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.

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The main reception area of the library. Photos by Ted Botha.

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.

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A model of the Balmoral Castle has pride of place on one of the mezzanine floors, commemorating the first load of books from England on this ship for the library.
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The Art Deco character of the building jumps out at you every now and then, especially with these light fittings.
johannesburg library history travel tour south africa
An art curator for the library has brought together a great collection of paintings and sculptures that can be seen as you walk up the ornate stairs.
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Artwork created for the library above one of its doors in the lobby.
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Elton May, one of the library officials, leading a tour through the main lending section before he takes you downstairs to the kilometres of manuscripts, newspapers and books.
johannesburg library history travel tour south africa
The skyline behind the library will change from 24 November, when the old Bank of Lisbon building is demolished.