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Why digital and physical libraries must coexist in SA

According to a report by, South Africa's public libraries are closing down at an alarming rate across the country. The reasons for this vary from shrinking budgets to management issues to many people using their phones and other mobile devices to access information they once would have accessed in a library. According to Lea-Anne Moses, executive director and trustee at the Fundza Literacy Trust, the latter need not be the reason, as physical libraries and digital tools can co-exist and thrive together.
Why digital and physical libraries must coexist in SA

“In a country with one of the lowest literacy rates in the world at 87% with 3.7 million illiterate people and 73% of people over the age of 16 not interested in reading, the shrinkage of the physical libraries network can only exacerbate the crisis,” says Moses.

Libraries have a pivotal role to play in society, providing free access to information and resources. In a country such as South Africa where literacy is an issue and books are expensive, libraries allow for access to reading materials – something that is crucial for a maintained literacy regimen amongst the population, which if left to decline could be detrimental to the development of any country.

Modern libraries have the opportunity to
provide a space in which physical books, mobi sites, digital libraries
and technological tools can all exist under one roof.

“Libraries can find ways to keep their doors open using innovative digital thinking, while also attracting a new generation of library users by using technology in their everyday offerings. If libraries are to remain open and become more appealing to young people who not only need the information, but a safe space to access information, then physical libraries should be encouraged to become more technologically savvy,” explains Moses.

And many have been. Most libraries today offer Wi-Fi and computer stations for those needing internet access. Additionally, in the Western Cape, for example, if you are a library member, you have access to an online library portal as well as Pressreader where you can access digital versions of the latest newspapers. But libraries need to go beyond this – they should promote the use of digital tools such as that allows for access to hundreds of stories written for teens and young adults by their own peers. By doing so, libraries ensure that there is access to new stories that are relatable and written in multiple South African languages – an important thing to consider if we wish to increase the literacy and comprehension rate in South Africa.

It’s not only digital libraries that highlight the ways in which physical libraries can make use of technology, though. It’s also initiatives such as the one that’s currently being run by Delft Library in Cape Town. The library’s director, Ashley Lewis, has introduced a gaming station that is only able to be used by children if they read books regularly and do their homework first.

Moses notes: “The Delft Library is an excellent example of how the traditional library can modernise to accommodate young people. Not only is the library ensuring that it remains appealing to the community, but it is also a haven for children to relax and unwind in a community plagued by social issues such as drugs, gangsterism and more.”

“From our experience working with teenagers across the country and building a formidable reading and writing culture amongst this population group, we can clearly see a way in which libraries can be effectively experienced in both digital and physical formats. And the Delft Library shows that this can be just as impactful if thought about innovatively.”

“Modern libraries have the opportunity to provide a space in which physical books, mobi sites, digital libraries and technological tools can all exist under one roof. These institutions offer free access to reading materials that can help address societal limitations, bridge the gaps, and enable a conducive learning environment that meets the needs of all South Africans. Instead of closing the doors of libraries, we need to open our minds to the possibilities that exist within,” Moses concludes.

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