In the greater scheme of things, the Johannesburg City Library is not one of the world’s major public libraries that screams for attention. It’s not a classic like the New York Public Library or the Bodleian at Oxford – heavily visited by tourists. Nor is it one of the new architectural confections like China’s Tianjin Binhai Library or the ones in Alexandria, Egypt, or Riga, Latvia. But it is a 1935 neoclassical gem, boasting literary figures carved into its facade, a solid history on the former Market Square and a treasure of one million books under its floors.
Recently, Kennedy Tembo of Microadventures started leading tours to the library – one of the overlooked architectural sites in a city centre rich in gorgeous old buildings – on Library Square. Our guide, library official Elton May, set the scene, relating some of the libraries history. The first consignment of books was sent out from England on the Balmoral Castle, and a massive model of the ship is kept on the first floor.
Unfortunately, the library today is not well funded – it comes far down in the line of public recipients – but it does a terrific job of maintaining what it has (even extending visiting hours through the weekend). The staff number is half of what it should be, meaning many have to double up on duties, such as tending to sections in the four underground floors of kilometres of books and newspapers and manuscripts. Also, it is very well used by students, scholars, and even has a children’s section, where youngsters play on the floor with the books.
See the pictures below to get a taste of what you can see there, and then take a tour. If you’re lucky, he might even take you down into the fascinating bowels of the institution to see the kilometres of literary works they store.