This is a slightly expanded version of my column of news, views and snippets from the international literature of books, libraries, and information, compiled for LIASA-in-Touch, the quarterly newsletter of the Library and Information Association of South Africa (LIASA).
An unexpected eruption?
I had started writing this column when, suddenly, violence and looting erupted in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. As I write now, churches and other faith communities are calling upon their members to pray for peace. At the same time social media are sharing heart-warming reports of people coming together to clear away the debris and clean the looted shops and malls. It is good to see and hear this, and even better to participate. Understandably, we are responding to the immediate problem of restoring normality – something that has preoccupied us since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Returning to normality?
But, while we all want peace and order to return, what sort of normality do we want to return to? The same society, with its unemployment, poverty, hunger and deprivation, the same inequality?
There can be no lasting peace without justice. Massive inequality is not compatible with social justice, and it is not a good basis for a stable democracy. The Gini coefficient measures economic inequality, or more strictly, income inequality (Investopedia). According to the World Population Review, South Africa this year (2021) has the highest Gini coefficient of all the 165 countries reported. Here the highest number means being the bottom of the class. We live in one of the most unequal societies on the planet. If this does not change, the tinder will still be there, waiting for the next spark to set it ablaze. Once again, it raised in my mind a question that has been nagging me for many years: what can libraries do to promote social justice? So, I set aside most of the literature I had collected, to focus on some literature on social justice and libraries – with a bit of political philosophy thrown in.
What is meant by social justice? Perhaps the most influential 20th century theorists to address this question was the American philosopher John B. Rawls (1921-2002) (Richardson n.d.). This is tough stuff! (Garrett 2005). At grave risk of oversimplification let me state that Rawls conceptualized justice as fairness. I renumber his three principles for a fair society: (1) Society must give each citizen an equal claim to basic rights and liberties. (2) Social structures should ensure equality of opportunity. (3) More controversially, economic inequalities are acceptable provided they are to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.
The South African Constitution contains a world-class Bill of Rights (in Chapter 2). Everyone has a claim to basic rights and liberties (Principle 1). But the way our society is structured does not ensure equality of opportunity to the most disadvantaged (Principle 2), and so it is hard to argue that the glaring economic inequality we see here is of any benefit to the least advantaged (Principle 3). Poverty is self-perpetuating. Kids born into poor communities generally get inferior nutrition, health care, and education, and grow up amid many social problems, including family breakdown, teenage pregnancy, crime and substance abuse. From birth many are condemned for life to the disadvantages affecting their parents.
Combating information poverty
Information poverty is a key obstacle to overcoming economic and social deprivation. Responding to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Libraries Initiative launched a multi-stakeholder and multidisciplinary programme to share expertise in the field (Marcella & Chowdhury 2020). Libraries, especially public libraries, do promote equality of opportunity and combat information poverty. We provide access to reading matter, safe, well-lit places to read and study, as well as computers and Internet access to help overcome the digital divide (Evans 2020; Williams & Muller 2021), which has an impact on children in particular (United Nations Children’s Fund 2017). We organize story hours and other activities to keep kids off the streets and supplement their poor information diet. During the pandemic, some American public libraries organized story hours in their parking lots. We adapt our collection policies to make libraries more welcoming to reluctant readers, for example by collecting graphic novels (comics). We teach information literacy to help library users become discerning information consumers (Revez & Corujo 2021). In the USA, public libraries often go further, for example by helping users to register as voters, allowing them to participate as equals in community, state and national decision making – which is really important because in the USA there are often significant barriers inhibiting poor and less-educated voters from exercising this basic civil right. They also engage in less ‘librarianly’ ways such as organizing food banks and urban gardens, as reported in earlier columns.
Changing how we think
There is much more we can do, and this is certainly a key topic for South African LIS workers to explore. But changing what we do is mostly easier than changing how we think. In my view the greatest challenge to us as South African librarians is to think inside-out, from inside the disadvantaged communities to what we librarians do. Can we see society from their perspective? Can we escape the insidious “us versus them” mentality? Most of us have steady jobs and incomes (maybe less than we would like!) and have, or aspire to, middle class environments, where we will surely encounter many who blame the poor for their poverty. How often have I heard the infuriating pronouncements, “They drink too much”, and “They have too many babies”, lamentably confounding cause and effect. Often, we “sympathetically” deny what sociologists call the agency of the poor. Thus, in the dark days of apartheid, community protests were blamed on agitators, intimidation and communists – so denying that the protestors were autonomous, thinking human beings. In the aftermath of the “Zuma disorders” we must not fall into this trap again. Some years ago, when I was struggling to make sense of a spate of library burnings (Lor 2013), I found a study tellingly entitled The smoke that calls (von Holdt et al 2011), based on observation and in-depth interviews with protest participants and community members, very insightful. If you want to understand what factors get people so worked up that they want to burn things down, that report is worth rereading.
We LIS professionals are not higher beings who have to “uplift” the lower classes and the marginalised to our level so that we can comfortably maintain the status quo. In a ground-breaking essay, the feminist critical theorist, Gayatri Spivak (1988), asked, “Can the subaltern speak?” We must allow the disadvantaged and marginalized to speak, so that we can critically rethink the status quo and what we do from their perspective. Matt Finch wrote that libraries are “innately subversive institutions”, and so they were during the struggle against apartheid, as Archie Dick (2012) has shown. Are you prepared to be subversive?
 Rawls stated two principles. The second one comes in two parts. I’ve renumbered them as three.
 Is poverty necessarily self-perpetuating? Not all agree. A thorough analysis of the social impacts of inequality in Europe is found in a report on a project funded by the European Community (McKnight & Nolan 2012).
Dick, Archie Leonard. 2012. The Hidden History of South Africa’s Book and Reading Cultures. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Evans, Talia. 2020. “Bridging the Digital Divide in the Age of COVID-19.” Text. Advocacy, Legislation & Issues (blog). August 6, 2020. https://www.ala.org/advocacy/diversity/odlos-blog/digital-divide-partnerships
Garrett, Jan. 2005. “Rawls’ Mature Theory of Social Justice: An Introduction for Students.” WKU Western Kentucky University. August 24, 2005. http://people.wku.edu/jan.garrett/ethics/matrawls.htm.
Holdt, Karl von, Malose Langa, Sepetla Molapo, Nomfundo Mogapi, Kindiza Ngubeni, Jacob Dlamini, and Adele Kirsten. 2011. The Smoke That Calls: Insurgent Citizenship, Collective Violence and the Struggle for a Place in the New South Africa.. Johannesburg: Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation; and Society, Work and Development Institute, University of the Witwatersrand. http://www.humansecuritygateway.com/documents/CSVR_InsurgentCitizenshipCollectiveViolenceandStruggleforaPlaceinNewSA.pdf.
Lor, Peter Johan. 2013. “Burning Libraries for the People: Questions and Challenges for the Library Profession in South Africa.” Libri 63 (4): 359–72. https://doi.org/10.1515/libri-2013-0028
Marcella, Rita, and Gobinda Chowdhury. 2020. “Eradicating Information Poverty: An Agenda for Research.” Journal of Librarianship and Information Science 52 (2): 366–81. https://doi.org/10.1177/0961000618804589.
McKnight, Abigail, and Brian Nolan. 2012. Social Impacts of Inequality Report. Vol. 4. AIAS, GINI Internediate Work Package.
Revez, Jorge, and Luís Corujo. 2021. “Librarians against Fake News: A Systematic Literature Review of Library Practices (Jan. 2018–Sept. 2020).” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 47 (2): 102304. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2020.102304.
Richardson, Henry S. n.d. “John Rawls (1921-2002).” In Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://iep.utm.edu/rawls/.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorti. 1988. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, edited by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, 271–313. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
United Nations Children’s Fund. 2017. Children in a Digital World. The State of the World’s Children 2017. New York: United Nations Children’s Fund. https://www.unicef.org/media/48601/file.
Williams, Audra, and Charlie Muller. 2021. “Libraries Are Bridging the Digital Divide.” Internet Society (blog). March 17, 2021. https://www.internetsociety.org/blog/2021/03/libraries-are-bridging-the-digital-divide/.