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Justice Albie Sachs Freedom Award

About this Award

Background information

At the opening of the 2007 IFLA WLIC in Durban, Justice Albie Sachs gave an address that everyone who heard it has remembered. Describing his detention as a young advocate under the “90 Day Law” by the Security Police in Cape Town in October 1963, he told the audience that the only book he was allowed, “alone, in a concrete cube”, was the Bible, so that he rationed himself, reading only so many pages a day. Then, some time later, by order of the Supreme Court, he was allowed reading material. The arrangement was that he wrote on a piece of paper the books he wanted to read, and this piece of paper was taken – he assumed by a policeman – to the nearby library (Cape Town City Libraries). He dedicated his IFLA address that day to “the unknown librarian … probably she, who provided me with these marvelous books. She never knew she was doing it, but she was saving me. Without those books I would not have survived my detention … my spirit and soul would have been destroyed. So it was a librarian, quite unwittingly, like so many librarians in so many parts of the world, simply doing his or her job by providing a resource, a bit of illumination and access to a world that otherwise might never exist. It is something very wonderful, something very precious, something magical that your profession does.” (Sachs1 p. xxv)

He went on to talk about the wonders of libraries in South Africa and in particular “The libraries that walk around on legs … our people and their memories … Perhaps one is more aware of it because the literary culture, official culture, was so distorted, so false; it either mythologised events, activities, history, or it lied, or it simply left out the great majority of people. They were just left out of the record and the stories. It’s not simply that people could not get into the libraries because they were segregated. Their stories couldn’t get into the libraries, their experiences didn’t get into the libraries, their languages weren’t recognized by the libraries, their struggles were not recognized in the libraries.” (Sachs p. xxv-xxvi)

(1Sachs, Albie (2009). Foreword: The Wondrous depths of libraries in South Africa, in The Politics of Libraries and Librarianship: challenges and realities, edited by Kerry Smith. Chandos Publishing: Oxford, xxiii-xxviii).

Note: In April 2010 Professor Archie Dick uncovered the information that the ‘unknown librarian’ was the late Mr JP Nowlan, who worked at Wynberg library.)

About the Justice Albie Sachs Freedom Award

This award is to honour what that “unknown” librarian unwittingly did over those months in the darkest days of the early 1960s detention laws (before the Rivonia Trial, before Nelson Mandela was sent to Robben Island. Every year we have prestigious Librarian of the Year awards, and the citations are very impressive, revealing the kind of commitment to service within communities served by librarians that Albie Sachs in general was referring to throughout his address. However, what Justice Albie Sachs — and the Constitutional Court which he served until his retirement – stands for that is vital in our profession in South Africa is the constitutional right of freedom of expression and freedom of access to information, and the defence of that right. Librarians in many parts of the world are challenged in this area — the US and France are two examples that come to mind in recent years. In South Africa we feel ourselves most challenged by a lack of library resources and services in our communities – but where do we stand on freedom of expression, on freedom of access to information, on the revival of aspects of censorship, on defending the right of librarians to purchase, and readers to read, material that represents every aspect of thought and conviction in our most diverse society. Where do we as a profession stand on xenophobia? Where do we as a profession stand in communities or municipalities or educational institutions which hold strong partisan views supporting one culture or one political point of view or one lifestyle or one kind of service or resource against another?

The award can be awarded to any member of LIASA who has in some way furthered the cause of freedom of access to information, and should be called the Justice Albie Sachs Freedom Award. This concept might be taken in a very broad sense or a very specific sense: it might be a librarian who has worked to create an environment where more people have greater access to wider information resources; it might be a librarian who has shown a particular commitment to furthering the role of information in supporting a democratic environment or projects that relate to this; it might be a librarian who has personally stood up and fought for freedom of access to information or greater freedom of expression in a more personal way.

Clare M Walker

Clare.Walker [at]


Award Recipients

2010    Mr Piet Wiestra   


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