We’re going to take you back a few years and explore the history of the South African Library for the Blind (SALB). This establishment existed in 1919 when Josephine Ethel Wood founded it. She started a small library for the blind in her own home and sold her artworks to raise funds towards expanding it.
In less than hundred years, the small bedroom from which the library began operating grew into a big double-storey building with approximately 5000 registered members. This member-number is according the the current Director of SALB, Francois Hendrikz. This library is the only Library for the Blind in the whole continent of Africa. You may ask, how is it possible for blind people to pick the right book? That was one of my first questions about this establishment.
“This is a postal library, that means it’s all going by e-mail and telephone,” Director of SALB, Francois Hendrikz told me.
How does a postal library work? I got a tour and there’s a lot happening in this interesting building. The 60 people who are working in the library are doing several things because the library is split in two main parts: one for audio books and one for braille books.
In the audio books section there are studios to record the people who read the books, there are also labs where they edit the books. They label every single sentence to tell where it appears in the book. Therefore the listeners can go back if they want to hear a sentence again.
In the braille section, the current stock of books is in storage, unlike a library for sighted people. There’s also a big machine that prints the braille books so that someone who’s working there can translate a whole book into braille. The process takes about three months.
So in braille as in audio books, it takes a while to make them ready to read. There are no less than 7 000 titles available in the library and that every year they add 300 new titles. The members are able to request a certain book in a certain language. They can choose between Afrikaans, English and isiXhosa.
According to Hendrikz, only 2% of the whole human population is blind but only one library is provided for them on the whole continent of Africa. Although there is a small percentage of people who are visually impaired, one library is not enough.
“Distance is a big problem for us,” explained Hendrikz, “Furthermore, the access to audio software is a problem. People in rural areas do not have internet access, so they aren’t able to listen to audio books and not all of them can read braille.”
Hendrikz further explained that, “The service is free for all members and 90% of the funds are from the government and we receive 10% from (other) nations, public and projects.”