Li­brary cel­e­brates 200 years of ex­is­tence, help­ing many ac­com­plish their dreams


WE OF­TEN hear how “knowl­edge is power”, but even more pow­er­ful is pre­serv­ing in­sti­tu­tions of knowl­edge to se­cure that power.

And this was ev­i­dent when the Na­tional Li­brary of South Africa cel­e­brated 200 years of ex­is­tence on Tuesday. The build­ing on the cor­ner of Thabo Se­hume and Jo­hannes Ramokhoase Streets is still stand­ing firmly af­ter 200 years.

Ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor Dr Eddy Maepa said the in­sti­tu­tion had helped many ac­com­plished peo­ple in and around the city ac­com­plish their dreams. “If only the walls of this place could speak and tell us how many ca­reers it has helped and lives it has changed …,” he said.

To cel­e­brate the mile­stone, 9-yearold author Re­abetswe Kung­wane, and for­mer Mamelodi Sun­downs de­fender, Matthew Booth read a cou­ple of sto­ries to schoolkids.

Do­ing the honours of cut­ting the cake was Re­abetswe, who has al­ready had her first book pub­lished, ti­tled Sto­ries You’ve Never Heard Be­fore – a col­lec­tion of 10 short sto­ries based on her ex­pe­ri­ences.

Re­abetswe hopes the moral lessons will in­spire children her age.

“Read­ing is cool. It trans­ports you to many places with­out hav­ing to phys­i­cally move,” she said.

The day was filled with lit­er­ary ac­tiv­i­ties and en­ter­tain­ment by lo­cal groups. The gath­er­ing was also treated to an ex­hi­bi­tion on the li­brary’s his­tory.

South Africa ini­tially had two na­tional li­braries – the South African Na­tional Li­brary in Cape Town, founded in 1818, and the State Li­brary in Pre­to­ria, founded in 1887.

In Novem­ber 1999 the two li­braries were amal­ga­mated to form the Na­tional Li­brary of South Africa (NLSA).

Not only is NLSA the old­est li­brary in South Africa, it is also the old­est cul­tural in­sti­tu­tion of any kind in the coun­try.

Its ori­gins date back to 1818 when Lord Charles Som­er­set, Gover­nor of the Cape Colony, is­sued a procla­ma­tion launch­ing the South African Pub­lic Li­brary.

Som­er­set or­dered that a wine tax be levied “to place the means of knowl­edge within the reach of the youth of this re­mote cor­ner of the globe, and bring within their reach what the most elo­quent of an­cient writ­ers has con­sid­ered to be one of the first bless­ings of life, ‘home ed­u­ca­tion’.”

The li­brary’s first sig­nif­i­cant ac­qui­si­tion was the col­lec­tion of Joachim Ni­co­laus von Dessin, who be­queathed his books to the Dutch Re­formed Church in 1761 to serve as the foun­da­tion of a pub­lic li­brary.

In 1820 the board of trustees de­cided to donate the Dessinian col­lec­tion to the new li­brary. Other no­table dona­tions in­cluded that by Sir Ge­orge Grey who, when he left South Africa in 1861, pre­sented the li­brary with his col­lec­tion of me­di­ae­val and re­nais­sance manuscript­s and rare books.

In 1873 the SAPL be­came a le­gal deposit li­brary for the Cape Colony, and from 1916 it started re­ceiv­ing all printed items pub­lished through­out the coun­try. It con­tin­ued as a lend­ing li­brary un­til 1954, when this func­tion was taken over by the City of Cape Town.

From then on it be­gan to de­velop its unique char­ac­ter as a na­tional ref­er­ence li­brary de­voted to re­search based on its ex­ten­sive stock, with a con­cur­rent name change in 1967 to South African Li­brary.

As Pre­to­ria be­gan to grow, there arose a need for a pub­lic li­brary. The first Pre­to­ria Pub­lic Li­brary had opened its doors in 1878, but be­cause of fi­nan­cial prob­lems it was closed down in 1890.

In 1893 strong pub­lic sup­port and a col­lec­tion of 700 books saw an­other pub­lic li­brary arise, this time un­der the wing of the Staats-bib­lio­theek and with the book­stock of the for­mer Pub­lic Li­brary.

From that time un­til 1964, the State Li­brary per­formed a dual role as pub­lic and na­tional li­brary.

The dual li­brary con­tains a wealth of in­for­ma­tion. To en­sure that knowl­edge is not lost to pos­ter­ity, the NLSA col­lects and pre­serves pub­lished doc­u­ments and makes them ac­ces­si­ble to the pub­lic, li­braries, pub­lish­ers and au­thors for re­search pur­poses.

The li­brary’s col­lec­tions in­clude rare manuscript­s, books pub­lished in South Africa, pe­ri­od­i­cals, gov­ern­ment pub­li­ca­tions, of­fi­cial for­eign pub­li­ca­tions, maps, tech­ni­cal re­ports and news­pa­pers. Some of these are avail­able on CD or mi­cro­film, in dig­i­tal for­mat or on­line.

There’s also a large ar­chive,a num­ber of data­bases and 500 com­put­ers at the li­brary, where users can ac­cess the in­ter­net free of charge.


Staff of the Na­tional Li­brary of South Africa dur­ing the cel­e­bra­tion of the li­brary’s 200 years of ex­is­tence.

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