Lets go to the Library

I was fortunate when I grew up, I was literally surrounded by libraries. There was one in Mayfair and Brixton and the Central Library in Johannesburg (aka Town Library). 

Mayfair Library in Central Avenue

Mayfair Library in Central Avenue

My parents were “library people” too so there was always an abundance of “library tickets” to use at any of these facilities.  The Central Library in town however was special. Housed in a magnificent old building close to the Cenotaph, it had a large adult and children’s lending library, as well as an extensive reading room and reference library. Catching the bus into town was easy too, because the bus literally stopped outside the door in Market Street. The terminus being in Loveday Street. The building first opened in 1935 and during my time as a regular library user the area in front was  known as the “Library Gardens” with fountains and open spaces. This also became a focal point for many marches and demonstrations. However, as a youngster I wasn’t really interested in marching or demonstrating, I just wanted to lay my hands on the books inside.  I was also not really interested in photographing the building because in the days of print, taking pics of everything was just not something you did. However, the first image I do have of the library I have marked as being taken in 2007.

The adult lending library was a wonderous place, with an amazing collection of non-fiction that was very Euro-centric. The books that interested me usually were on engineering, shipping, warfare, railways and aircraft (and that is still true today). The Johannesburg library had a lot of them, and they had such a wide variety that I probably never did read them all. Central to the whole ‘system” was that wonderful old card based catalogue that I had learnt to use in primary school (Thanks Mrs Van Der Merwe), and I was equally at home in the adult or children’s section. The foyer of the library used to be used for exhibitions, and the upper floors housed the Afrikaner Museum with its tired and dusty collection of exhibits that did not interest me, and the beautiful Geological Museum that was wonderful to see, but not the sort of place you went to look at all the time. On the mezzanine above the reference library (and close to the loo) was a beautiful builders model of the RMS Balmoral Castle that I used to gaze at in adoration each time I popped upstairs for a quickie. When I moved to Hillbrow in the middle 80’s  I started attending the Hillbrow Library as well as the one housed at Von Brandis Square, which later moved into the Johannesburg Sun Hotel. By then I had my own collection of books and I became less of a library user. It is possible that the last time I actually went into the Central Library was when myself and a fellow Titanic enthusiast went to the reference library and drew April 1912 copies of magazines and apart from my pic in 2007 I had never been back until 2012. 

The library closed for extensive renovations and upgrading in 2009 and re-opened on 14 February 2012. Since its re-opening I have been wanting to go back and finally I did. 

The results are astounding.  The building is so familiar, yet so different. What I do recall is that there was almost a cathedral-like silence in the building which had a very majestic but old and dusty feel about it. The building of today is beautiful, it is light and still majestic, with decorative friezes and artistic elements that still give it a feel of opulence without being ostentatious. The foyer is still there, but now it leads into escalators that carries users to new areas that I never even knew existed.

The renovations not only cleaned the building up, but brought it a bit closer to the digital age with facilities for students and internet access. My beloved Balmoral Castle is till intact, although it seems a bit smaller now than it did when I first saw it so many years ago. 

Climbing the staircase I was able to glimpse some of the spaces that used to house the Afrikaner and Geological Museum. These are really beautiful spaces just crying out to be used.

The main lending library space also seems smaller than I recall, but I suspect it has lost some of its original space and been made smaller. A gallery has been added and there is no sign of that wonderful old catalogue. The whole space is just so much nicer and lighter than it had been before.  The biggest concern when I was a child was to encounter the dreaded “Ann Smith” who was supposedly the head librarian, and whose reputation preceded her.

My real aim was the reference library and the reading room. I do recall they used to have a motorised railway of small containers that used to serve the cavernous basements below where an amazing collection of material still exists. Unfortunately though, there are limitations on what can be done in the reference section, and the microfilm machine in the reading room is broken, as is the miniature railway. I did look at some of the old maps that were available in “The Stack” and they are well worth trying to reproduce, but the logistics of it just escape me.  According to the staff there is still a lot that has to be done here, many collections are not available, and as usual parking does not exist. Also, the lack of facilities to duplicate material is a problem, photography is the answer, but alas the rates are steep to do it.  I did not look at the books in the lending library but I bet many of my beloved engineering books are long gone. Ironically when I was young some of those books had been taken out twice in all the years that they had slept on those shelves.

The Afrikaner and Geological  Museum are both gone too, and are now housed in Newtown at Museum Africa. Sadly that museum is not as great as I would have liked. There is a lot of space, but the exhibits are sparse.

Museum Africa on Mary Fitzgerald Square

Museum Africa on Mary Fitzgerald Square

The Library is one of those places to revisit. I have research to do there, and there is a lot of material to do it from. It’s the logistics and cost that really are going to be limiting factors. But I hope to go there again and spend more time and visit the Balmoral Castle and see the magnificent stained glass window.

And maybe knock on those beautiful bronze doors, 

 Or maybe think about who would incorporated this wonderful primate into the decor….

A quick bit of reading revealed that architect John Perry was the person who created this “Mediterranean Classic with undertones of Art-Deco”. He did a fine job, and I suspect in 2035 this building will still rank as one of the true beauties in Johannesburg. 

© DRW 2012-2022. Images recreated 25/03/2016

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