Report to the Ulverscroft Foundation

Best Practice Development Programme 2009


Mark Freeman : Work Experience Programme in the South African Library for the Blind 2010


The purpose of my visit to SALB was to see firsthand how a nationally funded library service for blind and partially sighted people works to support its customers across a huge geographic area and to learn about the ways in which they are making links with their Provincial public library services.

My experience as a Public Librarian is considerable and varied. Although I have been very involved with the continuing work to improve the relationship between Third Sector support services and public libraries in the UK, I have never worked in a service like that provided from SALB and from RNIB, Calibre and Clear Vision in this country. This grant has enabled me to work directly in this kind of service to expand my own personal knowledge and professional development.

Background to the Service

The South African Library for the Blind is a State funded function which receives around 80% of it’s funding from the Treasury. The remaining 20% is made up of donations and bequests to the service. The Library originates from a small collection of books set up around 1920 after a British nurse working with a local woman in Grahamstown, Josie Wood, recognised the need for Braille books to be provided for the people of the town. The present building has been occupied since 1920 and the site has been expanded several times providing facilities for both the circulation of the Braille and Audio in its collections and the production of the materials.

There are 42 staff in the service and between them they are responsible for the administration and membership of the service, the production of both Braille and Audio titles for the library’s collections and for the circulation of these to the membership. They are supported by a team of around 165 volunteers who perform a variety of roles for the service. The Library produces material in English, Afrikaans, Isixhosa and Isizulu – there are still a number of languages which it is not able to include at present but its aim is to expand these through increased volunteering.

The service is statutory and provided under the South African Library for the Blind Act of 1998. The library has a number of Mandates to which it works and these are reflected in the Annual Strategic Plan submitted to Central Government. These include

Audio Production Section

Over the first two days of my programme with the Library in Grahamstown, my time was spent with the production unit watching and taking an active role in the work they undertake to prepare and produce a Daisy Audio book.

The library is a member of the Daisy Consortium and like RNIB in England (and its counterparts across the World) has to produce its own individual copies of books it wishes to add to its stock. The whole process is supervised from Grahamstown and begins with a hard copy version of a standard print book which has been selected for stock. The process begins with the capturing of the structure on an initial Word document, including all of the various elements of information dictated by the Daisy Standards. With my colleagues in the department, I created a document which was then linked into a file on their central server on their recording software – this would eventually become the completed Daisy title.

The SALB building has four recording studios in the production department and these are used by local volunteer narrators who visit to undertake the long process of producing recordings for each element of the book. With books lasting anything up to 15 to 20 hours, this can naturally take some time and the work is split into sessions to ensure that good quality is maintained. Some narrators work at home across the country creating files in the same way depending on local circumstances.

A separate section is busy converting the older "four track" tapes which used to be used by the service into Daisy files and discs. This involves physically checking the older stock items for quality and then re-recording them onto the new Daisy format. As with the hard copy of the books, this also means that they have to be structured in the same way to ensure that the new Daisy version is navigable.

Once the files have all been completed, they are checked by the production staff for quality and pronunciations and again this is a very time consuming and arduous task. I spent some time with the staff in the department watching and taking part in the checking of these files which involves physically listening to the narrations to ensure that every part of the book has been read and that there are no words or punctuation missing. This is, of course, even more complex because of the need to produce materials in different languages.

Each year, the library adds around 300 audio titles and 240 Braille titles to its stocks. These are a combination of those it produces itself and a number where titles are bought in from other suppliers under license such as RNIB in the UK. For each title, eight copies are usually made and these are added to the stock of the library ready to circulate to their members totalling around 1050 audio items and about 850 Braille books covering a huge range of authors – some were very familiar! I was once again surprised to see a considerable number of Catherine Cookson titles still enormously popular with readers in South Africa and all the more poignant working, as I do, in her home town.

The service differs from that in the UK provided by RNIB where books are created on demand for readers. Books in the South African Library for the Blind are produced as library stock items and are circulated according to an automatic process which runs on the service’s Aurora library issue system. Although audio books are stored on the shelves at the library (as are many of the Braille titles), as with most libraries, much of the material is out on loan and is automatically reissued to another reader as it comes in.

Both the audio and the Braille departments also produce a number of magazines and newspapers (including a project with Grocotts Mail, the local newspaper in Grahamstown) in accessible formats. The titles they produce include Now, Oprah, The People’s Friend and their own newsletter Makwenzeke.

The work to receive the incoming audio loans is considerable – each day, a special delivery from the South African postal service brings in the returns from across the country. These are sorted into formats and then processed through the computer systems, some being returned to shelves, some being turned round and reissued immediately.

Interlibrary loans are also dealt with through the circulations department and these are mainly supplied through the Library of Congress service in the USA who loan tapes from a distribution centre in Salt Lake City.

Braille Production

Braille is produced in a similar way to audio in the Library – a title is selected for stock by the Selection Panel. The book then follows a similar process to an audio title in that it has to be constructed from scratch but in Unified English Braille, which has been adopted in South Africa.

The library employs a Braille specialist, Pasha Alden, who liaises and advises across South Africa on Braille matters with libraries, specialist organizations and educational establishments. She also oversees the production of tactile books for young children, intended to introduce simple Braille linked to the various official languages. These are the constructed by volunteers on skills projects and in community groups. Pasha is also the international link officer for Braille.

Braille titles begin with a request for copyright permission from the original publisher and I spent some time with the Head of Cataloguing dealing with titles for which permission had been received. These were then entered onto the Library’s main catalogue to begin the process of production. A Braille copy typer is then selected and the book sent out to them for the conversion process. This is done is a number of ways – sometimes it is scanned in, sometimes it is typed directly into Braille and sometimes it is retyped and translated into Braille by the editors in SALB. It is a long and complex process and I was very taken by the skill which was required to complete the process. There are two editors working on Braille documents at the Library and they physically check documents which have been sent back in by the volunteers. At this stage they look for mistakes and any changes to the coding which are necessary.

This is a very costly process as one might imagine and for each Braille masterfile, the production cost is around £65 or 650 Rand. The process takes around 2-3 months per title and once fully completed, the documents are handed over to a print unit where eight copies of each are printed and then spiral bound. The printers are standard electronic printers from a Norwegian supplier and there are two staff dedicated to the production of the books, magazines and documents.

Circulations and Technical Support

Over 3500 people receive their audio and Braille titles through the Circulations section who are responsible for the registration, administration and circulation of materials to customers.

I worked with the three Circulations officers who each had a distinct role in the section. One dealt with the registration of Audio book users, taking details acting as first line of contact and ensuring that equipment was supplied and maintained. A separate Technical Services section provides a repair services as well as supervising the day to day needs of the building in terms of equipment support, health and safety and maintenance. The Library still maintains both tape machines and Daisy players which are sent out to customers as part of the service. In the Circulations section, this also means retrieving machinery which is no longer required or where Members have died.

A second officer deals with Braille Library registrations and also takes some responsibilities in checking any faulty discs or tapes and a third deals with the day to day circulation and supply of titles to members. The items issued each day are a mixture of automatic turn arounds – where titles come in and are already selected for another reader, as well as picking from the shelves for items which are in the library’s extensive stack area. This is similar for both Braille and Audio.

The library uses an Aurora library management system which allows customers to provide the library with a profile of interests. This profile then provides the system with a basis for an automatic selection process. Items for loan are selected automatically and then collected each day for issue to customers. Items arriving back are scanned and some are automatically reissued whilst other titles return to the shelf ready for their next issue. It’s a very efficient system, but does mean that the element of browsing is removed and this is an issue which I discussed with the Director as we’d both identified it as something which could be improved.

I spent several sessions with the various staff in the Circulations Department and found this to be very rewarding. They act as the first point of contact with customers across the whole of South Africa and I found them to be just what I’d expect from a front line library officer – they cared about the people they were serving even though they would probably never meet them face to face.

Marketing and projects

In my discussions with Francois Hendrikz, I know that he is very keen to make more people aware of the services of SALB across the country. Although the library serves around 3500 people, he estimates that there are a considerable number of people who do not know about the service or who do not use it. With this in mind, he has employed a Marketing Assistant who works alongside the other Senior Manager in the organization, Bev Gornall. Louise Wolmarans has already started to use tools such as Facebook to spread the message about the library and its work. The Library is also now represented at National Conferences and training events and this is starting to have an effect.

During my visit we talked how we could help each other and I can see ways in which we could connect up the people who use our accessible reading groups here in the UK with SALB’s customers in South Africa. Many of the titles they borrow through SALB are in English and are the same as those which are popular here in the UK. We have talked about how we can make use of my links with them in future and share some of the experiences of reading in both countries.

I participated in two reader focused events whilst I was with the team in Grahamstown. We were able to visit one of the MiniLibs which have been set up in public libraries across the Eastern Cape where small collections of Audio books have been deposited, backed by computer equipment with access technology installed and a document reader. At Humansdorp, to the west of Port Elizabeth, we met with the (very impressive) Project Worker who has been employed under funding partly from the Province and partly from SALB to work with local blind and partially sighted people on training and awareness. Support from two senior academics from the University of Cape Town is giving the group a range of skills – there were around 20 people on the day that I attended with the Head of Circulations, Ria Greaves. The group can see up to 40 people at some of its meetings.

Telephone readers groups have also begun to develop. These follow a theme and usually see around 12 participants who are contacted on a conference call and discuss a prearranged book or theme. On the day I took part, a blind poet based in Grahamstown read a number of his own works and a variety of others from poets from around the world. It was very interesting to hear the feedback from those involved and I know from experience that this is not an easy genre to deal with. Participants in the group talked about the loneliness they experience and the way that poetry was able provide them with pictures and sensations that they could only experience in their minds.


I have been so grateful for the opportunity to work with a really dedicated and skilled team. I wanted to see an organization dealing with the needs of blind and partially sighted people working in a different environment to the one I am used to. It has been a really enlightening experience and it has been enhanced by the fact that I already had links with the library services in the Eastern Cape. This has allowed me to see the whole picture as on this visit I got to see how SALB is working hand in hand with the staff who I have worked with looking at public library developments.

As with everything, I was able to see ways in which they could develop, particularly in the areas around their contact with their customers and the promotion of reading and new authors. There are ways in which my own service can assist and I am looking forward to keeping our relationship going working in this way. We can learn so much from the service in South Africa too - although are circumstances are different, there are many areas where we face the same challenges. I believe that their system, although it has areas for improvement, is in many ways stronger and more sustainable than ours. I wish we had a service which was funded by our Central government in the way that theirs is – it has given me even more determination to advocate on behalf of some recognisation of this kind of approach whenever I can. If we had some measure of central support, I’d feel more reassured that in the future, blind and partially sighted people could rely on a service which wasn’t at the mercy of a financial climate that is hitting both statutory and third sector services.

More than anything, I have come away from Grahamstown inspired by the friends I have made and professionally refreshed. In the UK at present it can be difficult to see the value that library services have, although I personally believe passionately in their impact. At SALB it was very easy to see the value that the service provides for a group in their community who rely upon them – they are a committed and people focused team.



South African Library for the Blind, Grahamstown Braille stack area


Tactile books developed at SALB in IsiXhosa. Patricia and Arnie in the Braille circulations section


Colette, Patricia and Helen in Circulations Nobesutho Lose – catalogue and interlibrary loans


Humansdorp Library with the VIP Group Humansdorp area library staff being trained


Florence and Lowiso in the returns area. Michael supervising the postal deliveries


Ria Greaves leading the Poetry Group. The Senior Managers and myself on the final morning