library staff in Fort Hare, South Africa

Chelsea District Library’s Emily Meloche (front row, second from left) received a warm welcome from the library staff in Masiphumelele, South Africa.

In the summer of 2015, UMSI alumna Emily Meloche (MSI ‘12) participated in a one-month exchange program between the Chelsea (MI) District Library and the Masiphumelele Library outside of Cape Town, South Africa. She offered to share her experiences with readers of UMSI Monthly.

At 8,276 miles and nearly 24 hours from airport to airport; it really is the other side of the world. But there are libraries almost everywhere, and that includes Masiphumelele, a shanty community outside of Cape Town, South Africa.

In 2013, Chelsea District Library Director Bill Harmer toured the Masiphumelele Library as part of his attendance in the Global Libraries Peer Learning Meeting. He saw how dynamic the library was and began to develop the idea of a librarian exchange: a program where the two libraries could share ideas and experiences.

Bill Harmer and staff

Chelsea District Library Director Bill Harmer (front row) and staff lent their expertise to the Masiphumelele Library exchange program. Seated next to Harmer is Vidie Lutuli, the exchange librarian from Masiphumelele.

It took time to develop the program, and get funding and support, but two years later, I got off a plane at the Cape Town Airport where I was greeted by 20 people shouting my name. The staff of the Masi Library had come to greet me, and to send off Vidie Lutuli, the librarian from Masiphumelele who would be spending her next month in Chelsea.

The tone of that warm welcome stretched throughout my four weeks in Masiphumelele, as the staff showed me the works and had me behind the desk that very next day! The library certainly has a different feel from CDL — smaller, fewer resources, and serving a much more impoverished public — but our two libraries clearly share the passion of connecting our community members with the information they need and desire.

Working alongside the staff at the Masi Library, I was struck by their commitment to serving their community. When given requests, staff hardly ever said, “No, we can’t do that,” — rather they figured out ways for people to get what they needed, even if it involved some creativity and extra time. Resources that Americans take for granted — like pens, paper, and internet access — were often scarce, and it was amazing to see how far the library manages to stretch what it has without making it feel like they’re working with a deficit.

In my time off, various library staff members acted as ambassadors, accompanying me at various cultural areas of Cape Town, such as Table Mountain and Robben Island. The admission to these experiences prohibited many of my hosts from going on their own, so even though they lived in Cape Town, they were experiencing these sights for the first time along with me. They also gave me a thorough tour of Masiphumelele. It’s an incredibly vibrant community, but one that contains more poverty than I’ve ever been exposed to. Many live in shacks, and the deeper you go into the community, the rougher these shacks are, situated impossibly close to each other. Fire and flood plague Masi, so people often lose the little they have.

The library is a shining light, giving people access to books, computers, internet, and information. Their 37 public computers are almost always in full-use — and since 31 of those computers are set aside for productive uses (i.e., no social media), you’ve got a crowd of students studying, and adults updating resumes and applying for jobs. There are multiple story times and children’s activities every day, and as soon as school lets out, the library is hopping with activity.

It’s the place to be, and I’m so glad that I got to be a part of it, even for such a short time.

Note: In Summer 2016, the School of Information’s Global Information Engagement Program will send approximately 20 students to Cape Town, South Africa to work with local non-profits on developing solutions to information management problems.