“Do not go it alone ever. It is when you work with others that you learn and grow both professionally and individually”
– Prof. Rocky Ralebipi-Simela
International Women’s Day (IWD) is celebrated around the world on March 8 each year. It is a time when the world reflects on past struggles and accomplishments, calls for change and recognizes acts of courage and determination by women who have made significant contributions to society. This year’s celebration of IWD is under the theme; #BalanceforBetter. Balance for better is a call-to-action for driving gender-balance world, raise awareness to challenge stereotypes that limit women and girls, take action for equality and celebrate women’s achievement.
We caught up with one of Africa’s most internationally celebrated female librarians, Professor Rocky Ralebipi-Simela, CEO of the National Library of South Africa (NLSA), for an up-close interview. In this inspiring interview, Prof. Rocky shares with the world her rich experience, intimate thoughts and deep vision regarding the present and future of the African Library and Information Science sector, women empowerment and gender inequality among others. Read how she has become a success story today despite the many barriers she faced as young black lady during the apartheid period in South Africa.
You have had, what many will refer to as a very successful career. Can you tell us a bit about your professional background and current role?
Prof. Rocky Ralebipi-Simela is the National Librarian and CEO of the National Library of South Africa. She is the Chairperson of African Library and Information Associations and Institutions (AfLIA) Section on National Libraries. She has just been appointed as Vice Chair of the Conference of Directors of National Libraries (CDNL).
Her 40-year career profile includes the following leadership positions: Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic at the Central University of Technology; Free State, Regional Director at the University of South Africa (UNISA), Executive Dean: Faculty of Humanities, Management Sciences and Law at the University of Venda; Head of Department of Information Studies, University of the North and Campus Librarian at the University of St. Catherine, Minneapolis, MN, USA.
She holds a Masters Degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Pittsburgh, USA and a Ph.D in the same field from the University of Minnesota in the USA. Rocky has published books, book chapters and journal articles in the Library and Information Science field and continues to speak publicly on quality Library and Information Services (LIS) to promote social cohesion and nation building.
She served and continues to serve on many national councils, boards and committees including the Higher Education Quality Committee (HEQC), National Council on Library and Information Services (NCLIS), Sabinet and the National Skills Authority Board.
She is a Fulbright Scholar, a Hubert Humphrey Policy Fellow, a Minnesota Lawyers for Human Rights Award recipient, the CSIR Advanced Leadership Award of Outstanding Merit holder and American Council on Education (ACE) Fellow.
Wow!! That is awesome. Can you share with us what you are most proud of in your career to date – key achievements as a professional librarian?
I am proud of all the opportunities I was given to serve. They all afforded me precious moments and platforms to grow professionally and individually. I am also proud of the many individuals that have crossed my path (students, colleagues, bosses, family and friends), and especially those who supported me and taught me how to become the professional and the individual I am today. I am also proud that some of our programmes have touched and hopefully improved other people’s lives.
“I am proud of all the opportunities I was given to serve. They all afforded me precious moments and platforms to grow professionally and individually” – Prof. Rocky Ralebipi-Simela
What barriers have you faced, as a woman, in becoming successful professional in your field and how did you overcome them?
The first barriers included my race, age, gender and my marital status. I was a 22-year-old single, black South African female librarian during the Apartheid system in South Africa. My father in particular was afraid of my security if I left home for a job in another town, let alone overseas. I met very strong and brave single, black professional women at the University who encouraged me to grow professionally and individually. The library profession for blacks in South Africa at the time was at its infancy but I was afforded the opportunity to work at the University of the North Library where I learned from the best. The rest is history.
Prof Rocky, why did you choose to become a librarian?
During my early days, librarianship was completely foreign to many black South Africans living and studying under the Apartheid system. Many of my fellow students grew up with no libraries either in the communities of schools. We saw the inside of a library only when we got to the university. My career choices were limited to teacher, nurse or social worker. I was, however looking for a different direction. My initial choice was medicine, but I was discouraged by the low pass rates and quotas that were in place at the time. When medicine did not work, I studied social sciences and learned more about the library and information sciences profession. I was attracted by the inherent power of information and knowledge. Information and knowledge are truly powerful weapons with which the world can be changed for the better. As a librarian providing access to information and knowledge, I found the profession exciting and deeply fulfilling.
“I chose to be a librarian because I was attracted by the inherent power of information and knowledge” – Prof. Rocky Ralebipi-Simela
Comparing your generation with today’s woman, have you noticed any changes when it comes to gender equality in the African LIS sector? If so, which and what has caused this change?
Today’s women seem to have better freedoms that my generation had. The new generation of LIS professionals are moving into management positions faster and their age, marital status, gender and race do not seem to be as strong barriers as they were in our day. The 21st century communities seem to be more open to diversity and the role of women in professional working lives than before, and the opportunities are availing themselves.
With your experience, what do you think is the biggest issue facing the 21st century female librarian and how can a balanced world help to resolve the issue?
As technology becomes more and more important in how we live and do business, it is vital for women to keep up with technological changes. Empower yourself with the knowledge to share with others. Equip yourself with the know how in order to be relevant and to impart this to others. Become servant leaders and impact your communities positively.
“Become servant leaders and impact your communities positively” – Prof. Rocky Ralebipi-Simela
In your view, why do you think celebrating International Women’s Day is significant?
Celebrating International Women’s Day is significant. In South Africa we dedicate the month of August to Women; we celebrate it as Women’s Month. It is an opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate the strength of women and showcase the ability of women to do and to be.
What does the International Women’s Day slogan, #BalanceforBetter mean to you in your work life?
Gender-balance is a global issue…. it’s not just a women’s issue. For me personally, it is a call to support the efforts for a gender-balanced world, where there is gender-balance at work, at school, on the sports field and in our media coverage, there is hope for a better world!
How do you envisage creating a #BalanceForBetter Africa?
Acknowledging, respecting, appreciation and supporting each other regardless of our differences is key to creating #BalanceForBetter. We need to change our mindsets to see differences, not as bad but as opportunities to learn from each other.
Based on your experience, what is the most important piece of advice you will give to women in the field of librarianship?
Librarianship, I believe, is a calling. To all in the LIS sector who have heeded the call, stand strong, you are doing amazing work and I salute you!
As the world celebrates International Women’s Day, what is the most important piece of advice you have for young women seeking to pursue a career in librarianship?
Go for it! Don’t let anything stop you from fulfilling your dream!
Do not go it alone ever. It is when you work with others that you learn and grow both professionally and individually. I am proud to be a librarian! Happy International Women’s Day to all