The Importance of Space: An Example from South Africa

Think about any shop you’ve been into lately. The successful ones allow you to maneuver easily through the aisles, finding the products you are looking for. The ones that REALLY work use their space to prompt the shopper to buy a few extra things — like the “impulse buy” shelf at a grocery store check-out counter. And we’ve all been to those shops that cram their products into impossibly small aisles. You can’t find what you need and there’s no employee to help you, so you give up and leave. All of these elements are important. Space, broadly, determines user experience. This is true wherever an organization interacts with the greater public, whether in a store, school, or library.

In December, we visited Masiphumelele Library during the Beyond Access 2013 Africa event. Sue, Thando, Nyasha, and the rest of the team at Masi were kind enough to let all 50 of us take a tour of their library, where we had the opportunity to meet some of the partner organizations and patrons of the library.

We arrived at the library and were immediately greeted by a cheery, inviting mural on the side of the building and a group of kids playing outside the entrance. Inside the library, we saw much the same — bright, open spaces and low shelves filled with children’s and young adult literature. This is a library that works with its community to fill a need — providing a space for children to learn, play, and grow outside of school. It also gives adults access to technology and offers courses to build their skills, giving them tools to alleviate chronic unemployment.


In the first room of the library, there are the expected stacks of books surrounding a table with computers providing free access to the internet. The books were stacked low —  accessible to small hands. In many places, this would be the sum total of the library, and it would still be considered an excellent one. However, as we continued on our tour, we learned that there was more to the library, thanks in large part to the partnerships Masi has cultivated over the decade of its existence.

Thanks to the pleasant climate of Cape Town, Masiphumelele Library is laid out around an open courtyard. Beyond the front two rooms of library stacks are an additional series of rooms that serve as the office, staff room, and open spaces for partner organizations. The latter spaces have proved to be the lifeblood of many of the library’s services. By sharing spaces with partner organizations like IkamvaYouth or Lalibela, Masi is able to offer after school programs for students ranging from homework help to art.

Moreover, the spaces allow the programs to offer sessions without cutting into the space used by library patrons. For example, the library’s ICT training program takes place on the second floor, behind the courtyard. By separating the computer lab from the rest of the library space, the program offers more of a “classroom” feel, providing participants a dedicated space to study and helping them to succeed. This has the added benefit of keeping the computers secure, reducing the potential for damage or loss.


While Masiphumelele Library offers many incredible programs, its real success must be in the way it creates a space for those programs — and for the library patrons — to succeed. An open, inviting space in the front of the library welcomes students and adults, letting both groups know they belong in the library. The program space offers partners room to operate. They have a space they can “own” and tailor to their program needs. These spaces are distinct from the library, yet remain a part of it; in them, participants engage in activities that are entertaining and informative, and provide needed services for the community.