Libraries burning again

In 2013 I published an article in Libri about the alarming number of cases in which community libraries had been deliberately set alight in South African townships and informal settlements. Reportedly, this was done by individuals or groups from the communities which those libraries were intended to serve (Lor 2013). What was particularly distressing to South Africa’s library profession was that this was happening after the end of apartheid, under a democratic government which has been making considerable investments in expanding access to library and information services.

After the publication of the article and a related article on “Risks and benefits of political visibility” (Lor 2016), my attention shifted to other areas, and especially the imperative of completing my book. Having not paid much attention to events in community libraries, it was with dismay that I read a statement issued on 13 July 2019 by LIASA President Nikki Crowster, reacting to the burning down of the Letsopa Community Library, in Ottosdal, North West Province.  The Letsopa Community Library was completed in 2014 at a cost of ZAR 12 million (approximately USD 1 million) to serve one of the poorest communities in the province. It was reported to be a state-of-the art community library, which included a toy library for children and special facilities for the blind.

A few minutes’ web searching turned up several more recent cases in which libraries have been damaged or destroyed by arson during the last year: at least three cases during July 2018 and three more during July 2019. The fact that these cases occur in July may be a coincidence, or it could be significant.  In July it is winter here, and the frustrations of residents lacking reliable water, electricity, sanitation, and road infrastructure must be aggravated by the cold, dark days. Underlying this comment is the general assumption that these incidents are part of “service delivery protests”, where residents of townships express their dissatisfaction with local conditions in demonstrations which routinely turn violent. During the protests, major roads are blocked by burning tyres, vehicles are stopped, looted, and torched. Schools, youth centres, municipal offices, clinics, and municipal vehicles as well as the homes of some elected municipal councillors, have been targeted, along with factories and businesses in adjoining industrial areas and private vehicles which inadvertently entered the conflict zone. In the nearby coastal town of Plettenberg Bay, it has been estimated that damage caused during recent protests amounted to around ZAR 50 million (approximately USD 3,5 million), and that the town’s image as a popular seaside destination, built up over years, has been severely damaged.

It should be noted that libraries are not the only facilities subjected to arson attacks. They are by no means the most frequent targets. The assets targeted may bear no relation to the subject of the protest. Schools are frequent targets in protests entirely unrelated to education. In the Zebediela area of the Limpopo Province, a primary school library was set alight as part of protesters’ move to shut down all schools in the area – an action which would have dire consequences for learners preparing for their end-of-school examinations. The reason for the protest? Community members are demanding the construction of a tarred (macadamized) road to serve the community. To outsiders it is puzzling that community members seem bent on destroying the facilities which have been provided for them since the end of apartheid, facilities intended to serve as an instrument of development. There is little evidence that libraries – like schools – are being torched for any reason other than they happen to be there, and that they are seen by the protesters as part or symbol of government.

Various explanations have been offered for the frequency of community protests and the violence which accompanies them. The explanation most often advanced is frustration with the lack of services provided by municipal and provincial government, as mentioned above. In May last year the Minister of Governance and Traditional Affairs, Dr Zweli Mkhize, reported to Parliament that 87, roughly 31% of the country’s municipalities are “dysfunctional or distressed”. In May this year, the Auditor-General reported that only 18 of South Africa’s 278 municipalities audited had “clean audits”, and that the situation had regressed since the previous year. Community libraries, as municipal agencies, cannot fail to be affected by the crises affecting far too many municipalities. Schools, although not run by municipalities, are frequent targets too.

Secondly, it has been suggested that the protests can sometimes be linked to power struggles within the political party controlling the municipality. A position as a mayor or municipal councillor offers tempting opportunities for self-enrichment and nepotism, hence there is intense competition for these positions.

Thirdly, it is often reported in the media that “criminal elements” exploit the popular discontent, officials stating in the case of Plettenberg Bay, that

the overwhelming public evidence is that this is rampant crime, accompanied by violence, looting, theft and the vandalism, malicious damage of public and private property; with a total disregard of the losses and major inconvenience to business owners, their employees and families…

In earlier cases, it was reported that equipment such as computers was stolen before the buildings were set on fire, while theft of computers and other valuables from school premises remains widespread.

Fourth, the violent contestation can also be interpreted as a legacy of apartheid. Frustrated by the lack of response from the post-apartheid authorities, communities are reverting to a repertoire of actions which they had employed during their struggles against the apartheid regime.

Journalists, political scientists, sociologists and criminologists have written extensively about popular protests (summarized in Lor 2013). It has been pointed out that the term “service delivery protests” is an over-simplification, because not all protests are concerned with poor service delivery. Instead, the term “popular protests” is preferred. The various disciplines take different approaches to this phenomenon. One of the more graphic and insightful studies was that carried out by an interdisciplinary team at the University of the Witwatersrand and the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in Johannesburg. The title of the report, The smoke that calls, reflects the rationale often cited by protesters: setting fire is the only effective means of drawing the attention of the authorities to their grievances. The researchers pointed to the rapid processes of post-apartheid class formation, in which “a new elite is emerging” along with “a large underclass of unemployed and precariously employed persons”. They placed this in the context of the transition from apartheid to democracy, which they saw giving rise to “fierce struggles over inclusion and exclusion within the elite, between elites and subalterns, and within the subaltern classes themselves” (Von Holdt et al. 2011, 6). These struggles involve contestation over what it means to be a citizen, and play themselves out in community protests.

Where does this leave libraries?

There are no easy answers. Libraries need to be embedded in their communities. They need to be physically located there, even if it places them in harm’s way. If communities are distressed, libraries will be affected.  Ultimately, if we as librarian believe that in the long term libraries contribute to the development of healthier, socially cohesive and inclusive communities, that is where libraries need to be.


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. Eight Case Studies of Community Protest and Xenophobic Violence’. Johannesburg: Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation; and Society, Work and Development Institute, University of the Witwatersrand.

Lor, Peter Johan. 2013. ‘Burning Libraries for the People: Questions and Challenges for the Library Profession in South Africa’. Libri 63 (4): 359–72. doi:10.1515/libri-2013-0028.

———. 2016. ‘Risks and Benefits of Visibility: Librarians Navigating Social and Political Turbulence’. Library Trends 65 (2): 108–27. doi:10.1353/lib.2016.0025.


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Inaccuracy, fallacies, and fake news: reference for Global Gleanings #1

From August 2018 LIASA-in-Touch, the newsletter of the Library and Information Association of South Africa (LIASA), will carry a column entitled “Global gleanings”, in which I highlight recent publications of professional and scholarly interest as well as quaint snippets from the international literature of LIS and related fields.

Space limitations preclude the publishing of long lists of references. Instead, they will appear in this blog. Here is the first such list.

Andersdotter, Karolina. 2017. ‘Alternative Facts and Fake News – Verifiability in the Information Society’. IFLA Library Policy and Advocacy Blog. January 27.

Beck, Julie. 2017. ‘This Article Won’t Change Your Mind’. The Atlantic. March 13.

Buschman, John. 2018. ‘Good News, Bad News, and Fake News: Going beyond Political Literacy to Democracy and Libraries’. Journal of Documentation, November. doi:10.1108/JD-05-2018-0074.

Funke, Daniel. 2017. ‘Should We Stop Saying “Fake News”?’ Poynter. December 14.

———. 2019. ‘Misinformation Transcends Platforms, Languages and Countries. How Can Fact-Checkers Stop It?’ Poynter. May 15.

Garvey, Maureen. 2017. ‘Fake News– How the Library Can Help’. CSI Library Newsletter. May 25.

Grabmeier, Jeff. 2019. ‘Is That News Really “Fake,” or Is It Just Biased?’ Ohio State News. July 8.

IFLA. 2019. ‘How to Spot Fake News’. IFLA. April 17.

Jacobs, Frank. 2019. ‘Maps Showing California as an Island? Meet Cartography’s Most Persistent Mistake’. Big Think. July 7.

Kalsnes, Bente. 2018. ‘Fake News’. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication, September. doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780190228613.013.809.

Lor, Peter Johan. 2019. International and Comparative Librarianship: Concepts and Methods for Global Studies. Global Studies in Libraries and Information 4. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter/Saur.

Media Insight Project. 2017. ‘Who Shared It? How Americans Decide What News to Trust on Social Media’. “The Media Insight Project.

Meyer, Robinson. 2018. ‘The Grim Conclusions of the Largest-Ever Study of Fake News’. The Atlantic, March 8.


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Resources for open access, open educational resources, open science, and more

In this post I highlight the work of Denise Nicholson, Scholarly Communications Librarian at the University of Witwatersrand (‘Wits”), who holds a master’s degree in intellectual property law. Denise publishes a free online international information service, [Copyrightanda2kinfo] Copyright & A2K Issues, covering a wide range of topics, including copyright, plagiarism, predatory publishing, and other intellectual property matters, open access, open publishing, open learning resources, institutional repositories, scholarly communication, digitization and library matters, mobile technologies, issues affecting access to knowledge (A2K), particularly in developing countries; World Trade Organization (WTO) and World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) treaties, reports and negotiations and matters; free trade agreements and the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) and attempts to expand it (TRIPS Plus); useful websites, conference alerts, etc.  The content is archived at: One can subscribe to the list at: or email It is kept well up-to-date.

She also maintains a range of useful LibGuides, among others, on Open Access, A2K & Scholarly Communication, Open educational resources, Open Educational Resources for Humanities & Social Sciences: Introduction to OERs, and Scholarly Communication/Publication: Intro. They are well-organized, up-to-date, and crammed with useful links.

While writing chapters 7 and 8 of my book I made good use of Denise’s information service and several of her LibGuides, and I’m indebted to her for constructive comments on the drafts of those chapters. Chapter 7 deals generally with the political economy of information, whilst Chapter 8 is concerned with access to knowledge and global flows of information. To systematize and summarize the huge volume of writing on the latter, I used access to knowledge (A2K) as my umbrella term. Confining myself largely to scholarly communication, I placed attitudes to the intellectual property regime and the positions and initiatives taken in response to it on a continuum ranging from explicit or implicit acceptance of the IP system, through increasing forms of resistance, to rejection of it, as depicted in the following diagram (p.461):

I tend to conceptualize open access as being roughly in the middle of this continuum, since it reflects some ambivalence about intellectual property. Some theorists see the term “intellectual property” as a contradiction in terms, but depending on which model is proposed (grey, green, gold, etc.) there is implicit acceptance of intellectual property along with the desire to combat its excesses. There is much continuing discussion about this,  which is summarized very briefly in my book. Denise’s information service will help you to keep up to date.

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At last! That book

Published at last. Here is the table of contents. For publication details, see here.

International and comparative librarianship book

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Plastic polution: our contribution?

In the last few years the problem of plastic pollution has become a prominent issue in popular media. It is a huge problem. The website of Surfers Against Sewage reports that:

In 1950, the world’s population of 2.5 billion produced 1.5 million tons of plastic; in 2016, a global population of more than 7 billion people produced over 320 million tons of plastic. This is set to double by 2034.

Every day approximately 8 million pieces of plastic pollution find their way into our oceans.

There may now be around 5.25 trillion macro and microplastic pieces floating in the open ocean. Weighing up to 269,000 tonnes.

The figures are so horrifying that they seem unreal. But the reality hit home when I received a recent issue of a library journal a few days ago. I noticed that it was wrapped in a double layer of quite heavy transparent plastic. In fact, I realize now, every LIS journal I receive, along with every other printed magazine and newsletter, comes wrapped in plastic. No doubt journals in which articles about plastic pollution appear are also shipped in plastic wrappers…

Where does the discarded plastic end up? We put it in the “recyclables” bin, but that by no means guarantees that it is recycled. Is this plastic recyclable? Does our local authority have the capacity to recycle it? Here in South Africa – and no doubt in other parts of the developing world – municipal waste disposal services are not necessarily coping with the volume of waste. Neighbours say that we need not bother to separate our waste, since it all ends up in the same local landfill. That shouldn’t be, but it’s a fact of life in many parts.

This shows that, whilst recycling is important, it is not the complete solution. The  proliferation of plastic should be reduced at source. Journals and magazines should again be wrapped in paper. And it would be even better, faster and more economical, to disseminate them online to all but the declining number of subscribers who have no connectivity. Could the LIS community not set an example?

Afterthought: IFLA’s beautifully produced annual report still comes in a good quality paper envelope.

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Disabled adults in libraries

I’ve just received my copy of the Winter 2019 issue of Library trends (volume 67, no. 3), in a plastic wrapper (about which more later). This issue is devoted to disabled adults in libraries. The introduction, by issue editors Jessica Schomberg and Shanna Honnich, who both identify themselves as disabled, offers a brief but useful overview of “disability models”, the various models by means of which society has conceptualized disability over the past century or two: moral, medical, rehabilitation, social, and critical models. They then introduce the articles that follow. These cover a wide spectrum of disability and deal with disabled persons both as library workers and library users. The articles mostly adopt a critical disability perspective and range from first-person and auto-ethnographic accounts through quantitative and qualitative survey studies. Informative, insightful and sometimes moving, this issue offers the profession new perspectives for what the editors hope will be “a more widespread and much-needed conversation” on issues of disability and libraries. They certainly challenged some of my assumptions and opened my eyes to dimensions I had never considered before. Recommended reading.

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The Library ABC

In answer to questions: earlier blog posts, below, about the ABC are out of date. For all the instalments to date, and for the background story, go to the Library ABC page.

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Journals in international and comparative librarianship

Several years ago I posted here a list of “Important journals in international and comparative librarianship”. It listed eight journals that at the time seemed to be the most important sources of useful articles for my research.  Now that my book has been completed I have revisited the list.

I cited articles from roughly 260 journals, newspapers and newsletters. The majority of these were cited less than five times, most of course only once or twice. Thirty-six journals were cited five times or more. A list of these titles appears here, in rank order. There are no journals specifically dedicated to international and comparative librarianship, but some of the general library and information science journals stood out as sources of useful material. In the book I made extensive use of comparative literature from other disciplines. This is reflected in the ranking of two comparative education journals.  Two newspapers, The Guardian, and The Economist, also appear in the list.

All but one of the journals listed originally are still on the new list: Focus…, IFLA journal, Information development, International information & library review, Libri, New library world, and World libraries. Library times international, which in the end did not yield useful material, ceased with volume 26, no. 4, 2010.

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Everything preserved and discoverable for ever: dream or nightmare?

Whereas the US Library of Congress drastically scaled back its archive of Twitter posts at the end of 2017, the National Library of China has announced that it will archive posts on China’s Weibo microblogging site. On 22 April 2019 the South China Morning Post reported that

“More than 210 million news stories published on, the news portal operated by the parent company of Weibo Sina Corp, together with 200 billion public posts on Weibo, will be archived under a non-profit project by the national library” with the aim of chronicling “ the evolution of civilisation in the internet era for the ‘long term development of information security and digitisation of the country’”.

As a former national library director and one-time chair of the Conference of Directors of National Libraries (CDNL), I was involved in discussions in the mid-1990s on the archiving of internet content by national libraries.  Our discussions focussed on the potential use of legal deposit legislation, technology (how to trawl the web efficiently), and copyright. In principle, I applaud all national library initiatives to preserve their countries’ digital heritage. Indeed the decision by the Library of Congress to limit its archiving to selected tweets has been criticized as a tragic failure to preserve the public record. It is in the public interest that the more or less carefully considered tweets posted by Mr Trump and other public figures be collected for analysis by journalists, political scientists, and historians. A comprehensive database of tweets will be invaluable for media sociologists, political scientists – and security agencies – in analysing the use of Twitter to disseminate fake news and destabilize democratic institutions. And Twitterstorms, in which large numbers of ordinary citizens give vent to their feelings, must be of interest to students of crowd behavious and future social historians.

However, projects of this nature do raise some interesting issues. One is the issue of copyright. Another is that of privacy, explored in a 2012 paper by Smith, Henne and Von Voigt on big data privacy issues in public social media.  I wonder, how many people who tweet spontaneously do so expecting that their messages will be preserved indefinitely and made available to parties not yet identified? In the past, people also sent private messages using postcards, which could be read by anyone through whose hands they passed. But today massive computing power and clever machine-learning algorithms technology make it possible for both good and bad actors to sift through the treasure trove of social media posts rapidly and accurately and learn a great deal more about us than we may think. There is no such thing as a neutral technology.

Before I forget: This is a good opportunity to recognize the [NAT-LIB] National Libraries News site, run by Genevieve Clavel and Stuart Hamilton, where I found the piece on the project which sparked this reflection.

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In press at last

After years of work, my book International and comparative librarianship: concepts and methods (ISBB 978-3-11-026799-0), has been submitted to the printers. It is being published under the auspices of IFLA by the respected German academic and scholarly publisher, De Gruyter Saur, as volume 4 in the series Global studies in libraries and information. It will be released in Berlin and Boston in July 2019, in time for a launch at the August 2019 IFLA World Library and Information Congress.

The book was announced some years ago – embarrassingly long ago – in the De Gruyter Saur catalogue at approximately 400 pages, with the subtitle A thematic approach. But it evolved. As I worked, I was emphatically reminded that professors don’t write books about what they know; rather, they write about what they think they know, but need to check.  This resulted in a long research effort, which sorely tried the patience of my editors, family, and friends. (Thank you all!). Obviously I tried to unearth as much as possible of what has been written about international and comparative librarianship over the years. But I was also led to explore other topics in many disciplines. These included ontology, epistemology, and other branches of philosophy, communication science, systems science, social science research methodology, diffusion of innovations and policy transfer, comparative education and other comparative sciences, political economy, colonialism, and development studies, not to mention just about every area in library and information science.

International and comparative librarianship is a field for generalists. We are interested in everything, as long as it has an international dimension.

After several million keystrokes (with my own two index fingers – I started typing as a child and never mastered touch typing) and after oft-repeated editing and retyping, I have produced a doorstop of more than 330,000 words: thirteen chapters, 734 pages of text, a 130-page bibliography listing over 2,000 entries, and a detailed forty-page index. Here is the table of contents.

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