JOHANNESBURG’S stately central library has been presiding over the city since 1934, but has been under a cloud of building dust since May 2009. The veil is due to be lifted, however, and she will once again stand proudly before her subjects in November.

“Johannesburg City Library attracts and serves 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,” said the deputy director of the library and information services, Atilla Lourens.

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

The grant was to be 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 would also be used to subscribe to 40 more electronic databases, digitise the newspaper collection and purchase 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, newspaper and picture collection, and children’s book collection.

“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 section contain in-depth resources in the fields of visual and performing arts.

The upgraded library will also contain an updated lending section, catering for every age group. There will be an adult reference section, as well as a specialised division for high school students which will contain supplementary materials for projects, study guides and past exam papers.

Carnegie Corporation

Also featured will be new sections where people can listen to recorded music and watch films at individual stations.

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.

In addition to the Carnegie Corporation’s contribution, the City has spent approximately R55-million on renovating the structure to make these changes possible.

The project involved renovating the original building, built in 1934, as well as constructing a three-storey addition in the central courtyard. The two will be 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 rising in the centre of the original building will bring the library into the modern era of electronic information with the provision of numerous public-access PCs as well as wi-fi areas on the first two floors,” she added. “A splendid glassed-in double-volume third floor is designed specifically for exhibitions.”

It has increased the library’s capacity and the renovated structure will be able to seat 566 people, from the 255 for whom it could provide seating previously.

Construction didn’t end there, though. It included the re-instatement of the theatre as a conference and/or public activity space. There will be a coffee shop selling light snacks and refreshments, and a tender for the operation of the coffee shop by a private company will be issued in the next few months.

“Additional toilet facilities, modernised lifts, the upgrading of the electrical and air-conditioning 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.”

The upgrade aimed to turn the library into a “centre of excellence”, Lourens explained.

“[It] is scheduled to reopen in November 2011, in the centenary year of the Carnegie Corporation. It is therefore expected that the corporation will approve the second grant application in June 2011 for another $2-million to provide for 221 IT workstations with internet access to the public, security equipment and audiovisual equipment.”

Construction dust is due to settle at the end of June, when the renovations are expected to be complete; thereafter the new IT equipment will be installed, furnishings will be completed and the book stock will be unpacked in preparation for the unveiling later in the year.