Global gleanings no 12:  LIASA in the Literature. Part 1: the beginnings

Twenty-five years! It calls for a celebration, and so this edition of my column and the next are devoted to what has been written about LIASA, both here and internationally. It comes in two parts. In Part 1 I deal with LIASA’s “prehistory”, the processes that led to its founding in 1997, and its first annual conference in 1998. Part 2 deals with LIASA’s development after 1998, and will follow in the next issue of LIASA-in-Touch.

This is more than a literature review, for I also share some personal recollections and reflections on a hectic period of my life, when I was deeply involved in what became LIASA. To compile it, I searched my own database, followed up references, and (not having access currently to any of the specialist bibliographic databases) searched in Google Scholar. If any important sources have eluded me, I will be happy to receive the references. I have not limited myself to foreign literature. In fact, most of the references are to South African writings. However, I have not included items from LIASA’s own publications, annual reports and the like, which are important sources for historians.


The founding of LIASA in 1997 was the result of a long process of reflection, consultation, and concerted action by the leadership of our profession.

I was privileged to play a part in steering this process. My involvement started when I participated  in the ANC-aligned National Educational Policy Investigation (NEPI) project, working on what became the NEPI report on library and information services (National Education Policy Investigation 1992). NEPI was intended as preparation for the expected transfer of power to a democratically elected government. It alerted the library profession to the need for change. In particular, it raised the question: how can and should libraries contribute to the reorientation and transformation of our society? This was the theme of the Conference on Library and Information Services in Developing South Africa (LISDESA), jointly organised by the South African Institute of Library and Information Science (SAILIS) and the African Library Association of South Africa (ALASA), following a long process of confidence building between these associations. The LISDESA Conference took place in Durban in January 1995 (Syphus 1995). Here disunity in the profession became glaringly obvious as a major obstacle. A new, unified, non-racial library association was urgently needed. After vigorous debate, a resolution was passed by an overwhelming majority at the final plenary session of the conference. It called for the establishment of a representative Steering Committee for the Unification of Library and Information Stakeholders (ULIS). The ULIS Steering Committee was instructed to organise a conference within 12 months, when a national library association would be formed. By dint of a huge amount of work and despite several setbacks, the Steering Committee organised the ULIS Conference, which was held in Johannesburg in July 1996. This conference unanimously adopted a formal resolution to embark on a process of unification which would result in the formation of a new library association (Walker 1996). I was elected to chair the Interim Executive Committee that was formed to lead this process. Wanting to adopt a non-partisan position, at this point I resigned as a member of SAILIS. I had been a member of SALIS and its predecessor since 1968.

The Constituent Conference, 1997

It was a tall order, but within a year we managed to organise LIASA’s Constituent Conference. It was held in July 1997 in Pretoria, attended by over 450 participants. Robert (Bob) Wedgeworth, then President of IFLA, Leo Voogt, IFLA Secretary General, Ross Shimmon, Chief Executive of CILIP and later Leo Voogt’s successor at IFLA, and Kay Raseroka, our mentor and in a sense the “godmother” of our association, were there to support and guide us. A draft constitution was proposed and debated at length. On the final morning the proposed constitution, as amended, was put to the vote and adopted unanimously and enthusiastically by a show of hands. Then a final vote was taken on the name of the new association. I have a vivid memory of the three notable IFLA personalities sitting and squatting on the podium while they counted the votes. The members of the provincial support groups (PSGs) and a Transitional Executive Committee (TEC) were elected. The conference concluded with the launching of the new association at a festive luncheon for all the participants and several guests of honour, including the then Minister of Education, Prof. Sibusisu Bengu. Here Bob Wedgeworth announced the result of the vote on the name of the new association. The name chosen was the Library and Information Association of South Africa (LIASA). The acronym LIASA appropriately sounds like the Nguni word “liyasa”, which means “dawning” or “beginning”.

During the Constituent Conference we started a membership drive. I signed up first, and that is how I became Member no. 1. My wife, Monika was next, and became Member no. 2. For the occasion she had arranged for the creation of an art installation, in the form of a bare tree. A piece of coloured paper cut into the shape of a leaf was included in the delegates’ conference packs. Participants who wanted to join LIASA were encouraged to write their hopes and wishes for LIASA on their leaf, and attach it to the tree. Are there any old-timers who remember it, and still have photographs? Mine are lost. I do hope that some survive in LIASA’s archive.

I was elected to chair the TEC. Our task was to recruit members, negotiate with the existing library associations, lobby government, hold elections for office-bearers, and organise LIASA’s first annual conference.

Towards the first Annual Conference (1998)

The existing library associations with which we negotiated were SAILIS and ALASA. The Library and Information Workers Organization, LIWO, had opted out of the process. Here I need to clarify a point which is quite often misunderstood. We did not attempt to unify the library associations. We sought to unify the library and information profession. That is why we asked SAIS and ALASA to disband and to encourage their members to join LIASA. We did not ask them to transfer their members to us. The reason for this is that SAILIS was well-organised, well-resourced and much larger than ALASA. A merger of the two would have looked too much like a takeover by SAILIS. The members of ALASA had built up their association in the face of many difficulties and they were rightly proud of that they had achieved by themselves. Anything that looked like a takeover would have lacked credibility. This was a difficult decision, which the TEC members debated passionately. A merger would have created an association with a membership of several thousand from the word go. By the process we chose, we risked losing some of those members. This is indeed what happened. SAILIS and ALASA agreed to disband, but despite our recruitment efforts most SAILIS members and some from ALASA never joined LIASA. Today LIASA is still struggling to grow its membership. We had to pay a price for our credibility, but I do not think we realized how large and long-lasting the effect of the decision would be.

During this period, along with other TEC members, and with the generous support of the State Library Board, I travelled all over South Africa to explain to LIS workers what we were doing and to encourage them to join. We went not only to major cities but also to smaller centres where library associations had never met. I recall going to George, Uitenhage, and Empangeni, among other towns.

All the TEC’s tasks were urgent, but one stood out. We had to act without delay to sensitise government to the deterioration of the country’s libraries. After we had collected information from members and institutions throughout the country and from other sources, a memorandum on The state of libraries in South Africa (Lor 1998a) was submitted to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee for Arts, Culture, Languages, Science and Technology, which received it sympathetically – but without doing much about it. When presenting the memorandum, I suggested to the MPs that on every six-pack of beer a one cent levy should be imposed to fund books, reading and libraries. They thought this amusing. But just imagine how much money this could have raised!  The memorandum was widely disseminated and received considerable attention from the media.

In preparation for the first annual conference, the TEC had held an election for LIASA’s committees and office-bearers. After my exhilarating and exhausting spell in the hot seat, I was both proud and relieved to hand over LIASA as “a going concern” to LIASA’s first elected President, Ellen Tise, and her executive at the first annual conference, held in Bloemfontein in November 1998. I remained active in the Northern Gauteng branch and national executive, but my attention necessarily shifted to my international work, as chair of the Conference of Directors of National Libraries (CDNL) and especially to my work at the State Library. Together with the South African Library in Cape Town, we were on the cusp of transformation as we drafted new legal deposit and national library legislation and prepared for the merger of the two national libraries to form the National Library of South Africa.

Literature about the founding of LIASA

A fair amount has been written about the founding of LIASA.  Having been deeply involved, I was in a position to report on the process, but had little time to do this. I did report on LIASA to the international profession at a conference in Budapest in May 1998. It formed part of the Andrew Mellon Foundation’s programme to renew libraries and librarianship in Eastern Europe after the break-up of the Soviet empire. Here the founding of LIASA was held up as an example for librarians in that region to follow (Lor 1998c). I realize that very few of my readers are likely to read Ukrainian, but given our grave concern about the fate of our colleagues in Ukraine, I feel I should mention that Ukrainian librarians expressed a lot of interest in my paper. It was subsequently translated into Ukrainian and published in their library journal Visnyk Knyzhkovoi palaty (Lor 1998b). I find it very sad that colleagues who were trying so hard to establish a professional association fit for a newly democratic dispensation, are suffering under Russian aggression. The paper was subsequently published by the Open Society Institute (Lor 1999). I also gave a paper on LIASA at the 1998 IFLA Conference (Lor 1998d). However, it was the late Clare Walker who was the most prolific in writing up our prehistory and beginnings (Walker 1993; 1994; 1996; 1997; 1998; 2004). Gwenda Thomas also reported on LIASA’s prehistory in the SAILIS newsletter (Thomas 1996; 1997), and the birth of LIASA was discussed in a paper by Rachel More at a conference of African Library Association of South Africa (ALASA) in June 1998 (More 1998).

Concluding thought

There are limits to what one can learn from published literature about LIASA. For a fuller picture we need to study LIASA’s own publications, trawl through its archives for unpublished documents, and collect the reminiscences of those who were there. I would encourage the current LIASA leaders to nurture the archives and to elicit reminiscences from the surviving pioneers by means of oral history recordings. Now, before it is too late!


Lor, Peter Johan. 1998a. “Memorandum on the  State of Libraries in South Africa, March 1998.  [Unpublished Memorandum Submitted to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Arts, Culture, Languages, Science and Technology, Cape Town, 24 March 1998.].”

———. 1998b. “Syla v jednosti: stvorennya novoyi bibliotechnoyi asotsiatsiyi v Pivdenniy Afrytsi pislya aparteidu [Unity is strength: establishing a new library association for post-apartheid South Africa].” Visnyk Knyzhkovoi palaty 26 (8): 33–35.

———. 1998c. “Unity Is Strength: Establishing a New Library Association for Post-Apartheid South Africa.” Presented at the Conference “The 21st Century Information Society: The Role of Library Associations,” Budapest, May 10.

———. 1998d. “LIASA: The Birth and Development of South Africa’s New Library Association – 64th IFLA General Conference – Conference Programme and Proceedings.” Conference paper presented at the 64th IFLA General Conference, Amsterdam, August.

———. 1999. “Unity Is Strength: Establishing a New Library Association for Post-Apartheid South Africa.” In Twenty-First Century Information Society: The Role of Library Associations; Proceedings of the Conference… Organised by the Open Society Institute, Budapest in Collaboration with Ther Council of Europe, edited by Marianna Tax Choldin, 9–21. DECS/CULT/POL/Book (99) 10. Budapest: Open Society Institute.

More, Rachel. 1998. “From ALASA to LIASA.” Conference paper presented at the ALASA Conference, Johannesburg, June 14.

National Education Policy Investigation. 1992. Library and Information Services: Report of the NEPI Library and Information Services Research Group. Cape Town: Oxford University Press and NECC.

Syphus, Matthew. 1995. “Call for New LIS Association – Resolution Passed at LISDESA Conference.” SAILIS Newsletter 15 (2): 1,11.

Thomas, Gwenda. 1996. “Unification of the Library and Information Stakeholders in South Africa: A Progress Report.” SAILIS Newsletter 16 (9): 13–14.

———. 1997. “Background to the Unification of the Library and Information Stake-holders in South Africa: Phase Two.” SAILIS Newsletter 17 (7): 10.

Walker, Clare M. 1993. “From Carnegie to NEPI: Ideals and Realities.” Mousaion 11 (2): 58–83.

———. 1994. “Dreams, Policies, Problems and Practitioners: Learning to Provide Information for All.” South African Journal of Library and Information Science 62 (4): 117–27.

———. 1996. “Unification of Library and Information Stakeholders (ULIS) Conference.” SAILIS Newsletter 16 (7): 1, 4–5, 11.

———. 1997. “Unity and New Beginnings: Report on the ULIS-2 Constituent Conference, Pretoria, 8–10 July, and the Founding of the Library and Information Association of South Africa.” IFLA Journal 23 (5/6): 408–12.

———. 1998. “SAILIS and the Unification of LIS in South Africa in the 1990s.” SAILIS Newsletter 18 (5): 45–46.

———. 2004. “From NEPI to NCLIS: A ‘Do-Decade’ of Democratisation, 1992–2004.” Conference paper presented at the 7th LIASA Annual Conference.

About Peter Lor

Peter Johan Lor is a Netherlands-born South African librarian and academic. In retirement he continues to pursue scholarly interests as a research fellow in the Department of Information Science at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.
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