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Public Libraries and Social Inclusion: An Update from South Africa

Perspectives on Libraries as Institutions of Human Rights and Social Justice

ISBN: 978-1-78635-058-9, eISBN: 978-1-78635-057-2

ISSN: 0065-2830

Publication date: 26 February 2016



Since the 1994 regime change many South African public libraries have been destroyed by the communities they were serving which raises questions about how communities perceive these libraries. With the loss of activist library organizations, few insights are gained from activists or critical librarianship on how to respond. In this context, the chapter examines public library social inclusion and poverty alleviation initiatives, and government conditional grants to public libraries.


Using a transformative paradigm, a qualitative approach and thematic analysis, the chapter examines recent literature on public libraries and social inclusion, and local annual and parliamentary reports. A mini-survey yields case study material.


The findings augment the scarce store of recent evidence on South African public libraries. Most provinces had built new libraries, upgraded others, and installed information and communication infrastructure to enhance access. Problems included governance, fund wastage, and staffing. The libraries have great potential to improve their relevance for local communities.

Research limitations

The poor survey response rate and lack of a comprehensive national database on public libraries limits the research. Annual reports are uneven in comprehensiveness, making comparison difficult.

Practical implications

The chapter recommends (i) creating a national information system to monitor service delivery via the grants and enable rigorous investigation of their impact and (ii) increased government support for public library social inclusion initiatives.


First hand evidence from local librarians and official reports demonstrates the grants’ effect on public library promotion of social inclusion and shows what is possible in a situation of historical inequities.



Stilwell, C. (2016), "Public Libraries and Social Inclusion: An Update from South Africa", Perspectives on Libraries as Institutions of Human Rights and Social Justice (Advances in Librarianship, Vol. 41), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 119-146.



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