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First Words in Print: Libraries and Civil Society Engagement

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The study
This is a brief summary of a paper presented at the LIASA Conference as part of the larger study to determine the impact of the First Words in Print (FWIP) project since its inception in 2002 to its ending in 2009 and the extent to which the project achieved its aims. This paper examines the role of libraries and civil society engagement in the project, with Ottery Library as an example. Fieldwork was done among a sample of children in Ottery in the Western Cape.

The project has its roots in civil society engagement. In 2000 CFB, in partnership with the Nordic Council of Ministers, hosted a workshop to discuss the urgent need in South Africa for children between the ages of 0 and 5 to be given access to books. Delegates included representatives from various organisations involved in books, literacy and early childhood education. At this workshop a consensus was reached on the importance of placing books directly in the hands of children aged 0 to 5 years, to stimulate their interest in books and to develop in children and their families a sense of books as objects of pleasure and entertainment that could be used and shared in many different ways in the home, rather than simply sources of information and formal learning in school. The workshop delegates resolved to initiate the FWIP project.

The aims of FWIP or Isiqalo:
  • enhance a reading culture in very young children to stimulate their development by giving them books;
  • encourage South African writers, illustrators and publishers to produce appropriate literature for children aged 0 – 6 years;
  • distribute sets of picture and story books in all South African official languages to children to help build a common culture of literature for future generations;
  • facilitate and encourage a culture of reading within the communities where the project is implemented.

The books
The first phase of the project, the pilot phase, started 2002. The second phase ran from 2004 to 2005, the third in 2007 and the fourth phase in 2009. During these four phases 14 books suitable for children aged 0 to 5 years old were developed. All the books were translated into the 11 official languages of South Africa.

Distribution
By the end of 2009, a total of 67 260 packs of books (236 190 books) were distributed in various areas in different provinces in South Africa as follows:

  • First phase – 10 000 packs of four books in five languages = 40 000 books
  • Second phase - 24 410 packs of four books in eight languages = 97 640 books
  • Third phase – 27 150 packs of three books in eleven languages = 81 450 books
  • Fourth phase – 5 700 packs of three books in seven languages = 17 100 books.

Partner organisations
FWIP partnered with appropriate local structures working with young children in the various areas in South Africa which were targeted for the project. The partner organisations assisted with the distribution of books and with follow-up support work with caregivers of the recipient children. The strategy for long-term sustainability was to develop strong voluntary area teams that represented every sector of the community, i.e. government departments, church- and community-based organisations, the private sector, libraries and librarians, and clinics. Librarians, who play a pivotal role in liaising with the general public, were central to this strategy.

Ottery
Ottery, also known as Montagu's Gift, is a predominantly ‘coloured’ residential area in the southern suburbs of Cape Town. It is part of the larger suburb of Grassy Park and covers an area of approximately two and a half square kilometres. There are several large, high density, blocks of council flats in the area. Unemployment, harsh living conditions, lack of recreational facilities, gangsterism and substance abuse are rife. Of the four areas selected for the FWIP pilot phase in 2002, Ottery was the most urbanized. However, in common with the other pilot areas, the children living in the area were disadvantaged in terms of access to books and a culture that supports and promotes reading (De Beer, 2004:8).

During the pilot phase, 2 500 book packs were distributed in Ottery, mainly facilitated by Ottery Library. Thereafter, 1 500 and 1 600 book packs were distributed during the second and third phases. Thus, a total of 5 600 book packs were distributed among the children in Ottery.

2013 fieldwork
The aim of the fieldwork was to determine whether FWIP had any impact on the recipients beyond the distribution stages. Even though Ottery was the most urbanized of the FWIP areas, it was in many aspects similar to the other areas in terms of poverty and a lack of reading culture. The results should thus be fairly representative of the situation that exists in other FWIP areas.

A total of 63 children aged from 10 to 17 were surveyed. These children would have been aged 0-7 during the Ottery distribution phases. The questionnaire used for the fieldwork was designed to determine whether the project had any discernable or measurable impact on the recipients ten years after receiving the books. The most obvious factors to examine were their reading habits and educational performance. However, it must be kept in mind that the FWIP project is only one aspect in a wide range of variables that impact on children’s reading habits and educational performances but the purpose of this study is to focus only on FWIP to the exclusion of other possible variables.

Conclusion and recommendations
In spite of many gains that have been made the past 10 years, the conditions that gave rise to the project in 2002 are still the norm for many children in South Africa. Many children’s homes still lack books and many children experience low literacy levels and poor educational achievement. There is also still a dearth of age-appropriate books in the local idiom available to very young children in their mother tongues. There is still a profound lack of reading culture in South Africa. The aims of the project as expressed in 2002 are still as relevant today as it was then.

Empirical evidence, previous FWIP evaluations, as well as this current research, shows that FWIP is a project that is worth the investment in the future of children in South Africa. The project has potential to make a difference in the lives of children in poverty-stricken communities. However, once-off interventions are not enough where the conditions that exist in communities and families are not supportive of a reading culture. As FWIP has immense value it should continue. A number of recommendations are made in the complete study.

Anita Shaw, Deputy Programme Manager, CFB
anita.shaw@nlsa.ac.za

 

 

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