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The building and restoration project to turn the old Joburg public library into the smart, modern Johannesburg City Library has been a complex but rewarding task.
WITH the advent of the 21st century, it became clear that the Johannesburg Public Library building could no longer adequately accommodate the number of users, the growing book stock and the requirements for electronic access to information. The building required extensive renovation in almost all aspects from roof to basement and the floor area needed to be considerably expanded.

WorkersSome parts of the building had to be demolishedTwo earlier proposals to increase the available area by bridging the open courtyard with an additional floor had come to nothing, but with the obtaining of a substantial grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, this prospect was resuscitated.

The physical realisation of the City of Johannesburg’s commitment to the Carnegie Corporation of New York to upgrade and extend the Johannesburg City Library began with the arrival of the contractors on site in May 2009. This extensive and complex undertaking involved the renovation of the original 1935 library building and the construction of a three-storey addition in the central courtyard, linked by escalators and bridges to the original building. The new floors, together with the addition of mezzanine balconies in the lending and reference areas, increased the old library’s capacity of 11 198m2 by 1 967m2. While the old building could seat 255 people, the renovated and extended Centre of Excellence provides seating for 566.

The design and building approach by the heritage architect, Jonathan Stone, was to ensure that new work and additions were identifiable and did not “distort or obscure the cultural significance of the library or detract from its interpretation and appreciation”. (Australian ICOMOS Burra Charter, 1999)

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. The three new floors rising in the centre of the original building brings the library into the modern era of electronic information with the provision of public-access computers as well as wi-fi areas on the first two floors. A splendid glassed-in double-volume third floor is a less formal reading and study area and an exhibition space. The upgrade project provided an excellent opportunity to optimise and consolidate the arrangement of the various collections, which will enable easier access to staff and the public, and heighten public awareness of the very extensive special collections available to them.

Renovation and construction were not without their problems, however. At the beginning of the work, it was discovered that the electrical systems were inadequate and unsafe. Urgent work was undertaken to make the building safe and to replace the entire electrical installation to comply with regulations. Building the facility in the central courtyard presented special logistical and engineering challenges. As there was no direct access, materials had to be lifted by tower crane over the existing building, into the site.

The nature of the project was extremely complicated, not least given the integration of new plumbing, electrical, fire and information technology services within an historic building. Every attempt had to be made to preserve the fine materials, finishes, mouldings and workmanship of this heritage site. This meant that each service route had to avoid concealed concrete beams, do the least damage to the building fabric and, where possible, be concealed from view.

The project began with demolitions to remove partitioning and walling added since the building was originally opened in 1935, so as to restore the large volumes intended by the original design, a striking feature of the library being the large, high-ceilinged well-lit rooms. A portion of the foyer floor was removed to accommodate the new escalators leading to the new extension. Two new lift shafts were built and excavations began for the 85 piles required to support the three floors of the new building. By the end of 2009, construction of the first floor of the extension was in progress, as were the two mezzanine study levels above the Reference and Lending areas.

In the following year, the three floors of the new building, refurbishment and replacement of copper sheeting and tiles on the roof were completed; glass was installed in the eight large skylights; exterior stonework was cleaned; and sculptures and woodwork, including floors, doors and paneling, were restored. By the end of the year, the highest point had been reached with the installation by crane of the new space frame roof over the extension.

The floors in particular required specialist work which was not always successful at the first or even the second attempt. However, the wood block floors have been recovered and generally completely re-laid. The original cork floors have been fully restored where possible and the foyer floor brought back to the original pattern.

As part of the upgrade, the existing lift shaft was substantially increased in size to take a much larger lift car and a new lift shaft for a second lift was cored through the building. This work proved to be immensely challenging to implement structurally, in terms of compliance with the latest regulations and minimising the heritage impact of such an installation.

In 2011, work continued to complete the old and new buildings, including the copper roof over the extension, the link bridges to the old building, restoration of the original cork and wooden flooring, installation of escalators and two lifts, electrical and plumbing installations, air conditioning and fire control systems.

Fikile Construction summarised its experiences: “The activity on the site has been high pressure all the way. As is typical of a site like this, a renovation of a gracious old landmark, there have been challenges as the professional team and the contractor were more or less on a journey of discovery along which many changes and solutions had to be crafted to produce what you see.

“Working in a building that effectively has some of its contents still occupying its rooms posed an additional challenge … there were restrictions in movement and execution of works. In addition, because of valuable fixtures such as the brass clocks, brass light fittings and copper-sheeting roof, more security than usual had to be procured.”

The completed project presents Johannesburg with a finely restored heritage building integrated with a modern, three-storey extension providing additional space for study, electronic information access and exhibitions. The basement includes the reconstructed theatre and the Newsroom, with provision for a coffee shop, which is planned for this year.

The ground floor, with its magnificent marble pillars, moulded ceiling and stained glass window, houses the Lending Collection, the Reference Collection and the Young Adults Section. Also on the ground floor is provision for the Literacy Training Centre.

The first floor is linked by bridges, lifts and escalators to the new cantilevered study levels above the Lending and Reference areas, which can accommodate 180 users, with wi-fi capability for those using their own laptops, as well as to the first level of the new extension, which will have 70 computers for free public use.

Above this, the second floor accommodates the Arts Department, including the Michaelis Art Library and the Performing Arts Library. The renovated library provides new sections for the public to listen to recorded music and watch films at individual listening and viewing stations. Glass doors lead to the second level of the new building, where there will be another 70 public-access computers.

The top floor accommodates the Harold Strange Library of African Studies, the Children’s Book Collection and study and exhibition areas.

Carnegie partnership
Since July 2001, the Carnegie Corporation of New York has been working with the City of Johannesburg on projects that benefit disadvantaged communities and promote library services.

The first grant of $543 871 (about R4-million) was allocated in July 2001 and the final report was submitted in October 2004. The Want to Read project concentrated on improving children services in disadvantaged communities and the funding went towards buying books for children, training specialised staff for children services and the initiation of reading development programmes such as the Story Skirmish, which is one of the most popular library programmes, involving a minimum of 170 schools a year.

The grant resulted in the City prioritising capital funds for the upgrading and extension of libraries in disadvantaged areas to provide separate children sections. Between 2002 and 2005, 12 libraries were extended, upgraded and given beautiful new children’s furniture.

When the Carnegie Corporation announced its new emphasis on Revitalising African Libraries; Centres of Excellence, the library services applied for a $50 000 planning grant to complete a strategic plan as a foundation for the Johannesburg Public Library to become a Centre of Excellence/Model City Library. The strategic plan was completed in October 2004 and a Business Plan for the Expansion and Upgrading of Information Resources of the Johannesburg Public Library was submitted to obtain a $2-million grant.

Grant funding
The grant was approved in 2005/6 and used towards the appointment and training of staff to rid the reference collections of irrelevant, unused, out of date and worn out materials – dead wood was removed in preparation for new acquisitions. They also had to link about 400 000 remaining stock items of the special collections to the data base, which is currently 90 percent completed; buy new stock; and acquire equipment for the digitisation of the library’s News Cuttings Collection to avoid further duplication and to improve information provision.

Buying additional audiovisual equipment, attendance of international conferences and training opportunities were also approved.

The approval of the grant funding by the corporation was based on an agreement with the City to provide the capital funds for the upgrading and extension of the Johannesburg City Library and to relocate the Bibliographic Services Unit from the Library Theatre to suitable premises. Both conditions were met. The Bibliographic Services Unit was relocated between 2007 and 2009 to newly renovated premises, at a cost of about R5,5-million, at 22 Solomon Street –the former Smit Street Technical Workshops – which has since become the headquarters of the City’s library and information services directorate. It also houses the information technology, administration and programmes units.

The second condition of extending and upgrading the Johannesburg Public Library into a Model City Library, has been done at a total cost of R68-million to date.

The successful outcomes of the grants have resulted in a follow-up grant towards the completion of the Model City Library. The Carnegie Corporation approved a further grant of $2-million in June 2011 towards, inter alia, buying 212 internet workstations, 14 network printers and 89 database access computers, as well as the creation of an information and communications infrastructure, security systems, signage, an auditorium and visual centre, community skills development programmes, and a marketing programme.

The implementation plan is in process and final completion is envisaged for the end of May 2012.

• The next library and information services directorate feature, will focus on the collections housed in the Johannesburg City Library.

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