African identity in the making : the role of the centre for African literary studies as a special collection of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
Polak, Fiona Margaret.
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Libraries contain many collections but professional practice has long recognised the concept of ‘special collections’. The Centre for African Literary Studies (CALS) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) initially came into being to house the Bernth Lindfors Collection, the private collection of a retired professor of English from the University of Texas in Austin. Special collections can be hindered in their ability to fulfil their role as custodians of heritage and conveyors of knowledge owing to a number of factors, such as policy decisions and/or elements included in existing policies. The directors of such centres often have ambition but are handicapped in their ability to carry out their plans by various administrative challenges which can put the centres at risk. In terms of the research problem central to the study, this study explored exactly what the role of CALS as a UKZN special collection constitutes and in what way the Centre is able to fulfil its role in facilitating and enabling African Studies at UKZN and in the broader community. The study investigated these potential challenges, including factors which impede access, such as ‘hidden collections’. Challenges included financial constraints, staffing, collection development policies (including Africanisation), repatriation of collections, preservation strategies, and accessibility, including physical and space issues, and digitisation. The study employed methodological triangulation which included a literature search, documentary analysis, and survey research using questionnaires and interviews. The population constituted undergraduate and postgraduate English- and isiZulu-speaking students and researchers who have used CALS; present and ex-staff members; the original owners of the two largest CALS collections; the initial founders of CALS; as well as the current and ex-directors. The study ascertained that CALS was originally established as a separate centre on the Pietermaritzburg campus to “symbolically” make a statement, and as branding to attract postgraduate students in South Africa doing research in African literary studies to Pietermaritzburg. This would give the humanities in Pietermaritzburg “the edge in a highly competitive market”. The study established that CALS is underutilised by postgraduate students and researchers. The majority of usage is from isiZulu-speaking undergraduates, owing to the establishment of the isiZulu Literary Museum at CALS, which has proved successful in drawing isiZulu-speaking undergraduate students. The researcher was only able to identify a handful of national and international researchers which undermines the original motive for the establishment of CALS which is to facilitate and promote the study of African literature and thus enable UKZN in its endeavour to become “The Premier University of African Scholarship”. The most significant finding of the survey was the original noble vision of the founders to create a centre that boosts the humanities and African literature at UKZN and especially on the Pietermaritzburg campus, has been restricted by funding and staffing constraints. The Centre was established as an external funding centre that has proved unsustainable. This has had a negative impact on the endeavours of CALS’s directors who, despite great effort, have been significantly handicapped in their endeavours to manage CALS through lack of institutional support, funding and staff tenure.