The Sunday News
Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday Life Reporter
FROM the outside, one would think that all is well at the Bulawayo Public Library.
With its distinctive cream exterior, tinged with a few dashes of brown, the building still stands like regal titan on the corner of 8th Avenue and Fort Street. Even as vendors sweep past its open doors at frenetic speed, some advertising quick-acting rat-killing poisons from loud speakers, the library seems unbothered and unconcerned by all this activity happening right in front of its mouth.
As soon as one enters its doors, a wave of respectful silence descends from the bowels of the library, as if in mockery of all the noise and bustle outside. Bulawayo, with its treasured Victorian style of architecture is a city that was born with several hearts, and the Bulawayo Public Library is only but one of them.
However, despite how it might look from the outside and despite the fact that it is a treasured part of the cityscape, the Bulawayo Public Library is dying. A cancer has begun eating at this nerve centre of reading culture in Bulawayo, with the 126-year-old institution faces structural issues that have left those in charge of it, fearing that it might not survive the rainy season.
Initially built in 1986 by two builders known as Ford and Godshall, who constructed it off a design of an architect known only as Hughes, the library owes its current look to Wilson and Murray, who brought to life a design by architects Robertson and Whiteside in 1933. While the library has stood for over a century, today the sound of distant thunder is enough to worry Acting Branch Librarian Shantan Bechani.
“Our building is on the verge of collapse. With rains, its leaking and frankly it’s getting quite ridiculous because its developing mould and the roof itself has patches, and that tells you that the ceiling is overwhelmed and might cave in,” Bechani told Sunday Life.
According to Chief Librarian Rita Budi, the leakages were one of the reasons for a charity marathon and fun day that was held yesterday, whose main aim was to help save the library.
“We have leakages in the library, the roof is leaking and it gets worse during these rainy days. We need to deal with it and that’s why we came up with an initiative to say ‘let’s run to save the library’” she said.
Budi said while the roof was in urgent need of restoration, the library’s interior was also desperate for some cosmetic work.
“No one will want to be associated with such a building because you know its collapsing, as you can see the paint is peeling off because of these rains,” she said.
While some of the problems plaguing the library are easy to diagnose, as a leaking roof can be felt and seen by anyone within the library as soon as the heavens up, some of the rot is not so easy to spot. In 1978, the library founded the country’s first ever book bus and currently, it is the only public library in the country that provides such a service. Even that however, is now under real threat of imminent collapse.
“As you know we’ve got a book bus and we are trying by all means to save it. It’s quite old and buying a new one is tricky considering that the library is funded by subscription from our patrons, so if we don’t get many subscribers that means we don’t have money. That’s why we are looking for people that are going to support us through the marathon, so we could repair our bus or buy a new one altogether,” Budi said.
Acting Branch Librarian Budi said because of a shortage of resources, the book bus was no longer servicing children in the outskirts of the city, for whom the service was originally designed for.
“I’m sure it’s been in use for more than 12 years now and when it’s on the road, it now opens up and according to experts it needs riveting to fix it. It’s not user friendly for the kids anymore because you worry that the interior might collapse on them or maybe a child may be cut by some of its parts and that might cause serious health problems for kids.
The engine on its own is not performing and while back in the day we used to do 30-plus schools on our runs, these days we only do schools that are close to town when the initiative was meant for children living in the outskirts of the city of townships that are further away.
“Now we can’t get there because of the bus and if we don’t fundraise by January, we will telling a different story and saying we can’t do the mobile bus anymore. We really want it to work because in terms of the city council, we were helping them with areas that don’t have city council libraries.
“We were working hand-in-hand to serve kids in places like Nkulumane, Cowdray Park, Emganwini but now that is a challenge because of the state of the bus,” she said.
Things had become so dire at the library that while Book Aid and other donors were providing some books, they could not afford plastic cover to protect the books from inevitable wear and tear.
“We get donors to donate books but now we actually don’t have plastic to do the covering of the books,” said Bechani.
“We cannot afford to buy plastic to cover the books and at the end of the day we can’t risk giving our clients uncovered books because that will limit the lifespan of the books. We will end up offering internet services only because the library on its own is struggling.”
For visually impaired readers, the collapse of the library would be a disaster, as it is in the only such institution that offers a Braille library in the country.
“The only library in Zimbabwe that offers a Braille library, so we are the mothers of Braille in the country. We are also the only ones that offer a mobile bus. Those two are our signature products so if the library fails it means the mobile bus closes, the Braille library closes and the building itself, as iconic as it is, shuts down,” Bechani said.
Khanyakude Sithole, the event planner at the library said that so far, the response from Bulawayo was mixed, with some of the belief that the worldwide web had replaced the need for a library, despite the fact that a large number of people still did not have access to or afford internet services. Some major companies on the other hand, had stepped up and shown a willingness to help the library shoulder the burden of keeping a city reading.
“The response so far has been good and bad. Some people feel like the internet is now their saving grace, forgetting that before the internet was invented, those people relied on libraries to acquire knowledge.
The people that are leading in innovation are also studying in libraries somewhere around the world. Not everyone can afford the internet. It is cheaper to actually purchase a book than spend resources on the internet researching something,” Sithole said.
Writer Raisedon Baya, who has been trumpeting the library’s cause, said that the value of the Bulawayo Public Library and other institutions in the city could not be underestimated, as it had helped shape the lives of many like himself.
“I grew up in Makokoba and the most important library for me was the Mzilikazi Public Library. I joined it when I was in primary school and I was a member until I went to college. It became like a sanctuary because this is the place where I discovered the world, the place where I discovered words and the place, I discovered that I could escape to other countries and other worlds.
“Most importantly that library saved me from doing crime and other things I could have indulged in as a young person. It led me away from me, away from a number of bad things that young boys in a township like Makokoba were doing. That says much about the importance of a library and that’s why I believe that the current initiatives to support the library must be supported by everyone who believes in the future of young people,” he said.