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Origins of the Centre for the Book

Naspers, Origins - Mary-Anne Nielson - October 7, 2017


Described as the finest Edwardian building in Cape Town, the building that presently houses the Centre for the Book was erected just before the first World War to be the headquarters of the University of the Cape of Good Hope (established in 1873 to be an examining university). This University examined the students of several colleges, like Victoria College, Stellenbosch, and the South African College, Cape Town and others, which are today universities in their own right.

The land, together with a considerable amount of money, was donated to the university by Willem Hiddingh, and money was also provided by Donald Currie, owner of the “Castle” shipping line. Both are commemorated by bas-relief portrait busts in the entrance hall of the building.

The design by British architects W. Hawke and W.N. McKinlay was chosen in a public competition. The architects moved to South Africa to oversee its construction, and were subsequently to design many of the public buildings required for the government of the Union of South Africa, including the Bloemfontein Law Courts. It has been described as one of the finest Edwardian building in Cape Town, even though it was a scaled-down version of the original design. It was opened in 1913.

In 1918, the Cape University became the University of South Africa (UNISA) after a three year transition period, and shortly afterwards moved its headquarters to rented premises in Pretoria.

UNISA retained ownership of the building until it was sold to the State in 1932 to be the new home of the Cape Archives Depot. At this time, fire detection systems and an electric lift were installed, and other modifications were made for the storage of documents.

Unfortunately, long-term neglect of maintenance took its toll on the building, especially during the 1970s and 1980s when the Archives were planning to move to new premises. By the time the Archives moved out in February 1990, the building was in a serious state of dilapidation, with a leaking roof and crumbling stone-work the major problems.

The building was proclaimed a National Monument in 1990. As early as 1987, the Department of National Education had offered it to the South African Library which planned to use it to house its special collections. The Public Works Department appointed consultants to plan for its renovation, under the guidance of leading restoration consultant, John Rennie. The most pressing problem was replacing the roof and stopping the leaks, and with a limited budget allocation this was done as a matter of priority while planning the restoration of the rest of the building proceeded. The second phase which has just come to an end, involved replacement of crumbling “Vlakpan” sandstone with Paarl granite, repairing internal water damage, removal of the cumulated additions of the previous 75 years, and generally bringing the facilities up to an acceptable level. A new lift has been provided, to allow entry and movement for disabled persons, as well as new toilet and kitchen facilities.

The lift itself deserves comment as probably the most complicated in Cape town. It has three doors to enable it to serve different levels of the building; the external door is protected internally and externally by a key-pad plus intercom to the front desk; the reception desk can monitor the position of the lift as well as sending it to the external exit; where the lift opens into book storage areas, it is key-operated for security. It has a novel snail button which delays the closing of the doors to enable wheelchairs and trolleys to enter without being caught in the doors; and the internal finishes were carefully designed by the architects.

Because of the subsequent renovations to what is now called the National Library building, the need to move the service point of the National Library’s Special Collections Department fell away. The Centre for the Book building will nevertheless still house the manuscripts collections and several other valuable collections in environmentally controlled stores, as well as the National Library’s Conservation and Book Repair workshops. The ground floor has been made available to the innovative “Centre for the Book” which aims to promote the value of library services to the wider nation, to promote literacy, to cultivate the reading of books and generally to promote a culture of learning. The Centre also aims to make books more accessible, more affordable and more attractive to the majority of South Africans, particularly children and disadvantaged people deprived rural areas and informal settlements. A generous donation by NASPERS made it possible to buy the furniture and equipment required.

The building is meant to be a place where organisations involved with literacy, reading, publishing, and allied fields can use the superb facilities for conferences, symposia, training courses and exhibitions.

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