guidelines for conservation and disaster planning and recovery.
Conservation activities including bookbinding, book repairs and sophisticated conservation treatment are also significant priorities. Damaged materials, in need of repair, are treated in the dedicated conservation department. Specialist conservation staff—all passionate about the maintenance and longevity of precious documents—are poised to assist with salvage operations. Most conservation functions are applied to the library’s collections, although advice is regularly imparted regarding private collections.
The new digitisation service is a very exciting initiative, which creates digital records of materials for both preservation and access. It involves a variety of technical approaches or strategies for ensuring that publications in digital form are retrievable, readable and consistently usable over time, for as long as they are needed. This venture endorses a long-standing institutional commitment to developing appropriate standards for these cutting edge systems.
The South African National Library has used all its expertise to modernise the library experience, while also maintaining all the traditions which give visitors such an unforgettable experience. Indeed, you could say the last 13 years have been a master class in shelf confidence.