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South African Book Fair

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Whither the Centre for the Book?

Centre for the BookCentre LogoThere is a breeze fluttering through the wood-panelled walls at the Centre for the Book, the National Library of South Africa’s book development and publishing hub. In the mid-afternoon light that filters from the domed ceiling, visitors and scholars take up comfortable spots in the reading room, or stroll along the displays, which showcase hundreds of South African books.

But readers and publishers, writers and bookdealers are wondering about this breeze, determined as it is to blow over a new page for the institution. When three much-loved and well-respected members of staff move along in the space of a year, the winds of change also blow in questions. Whither the Centre for the Book?

Elizabeth Anderson, founder of the Centre, retired recently; Colleen Higgs left last month to expand her own publishing imprint; and Mark Espin is returning to full time studies – an MA in English Literature at UWC. These are the names that have become familiar over the years from countless book events and innovative initiatives like the Community Publishing Project (CPP) and the South African Small Publishers’ Catalogue.

When it was first conceptualised, the Centre was modelled on the US Library of Congress. The original idea was formulated in conjunction with the Book Development Foundation (BDF) and received generous funding from Naspers. It would to be an organisation where everyone who dealt with book development issues could congregate and obtain resources. The plan was to promote literacy and small-scale publishing.

“Its goal was to never take sides, or forward one particular group’s aim and agenda over another’s,” said Colleen Higgs in an interview about the Centre’s history. “The focus was on active networking, where interested parties could seek out the advice they needed; the Centre was to act as a clearing house where information could be shared and passed along.”

“Clearly we made a good start,” she added. Higgs recently received an Arts and Culture Trust Award for her role in developing the CPP, which commenced in 2001. After seven years, however, she felt she needed to focus her energy on new projects. “It’s easy to burn out when you’re nurturing others’ writing full time. I’m also a writer and I have to find time for that. I have a small child too and I wanted to spend more time with her, to work from home.”

According to Mark Espin, the project co-ordinator who works on writer liaisoning, relationships with public libraries, developing and maintaining databases and World Book Day projects, the Centre for the Book will broaden its scope in the next few years, expanding its presence to Gauteng and Mpumalanga.

“There are wonderful plans in place… [the Centre] hopes to open a division in Pretoria, close to the National Library, and a new staff member is being appointed to manage a special project that will see the reprint of various African classics.”

Of the changes underway at the Centre, Espin stresses the big picture, saying they are part of an overall National Library of South Africa (NLSA) re-stratigisation. “It is a realignment of the kind of work we did in the past. The intention is to establish even more working partnerships with other role players in the industry.” The Centre will be more tightly incorporated into the NLSA’s structures, whereas before it was relatively independent because of its donor funding.

Mandla Matyunza has been appointed the Centre’s new executive head, and took up office late last year. “We are looking for the Centre to reflect everybody, to be accessible to everyone, all race groups, not just one group,” he says, implying that some haven’t been content with the level of the Centre’s inclusiveness. “And most importantly, we want to see more children coming to the Centre, using our books, encouraging them to see the importance of reading from a tender age.”

“Ultimately our vision is the expansion of the Centre to other provinces. We don’t want this facility to exist only in Cape Town. It is needed in the Eastern Cape, in KwaZulu Natal, in Mpumalanga and so forth. Obviously expansion on such a scale can’t be attained in a year, but that is our long-term vision.”

Despite this energetic drive to take the Centre’s projects forward on a national scale, Espin is a touch wistful as he reflects on the past. “I hope the work we’ve done over the last nine years will not be forgotten. It would be good to see recognition given to Elizabeth Anderson’s pioneering work, too.”

Elinor Sisulu is the chair of the BDF, which helped source the funding that established the Centre, and which is currently being disbanded in tandem with the Centre’s repositioning.

Sisulu is pragmatic when asked why the BDF is shutting up shop. “It served a particular process, namely representing all stakeholders in the ‘book chain’. Since the inclusion of the Centre under the umbrella of the National Library, there seemed little point to its existing on its own.”

“Besides,” she adds, “those involved in the Foundation are continuing to work in the sector in their individual capacities.”

There are many who are concerned that the Centre for the Book has lost its identity, and is now reduced to being a “special project”, swallowed up within South Africa’s greater library system. Book industry professionals are concerned at this – some, particularly representatives of small publishers, have expressed anxiety at the fact that there will not be a dedicated Centre for the Book stand at this year’s Cape Town Book Fair. The Centre’s calendar of events has fallen off, too.

Is this a sign that the Centre is in trouble? “It’s really too soon to say,” says Sisulu. “There was the perennial problem of the Centre being short-staffed and under-funded. If the National Library is prepared to invest more in it…” she pauses, then concludes, “… only John Tsebe [South Africa's National Librarian] can say.”