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66th IFLA Council and General

Jerusalem, Israel, 13-18 August


Code Number: 064-122-E
Division Number: VI
Professional Group: Management of Library Associations
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 122
Simultaneous Interpretation: No

Advocacy for democracy: the role of library association

Ivan Mbulelo Qwelane
University of the Free State Library
Bloemfontein, South Africa
E-mail: Mbulelo@hbib.uovs.ac.za


Advocacy is a broad term and we will therefore try to explain it. Advocacy is to advocate and that is to speak on behalf. Advocacy is also someone who positively argues on behalf of another. Advocacy is not confined to our profession; it can be used in all spheres of life. What this paper intends to do is to introduce this much debated term and the relevance of it to our profession. We have been debating about advocacy day in and day out. The reason is one and that is things are not going well in the library sector.

Advocacy remains a challenge throughout. That means advocacy is for you and me. It should be our role as library workers and as members of various library associations to make sure that we support and promote the democratic rights of library workers in their endeavor to create, acquire, organize and disseminate information without interference. We need to stand up as library workers and be able to be counted among other stakeholders with in our democracies. When I see library workers I see people who do not let opportunities pass by and that has made some of us to have faith for tomorrow.

Many organizations have made advocacy their number one priority and we also need to start doing that for our libraries to be able to grow. Many associations have not realized that advocacy is needed to sustain the profession. Library associations need to train their members in advocacy and lobbying. Its very important for us to realize the role that each an every one of us can play in advocating for democracy. Library associations have got a major role to play as they represent libraries and librarians across the spectrum. The reason for advocacy is due to the intense competition for public and institutional funds. It is also important that people should know that libraries are a cornerstone for democracy. We need to see to it that libraries stay in operation, as they are the only way of providing affordable, accessible and making information available for all people. As an association we need to be passionate and committed about advocacy. In an article that I have read titled "Americans and libraries can't wait" the writer says, "librarians have not always been willing to "get into politics" but now, because our cause is just and our need is urgent we must do exactly that and try to convince every American, especially library users and supporters, to press their legislator at all levels for library funding".

I want us to take a look at the reasons why we should advocate for democracy in a South African's point of view :

  1. the deterioration of library services
  2. the impact of economic fundamentals and
  3. the portrait of Librarians of yesteryears

1. Deteriorating library services

If in the past we had a choice to advocate or not, now we no longer have the choice. To us now advocacy is matter of life and death. Library associations need to look at the state of school libraries, public, and academic libraries today.

School libraries are closing down; many have became white elephants and turned into class rooms. A survey completed in one of our provinces revealed an evidence of the existence of donated books which were relevant to the school curriculum but had been completely abandoned into disuse because the school library no longer exists. And yet we know that without libraries the school system will be lacking a firm foundation for independent and resource base learning, necessary to extend the imagination and curiosity of children and young adults beyond the classroom instruction.

Public libraries are in dire straits. Budget cuts have been drastic and yet the demand for library materials and study spaces are nearing crisis proportion especially in bigger cities. Major public libraries, in particular are finding it increasingly difficult to cope with the influx of library users from high schools and tertiary educational institutions. What is disheartening is the dangerous trend towards closure of public libraries. The main victims in this sphere are the less dwellers living in predominantly rural and peri-urban areas. Closing libraries for people who already have restricted opportunities, is any to find alternative sources of information can only serve to marginalize them further.

Academic libraries are equally fighting for survival. Libraries are forced to cancel journal subscriptions due to the lack of funds and yet journals are the major tools of academic communication and important sources of more up to date research information. Academic excellence is under siege as fewer books are bought and the capacity of libraries to offer meaningful information services is undermined due to other competing interest on campuses and dwindling government funds.

2. Impact of economical fundamentals

There are many factors contributing to the deteriorating of library services in our countries. Perhaps the more common reasons cited are inadequate resources and low priority accorded to libraries by mother institutions. While it is acknowledged that indeed there are many competing interests in institutions providing primary funding for libraries, the situation could most probably not have been as desperate as it appears if calculated moves were made in advance. Public funded libraries have always been non-profit service organizations and will most likely remain so in the foreseeable future. For this reason the merits or viability of libraries cannot solely be based on the annual balance sheet.

This position should not be mistaken as an admission that library services are in conflict with The market driven economic rationalism often used to justify library budget cuts. On the contrary libraries fit in with the economic design of the market forces, as well as cultural, social and psychological needs of the country. The services libraries provide create opportunities for education, employment, economic enterprise and cultural identity so crucial in evolving a prosperous and democratic society. How then can we allow the arguments of economic imperatives to undermine the future of libraries in a society ridden with illiteracy, poverty and social inequalities. Where is the will to empower the marginlized and transform our societies. The available funds no longer suffice for the needs of libraries and unless library associations stand up, libraries will in future shut down their doors permanently and we the information professionals will find ourselves moving from one door to another looking for jobs. We therefore need to inform the decision makers about the benefits of an adequately funded library.

3. Portraits of librarians of Yesteryear

There is something about us librarians that make us less visible in institutions we serve in particular, and society in general. The library profession could be as old as human civilization but librarians are still a rare species in the mainstream activities of modern society.

Consciously or unconsciously we have largely opted out of the upper echelons of politics, business, industry, sport, education and culture. Instead we have clang to our nest in slumber. Generally speaking our voices are hardly audible. When it is absolutely necessary we whisper to ourselves but we are at pains to talk to people outside our profession. Its no surprise therefore that no one else seem to understand what we do except ourselves. And yet we wonder why our libraries are not accorded high priority in planning and location of resources by our institutions.

This phenomenon is not only unique to our country but its universal and we only vary in degrees. Citing a report on the future of libraries in the digital age the editorial comments of the ALA reads " despite years of promoting library advocacy the profession has failed to convince or even communicate to a significant number of Americans the idea that librarians are highly skilled professionals needed for and capable of leading them anywhere the competency of librarians and services they can do and perform are among the best secretes of our society.

If the images we radiate do matter we have to do something about it because advocacy demands that we come out of our closet and comfort zone and talk to people outside our profession. We are not born librarians we are librarians by nature of training, experience and inclination. We need to ask ourselves whether is there anything that we need to examine about our profession so that we can position ourselves for advocacy and help rediscover our main mission that of servicing the society. Surely we have not reached the demise of our profession there is still more we can offer, we have just started let us therefore leave no stone unturned there is a lot at stake.

What have we done in South Africa.

I would like to make mention of what we have done in our country as far as advocacy is concerned. I would like to cite a speech made by the provincial minister of sport, arts, culture, science and technology in our LIASA's inaugural conference where he said "let me say at the very outset that African renaissance can only be realized if we build a solid foundation of a well-informed society that can make well-informed decisions to enhance and sustain our newly found democracy. The question is, whether this could be possible in a situation where the infrastructure for library and information services is in the state of neglect and starved of all necessary resources. My answer is clearly no, perhaps yours is otherwise". The situation mentioned in this paper is subject to change in our country as our association made a policy issue to be adopted by the government. The policy reads as thus:
  1. Ensure that by the year 2004, every community and school in South Africa has access to a well-stocked library or information resource centre.

  2. Ensure that by the year 2004, all community and schools libraries have got access to the information trough appropriate utilization of technology including links to internet

  3. Zero-rating on books, magazines and other information media of educational value for the purpose of value added tax.

  4. Ensure that the library community and LIASA as its representative body are fully consulted by the government in all discussions and initiatives relating to the provision of information, including the national virtual library, multipurpose community centre and information service. And

  5. Put in place without further delay the proposed National advisory council on libraries and information services.

Our association is committed to see to it that libraries are well looked after in terms of staff and resources. I would like to pose then a challenge to the international community to consider making it their priority to advocate for libraries.


We have done well by grouping ourselves to form library associations and therefore we need to stand and be counted. I would like to say now is the time to go home and start rebuilding by going back to the basics. As my state president said " it seems to have happened that we looked at ourselves and said the time had come that we make a super human effort to be other than human to respond to a call to create for ourselves a glorious future and to remind ourselves the Latin saying "Gloria est consequenda - Glory must be sought after". Let me end by saying in the dreams of our society lies the thrust of our blend of advocacy.


1. Adapted from a paper presented by Juliano M Kabamba at the 1999 LIASA conference in Cape Town South Africa.

Reference List

  1. Mnisi, E (1999). "Library advocacy and lobbying in South Africa: Getting junior and non-professional staff on board" Paper presented at the LIASA conference in Cape Town , South Africa.

  2. Schuman, PG (1999) "Speaking up and Speaking out: Ensuring equity through advocacy". American Libraries vol. 30. No. 9.

  3. Editors library journal, (1994) "Americans and Libraries can't wait". Library journal vol. 119. No. 18.


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