Speech by Minister Pallo Jordan at the Sod-Turning Ceremony on the Site of the New Building of the National Library of South Africa

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03 Dec 2004

The Director of Ceremonies;
The National Librarian,
Deputy National Librarian,
Ms Dorothy Mahlangu MEC for Local Government in the Gauteng Province,
Your Excellencies Members of the Diplomatic Corps,
Councillors and Representatives of Foreign Embassies in South Africa, Distinguished guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Some ten years ago the planning of a new building for the Pretoria Campus of the National Library of SA first began. What we are about today is taking the first step towards the realization of that plan. It is indeed a great pleasure for me to be here.

The first evidence of the human species’ ability to reason abstractly was found here in South Africa. That tiny fragment of baked clay, on which the markings made by one of our ancestors are still visible, is now on display at the Iziko Museum in Cape Town.

The earliest attempts to render the thoughts, ideas and words of a human as writing were executed on African soil, along the Nile River valley. Mastery of the art of writing was extremely empowering. From then on communication among humans was freed from the need for personal contact. It became possible to communicate and to receive communication from some-one who was not there in person. The written word made it possible to commune with the present, the past and the future. Liberated from the constraints of time and space, the thoughts, opinions, emotions, beliefs, values and experiences of people acquired immortality. They became eminently transferable from one place to another, from one time to another, from one environment to another, from one people to another. The invention of writing was probably the most profound cultural revolution experienced by humankind. Its consequences have shaped and reshaped our universe in ways that no one could have anticipated. The explosion the world is experiencing as a result of the revolution in information and communications technology in our day would have been inconceivable without it. Without our ability to read and write this species would not have evolved beyond a few scattered, self-sufficient, little communities

The National Library of South Africa is this nation’s treasure house of the published materials. It is a centre of excellence providing access to its immensely valuable resources to society at large. It facilitates the provision of knowledge and information to all those who are literate. The National Library Act 92 of 1998 provides for the National Library to collect, record preserve and make available to the South African public materials, including national heritage documentation, published in print and other forms..

Together with others, it is one of the repositories of memory. Our libraries, archives and museums are the bridge that spans the distance between the past and the future. These collections are “…the memory of peoples, communities, institutions and individuals, the scientific and cultural heritage, and the products through time of our imagination, craft and learning. They join us to our ancestors and are our legacy to future generations. They are used by the child, the scholar and the citizen, by the business person, the tourist and the learner. These in turn are creating the heritage of the future.”

Libraries as sources of memory and cultural expression, can also be the platform for nurturing identity. Libraries, particularly national institutions such as the National Library of South Africa, “present a rich source from which to build new histories, write new stories and from which to research both our collective, intertwined pasts and the multiple stories that make up our community histories”

The National Library of South Africa is the primary resource for South Africa’s published heritage. That is its vision. In the coming years we hope to transform it into one of “the leading library and information centre of excellence in Africa, and the world.”

The National Library of South Africa is the custodian of South Africa’s national documentary heritage as reflected in all books and other media published in South Africa. Today it has a collection of more than 3 million items and is a single most important resource for researchers, writers, students and the general public who need information on any aspect of South Africa. It not only unlocks the past through preserving and providing access to its collections, the National Library is simultaneously and dynamically engaged in preserving and recasting our past and acts as a channel for the creation of new published heritage.

What we have in our library holds up a mirror to the nation. It is building a bridge to the information society, and is levelling the playing field for access to information.

Ours is a society characterised by gaping disparities in access to information and information technology (IT). The knowledge-based society of the future would be marred by these disequilibria were it not for the twofold synergies of preservation and access provided by state-of-the-art IT. Our National Library is employing these new technologies to preserve the national published documentary heritage while at the same time providing access to the national heritage by making digitised heritage materials available on the Worldwide Web and on CD-ROMs. Its web-enabled online catalogue which makes the record of its resources available internationally.

A balanced national and regional system, covering both South Africa and other Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries, for the first time is giving access to information to those who would otherwise be deprived. The National Library organised and hosted regional libraries in an African Renaissance Conference in 2001. It is currently organising another conference of SADC libraries, envisaged for 2005. It is also developing and broadening its role as a gateway through which the clients of libraries serving less affluent communities and institutions can gain access to the resources of the relatively more affluent, as well as developing an interactive relationship among members of various library consortia.

Africans have recorded their thoughts and emotions in verse, rock art, sculpture and writing for many centuries, long before the era of colonialism. Thus there developed in the city of Timbuktu in Mali a medieval centre of learning, of impressive architecture and a flourishing religious school. The SA-MALI Timbuktu Manuscripts project, which was initiated by President Thabo Mbeki, and launched on Africa Day 2001, is one of many pan-African projects that the Department of Arts and Culture is participating in. This initiative to conserve an important aspect of our African heritage sees our National Library playing an even bigger role in the quest for an African Renaissance.

The Department of Arts and Culture is erecting a R160-million building to house the National Library of South Africa on this site. The project will be executed by the Department of Public Works. There will be approximately 33 000 usable square metres of space for its book collections, reading rooms and other facilities currently scattered in various premises around this city. The building will provide approximately 1800 seats for library users, a marked improvement on 130 users we can presently accommodate at the corner of Andries and Verrmuelen Street.

The building will add a new and exciting dimension to the capital of South Africa, revitalising the central business district and providing a much-needed investment of capital, human resources and future activity. This site will become part of the Government boulevard, linking the city centre with the Union Buildings. Its central location will benefit the many users who use public transport.

The proposed modern glass and brick building reflects the dynamic future envisaged for the National Library of South Africa. Steel and covered walkways and ramps leading users from street level to the entrance piazza, can also serve as public exhibition space and for other street art forms.

The Department of Arts and Culture regards the National Library of South Africa as a key partner institution in the Arts and Culture portfolio which will extend the benefits of the Information Society to a wider circle of our citizens.

We see this new building as a new beginning for our National Library. One that will see it play a role not merely as a repository of information and knowledge, but also a vital component of the transformation process.

What ever else we might say about the future of this library, I am certain that future generations will look back at this moment and say:

“That is when it all began”.

I feel very privileged to have been assigned this small role in it.

Thank You.