Libraries, though, have the potential to fill an important gap for those who live in households without books, computers or even a well-lit space to do homework. But instead of investing in these resources, which have the potential to improve the prospects of a great many people and help facilitate social and economic development, many libraries have been caught between local and provincial government, with neither sphere servicing them adequately. Prior to democracy, most public libraries were the responsibility of local municipalities – which, under apartheid, meant they were well-resourced when located in ‘white’ areas and CBDs, and under-resourced or nonexistent in black townships. But the 1996 constitution made libraries an area of exclusive provincial competence. In many areas, municipalities continue to run libraries on an agency basis for the province but do not always receive adequate funds. And, in spite of the Constitutional mandate to promote social and economic development, many municipalities treat libraries as an unwanted stepchild. Although some of the country’s libraries are well resourced and well run, a great many are severely neglected, and new libraries are not being established fast enough to tackle the apartheid backlog. Like so many other amenities, disadvantaged citizens often do not benefit from these public goods, that in much of the world make a real difference in the lives of people, from the pensioner who cannot afford to buy books, magazines or daily newspapers, to young people who need to learn about and use the Internet if they are to benefit from the knowledge economy.
The lack of resources available to libraries means that many are not able to keep up with the times. While books and printed material will always have an important place, the Internet and electronic media have become a vital and cost-effective source of information, and all libraries should be able to provide Internet access to users. Good libraries contribute to economic growth and opportunity by making knowledge accessible. But, as importantly, they help build our communities by providing a pool of resources we can all share. Many libraries, in spite of their limited book budgets, are also places where people can meet, literacy groups can gather and where volunteers offer their services. Investing in them further will bring the nation big returns.