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SALB turns 100

Written by Allison Cooper

The South African Library for the blind (SALB) is a concrete example of government’s dedication to equality and human dignity for all.

The SALB, the only library servicing blind and visually impaired people in Southern Africa, recently celebrated its centenary.The SALB has been providing services for 100 years.

The 100-year-old non-profit organisation celebrated in style by launching its own book - SALB, A Dairy of the Library.

The book is the library’s first internal publication and it seeks to commemorate and celebrate the history of the library since its inception.

From humble beginnings

The SALB was born in the then tiny Eastern Cape township of Grahamstown, during the height of the 1918 global influenza pandemic.

While nursing local influenza victims, Josephine (Josie) Wood met Miss Comber, a British nurse who wished to establish religious study groups for the blind. By the time Miss Comber was recalled to England she already had 100 Braille volumes. It was then that she convinced Wood to develop an accessible library for the visually impaired.

Wood’s acceptance marked the beginning of the SALB. She established a small library in a room in her house in 1919. By 1923, a Library Committee was appointed, which gave the library its official status; and by 1930, it had paid off the bond on a building grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. In 1949, it received its first talking book machines from overseas and in 1968 it was declared as a ‘cultural institution’.

“The library’s growth has been tremendous. We now have mini libraries in each province to service local communities with a primary focus on providing equal access to information, in accessible formats, that improves blind and visually impaired people’s quality of life at no cost to them,” said SALB Director Francois Hendrikz.Bele Netshineni is studying towards her master’s degree, thanks to the assistance she received from the SALB.

“The library falls under the Department of Arts and Culture and we would like to acknowledge the impact that the department has made on these people’s lives,” he added.

History made

Dr William Rowland, chairperson of the SALB, said that the organisation’s book has made history as it was launched in Braille, and in audio and electronic formats simultaneously.

“As a member of the SALB, having joined when I was eight years old, I can speak on behalf of fellow blind people when I say that the library has been active in making the words of Helen Keller true. She said that the wonder of Braille is to touch words and to be touched back by them.”

SALB changes lives

Bele Netshineni, who has been a member of the library since 2014, said it has had a huge positive impact on her life. “I was not born blind. I was a teacher for 22 years, prior to becoming blind five years ago. I suddenly felt stuck. I felt my life was over. I soon realised that I needed to redesign my life. The library has gone above my expectations in that it is assisting me with my studies. I am studying towards my master’s degree, which I thought was a dream that would probably never come true,” said Netshineni.

“I am very grateful to the library’s staff, who were patient with me before I relearnt how to use a computer, for example. I never for a second thought I could be normal again. Due to the hard work that the library has put into making access to information easy for me, I can now grow. May the library continue making other lives as meaningful as they have made mine,” she added.

Volunteers honoured

Audio narrators, transcribers, copy typists and proofreaders who volunteer their time at the library were honoured as part of the centenary celebration.

“Without the volunteers we would not have over 42 365 audio titles (8 473 unique titles) and 26 164 Braille titles (4 314 unique titles). It is truly an honour to work with the team of people who assist us to service our members,” said Hendrikz.   

Did you know?

  • SALB houses five Braille newspapers one of which is Vukíuzenzele newspaper.
  • Vukíuzenzele newspaper distributes about 1 200 copies of Braille across the country every month.