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The renovated and revamped Johannesburg central library will be opened today as an enviable centre of excellence.
JOHANNESBURG’S stately central library has been presiding over the city since 1935, but has been under a cloud of building dust since May 2009. The veil is to be lifted, however, and it will once again stand proudly before its subjects. The official re-opening is planned for 14 February.

The newly upgraded and extended library will be opened as a model city library. It is modern and has facilities and services that will attract and serve users from all walks of life, including parents choosing their toddler’s first picture books, those seeking recreational reading and the latest news from around the world, as well as students and international researchers making use of the special collections of art, music and Africana, according to the deputy director of the library and information services, Atilla Lourens.

Located on the western edge of Beyers Naude Square in the inner city, the library was first earmarked for improvement in 2005/6, when the Carnegie Corporation of New York approved a business proposal from the City’s library and information services unit and agreed to a conditional grant of US$2-million (R15,4-million), Lourens said.

The grant was used to link the special collections of books and items that date as far back as the early 19th century to the library’s database or catalogue so that all of the City’s library facilities could have access to the rare research and documentation.

Funding was also used to subscribe to 40 more electronic databases, initiate the digitisation of the newspaper collection and buy additional information resources for the five special collections that the library houses. These are Africana – the Harold Strange Collection of African Studies; arts – Michaelis Art collection; the performing arts collection; the newspaper and picture collection; and a special children’s book collection.

African studies
“The internationally recognised Harold Strange Library of African Studies is the jewel in the crown of the Johannesburg City Library, with vast collections of material on all aspects of the history and culture of Southern Africa.”

It includes manuscripts, maps, private papers, books, pamphlets and photographs. “Of great interest to researchers are the collections of African languages, literature and ethnology and the history of the Witwatersrand, gold mining and Johannesburg, which is unique in the world,” she said.

The newspaper section provides bound and microfilmed newspapers dating from the early 19th century, and a cuttings collection covering a broad range of topics. The Michaelis Arts and the performing arts sections contain in-depth resources in the fields of visual and performing arts.

The upgraded library also has an updated lending section, catering for every age group. There is a children’s section, an adult reference section, as well as a specialised division for high school students with supplementary materials for projects, study guides and past exam papers.

The roof was revamped as the first step in the upgrading and extension project. The City has spent approximately R65-million on renovating and extending the structure and it is not finished yet. There are still some outstanding needs, such as air conditioning in the old part of the building, but that is expected to follow in the new financial year. The Africana section is being fitted with closed-off temperature control sections to house and protect the rare and valuable items.

The greater project involved renovating the original building, completed in 1935, as well as constructing a three-storey addition in the central courtyard. The two are linked by escalators and bridges. “The new facilities bring a modern element to the classical design of the old library, creating a seamless flow from the old to the new structure,” Lourens said.

The three new floors rise in the centre of the original building and bring the library into the modern era of electronic information with the first two floors for public access PCs, wi-fi access and internet access. The third floor “is a splendid glassed-in, double-volume floor that is designed specifically for exhibitions”.

The project has also increased the library’s capacity and the renovated structure seats 566 people, from the 255 for whom it could provide seating previously. The theatre has been re-instated as a conference and public activity space. It is here that the opening ceremony will take place.

There is an area set aside for a coffee shop and the library services will advertise for a private company to manage it from 1 July.

“Additional toilet facilities, modernised lifts and the upgrading of the electrical systems are also contributing to make the library, old and new, a fully functional space with the potential to become a socially inclusive living room or home-from-home,” Lourens said.

The library’s resources will also be available to more than just the Joburg population, as the Inter-Library Loan Service will enable requesters throughout South Africa to benefit from them.

For the past three months, library staff members have been preparing the facility for its opening. More than a hundred crates of stored furniture were unpacked, sorted and re-installed, and more than 5 000 boxes of books were unpacked.

Carnegie Corporation
In July 2011, the Carnegie Corporation approved a second grant of $2-million towards turning the library into a centre of excellence or model city library. The majority of the grant is earmarked for the provision of information technology – there will be 212 internet workstations, special computers for the art centre, computers for the computer-based literacy centre, and computers for administration. The rest of the grant is for furniture, signage and security.

A library of this magnitude and potential is a work in progress. The City is working on the information technology solution and the final implementation is planned for the end of April. Although most of the furniture has been bought and is being delivered, the music and performing arts section will remain closed for a further three months, opening on 15 May. This is due to the specially designed and purpose-made new furniture that is being made for the section.

Public demand led the City to decide to open the library and to consider it a work in progress. The library and all it entails will be finished by the end of May. In the meantime, users will have access to the other sections, especially the reference, young adults, Africana and art sections that have always been high in demand.

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