Burning libraries for the people : questions and challenges for the library profession in South Africa

01 Apr 2014

Since 2005 at least fifteen community and public libraries have been deliberately set alight in South African townships and informal settlements, reportedly by individuals or groups from the communities which these libraries were intended to serve. This has given rise to dismay, horror and outrage among librarians. This article seeks to situate the deliberate destruction of libraries in a broader international context before focusing on the South African context of what are commonly called “service delivery protests.” An overview is given of some recent scholarly analyses of violent protests in South African communities in an attempt to answer four questions: (1) what were the circumstances in which libraries were set alight? (2) who did this? (3) were libraries deliberately targeted or were they simply collateral damage? and (4) if libraries were deliberately targeted, what motivated this? A fifth question concerns how the South African library profession responded to these incidents. Using the burning of the Ratanda Library on 20 March 2012 as a case study, the article explores the response of the South African library profession to the incident. In an analysis of the content of contributions posted on the discussion list and website of the Library and Information Association of South Africa (LIASA), four main groups of themes are identified. These concern expressions of revulsion, the impact of the incident, professional action, and underlying societal issues. The article concludes with some observations on the responses of the South African library community.