The South African Library for the Blind is located in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape, which is the poorest province of the Republic of South Africa.
The Library was founded in 1918 due to an arrangement between an inhabitant of Grahamstown, Josephine Wood and Eleanor Comber, a missionary from England. On her return to England, Ms Comber persuaded Ms Wood to take charge of 100 Braille books and pamphlets and to start a library service. This she did, by officially starting the circulation of the Braille books from a room in her home, Woodbourne, in 1919. In 1949 the first Talking Book Machines were imported, of which two were clockwork machines, for use without electricity. In 1998 the Library, as a national South African resource, received statutory recognition. By law its affairs are controlled by a Board appointed by the Minister of Arts and Culture; it receives a limited state subsidy and it is legally charged with the responsibility of, among others, serving the reading needs of the blind in South Africa. In this regard it bears emphasis that South Africans speak eleven constitutionally recognised languages. Most of those had been neglected under apartheid. To set this right is our legal duty and one of our biggest challenges. Still, we are proud of our collection of African materials, many of which are available in the English language. (Due to the dominance of English in large parts of Africa, much notable post-colonial African writing is done in English).
At present, the library provides a free Braille and audio service, including the playback equipment enabling access to audio books, to over 7000 members. Braille books are being digitally produced and are available to members by e-mail. An exchange programme in respect of digital Braille files, in conjunction with NLB and CNIB, has been started so as to minimise duplication of titles.
The looming demise of audiocassettes is one of the reasons why, for us too, digitisation has become necessary. While at the current rate of exchange this is a daunting prospect, library staff were encouraged to read in DAISY News that elsewhere in the developing world India has also opted to go this route. In addition, it has been encouraging to note that the problems the developing world faces, are of concern to the consortium also. To date the audio production department has been researching the various options involved and are now in the process of actively raising funds to get the studios digitised and to start the analogue to digital conversion of the collection.
Because the Library recognises and advocates the right of blind and print-handicapped persons to read with the same facility as their sighted peers, it became an Associate member of the DAISY Consortium.
We acknowledge with thanks information, assistance and advice from RNIB recently acquired in the spirit of international co-operation, which has provided impetus and motivation for us becoming pro-active in order to kick-start the process of audio digitisation.