Lehman Chief Librarian Kenneth Schlesinger traveled to South Africa earlier this year on a Fulbright Senior Specialist Grant to help organize a library and archive for the Steve Biko Foundation’s new cultural heritage center in the Eastern Cape. During his trip, he interviewed Christina Dookran, senior manager of Bibliographic Services at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth. She relayed a compelling account of growing up with libraries in apartheid-era South Africa—and how this inspired her to become a librarian. Excerpts of that interview appear below.
Can you describe your experiences with libraries during the apartheid era in South Africa?
I grew up in a divided society, where the division was interwoven into the very fabric of my being. The 1953 Reservation of Separate Amenities Act enforced segregation in all public facilities, including libraries, toilets, swimming pools, and parks. It is paradoxical that this very Act should be the trigger for change in my life. I grew up revering books. As a little girl, I had it all figured out: the difference between the different classes of people was simply the ability to read. Being able to read was seen as the road to a better quality of life.
One day in 1963, I discovered—quite by accident—a sacred house of reading: the Lambert Wilson Students’ Library. It was located about six to seven miles from where we lived. This library was a white establishment for white people. I remember when I was given permission to sit and read at the neat wooden tables and chairs designed for school children, I felt like I had won the lottery! I often stayed late until closing time—neither the weather nor the distance nor the early winter dark would deter me. I was not offered any reader guidance, and I never dared ask for assistance. I was not allowed to borrow any of the material I read.
Is this what inspired you to become a librarian?
I was in total awe of all librarians. They were even more important to me than my teachers at school. The librarians and the library were the gateway to knowledge and learning, the access to my very own created world. Reading fanned my highly imaginative and inquisitive mind, and provided me with an escape from everyday life. It was only natural that much later in my adult life I would gravitate toward becoming a librarian. Librarianship was the only profession I knew in my limited experience. It had a missionary-like zeal coupled with the power to touch and shape millions of lives in a very unassuming and unobtrusive way.
Please tell us more about your position at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. What are the greatest challenges you face? What do you enjoy most?
I oversee centralized operations of acquisition of print and electronic information and cataloging for a multi-campus environment. My job has its unique challenges, problems, and rewards. The challenges include trying to remove previous barriers, as we make the transition from traditional library mindsets and operations in an amorphous information world. Like any other library, we have to contend with limited resources and sometimes frozen mindsets.
The work of librarians is ranked low in the educational hierarchy of the country, and is seen as an adjunct to university services. Many bright young professionals leave for the corporate world and promising futures. Some librarians are apathetic and feel that the profession is in the doldrums. Fortunately, there are also spirited librarians who commit to their work, and are filled with a passion that fuels their lifelong learning.
We’ve discussed the possibility of CUNY and MNNU developing an exchange program or working together collaboratively. What initiatives would you recommend?
Although NMMU is international, our librarians rarely get to know how our U.S. counterparts work—and our U.S. counterparts know very little about us. What little we do know is gleaned mainly from overseas visitors and international online interest group memberships. On-the-job, first-hand learning, discussion, and observation will help broaden experience and contribute to the progress of our library and information services. If cross-cultural library experiences are not possible, we may always use the latest available technology in the form of interest group webinars, shared information and experiences, liaison and valuable networking. We can also work together on comparative research projects.
Can you please discuss your experience with information literacy when you visited the University of North Carolina-Pembroke?
While on a personal visit to the United States a few years ago, I was very impressed by the University of North Carolina-Pembroke Library’s well-resourced training room, the commitment of the instructional librarian, and the enthusiasm of some of the students. From the way the students came together, it was easy to see that color was a non-issue.
Even in the midst of their sophisticated systems, I was not shy to share with students my quick, simple, and easily remembered formula on information problem-solving. I told them how blessed they were compared with the majority of our distance learners, and shared a few stories on the effects of not having access to library services in South Africa. The students were moved.
Are you hopeful about South Africa’s future? How can libraries help support its development?
South Africa is a land of stark contrasts, and we are a proud people. We are proud of our rich diversity, and the ability to overcome and stand together as one nation. We are a developing nation in transition, and we do have very serious issues, but we are not without hope or promise.
I feel positive about my country’s future. Our youth are a new breed—the likes of which have never been seen before—and they clamor for change for the better. I believe that our libraries and librarians are able to support South African development by promoting open access, having the courage to defend access to information, optimally using scarce resources to provide access, and—most importantly—to facilitate how to critically and analytically information problem-solve.
Information literacy is a small, but essential, life-skill that will make an incredible difference to any individual, their immediate environment, and South African society. Many of our students still come from rural lands with no access—not just to libraries—but to running water, electricity, and proper sanitation. The opportunity for libraries and librarians to support and shape the future of South Africa is endless. We have the will, but do not always have the means or the support.