In 1761, a German colonist by the name of Joachim von Dessin bequeathed a few thousand books, two “skulls of savages”, a collection of “native craft” and a fund for the development of a library at the Cape. It took a while, but a library was eventually established in part of the Slave Lodge at the bottom of the Company’s Garden.
Back then the literary world at the Cape was pretty limited. So much so that one wag remarked it was sad that Von Dessin could not have donated to the Colony “a collection of readers to go with his collection of books”. But little by little, and thanks to the efforts of people like Thomas Pringle, John Fairbairn, Olive Schreiner and Sol Plaatje, South Africa developed a library culture.
The writing is on the walls
Fast forward to modernity and it is still often said that one of the problems with South Africa is that we do not read. As an author looking at my biannual royalties statements, it’s very easy to agree with this assertion. But my experiences in the libraries of the Western Cape provide some evidence for the defence.
As someone whose job entails digging up the forgotten and fascinating stories of South Africa’s complicated past, I end up visiting quite a few of our libraries. Often, I find myself needing one particular book – and this book can sometimes be found in the most unlikely of places. Trying to shed light on the lives of pyromaniacs, prophets and presidents has sent me to the public libraries of Lentegeur, Simon’s Town, Plumstead and Athlone, to name but a few.
Whenever I enter these public buildings, I feel a little better about the future of our country. Granted, they could often do with a lick of paint and some fresh flooring. But this is more than made up for by the people who work at and use our libraries.
On random weekday mornings, I’ve found students making use of free Wi-Fi and pensioners coming to read the newspaper. Knitting circles and moms’ groups. On equally random afternoons I’ve encountered matric study groups and kiddies’ reading corners. Book clubs and author talks. And on weekends I’ve come across craft markets, heritage walks and book fairs.
While it would be hard to describe our libraries as “cutting edge”, they have also made some concessions to modernity. The Libby app allows you to take eBooks out, free; the online catalogue makes it easy to pinpoint a particular book, and the NLSA’s digital collections contain some incredible online resources.
Going above and beyond
In my experience librarians are invariably knowledgeable, friendly and helpful. Always happy to assist in the search for a book that’s been incorrectly shelved or to help with sourcing a book from another library.
But some librarians go the extra mile. Just last week my hunt for some 1897 issues of the Eastern Cape Herald led me to the Cape Town campus of the National Library of South Africa. Not only did the librarian show me how to load the microfilm into the projector, but, once I’d found the articles I needed, he also spent well over an hour trying to manipulate the digital files so I could actually read them. (As an aside, the National Library – with its elegant architecture, fantastic collection, and soothing views of the Company’s Garden – is a wonderful place to while away an hour or two.)
A few years ago, I was blown away by the kindness of two librarians in particular. Sir George Yonge (who was so hopelessly inept and corrupt that he barely lasted a year as governor of the Cape Colony) would become one of the most memorable characters in Rogues’ Gallery, a book about the loooong history of corruption in South Africa. But his brief and forgettable tenure also meant that very little had been written about him. I managed to buy one of the two books about Yonge’s governorship online, but I couldn’t find the other anywhere. I knew (from the aforementioned online catalogue) that the Western Cape library system had copies in Milnerton and Mossel Bay. But my hands were tied by the Level 5 Covid lockdown.
I tried phoning both libraries, but got no answer. On a wing and a prayer, I fired off emails to some addresses I found online. Not even 10 minutes later, I got a reply from the district librarian for the Southern Cape region, connecting me with the Mossel Bay librarian. Within the hour, I had received a scan of the entire chapter about Yonge’s despicable reign at the Cape. The show could go on. And, like all the services offered by our libraries, getting the info hadn’t cost me so much as a cent.
The best things in life are free
And that, I guess, is the point of this column. It’s easy – and entirely justifiable – to moan about how our hard-earned taxes are not being used for their intended purposes. Our electricity, rail, health and road systems are all in a sorry state. But, in my area at least, the library system appears to be an exception to this rule. (I’d love to hear from readers in other parts of the country what your libraries are like.)
So, this Library Week, why not pay your local library a visit? You could apply for a library card (it’s always free), take advantage of the week-long amnesty on fines to return some outstanding books (in Cape Town alone there are 40,000 overdue items!) or see if there’s a regular group or a once-off event you’d like to be a part of.
And if you don’t know where your local library is, google it. As Einstein said, “The only thing that you absolutely have to know is the location of the library.” DM