JOBURG FOR INTROVERTS – The Johannesburg City Library

JOBURG FOR INTROVERTS is a guide for those of us who just want to find a quiet spot and be left alone (if you’re looking for a ‘vaaibe’, you won’t find it here). Next to feature a bookish spot in the CBD: the Johannesburg City Library

I recently went on a half-day walking tour with Microadventure Tours that included a visit the Johannesburg City Library, as well as a number of other bookish stops. I won’t go into too much detail of the tour, as it’s amazing and you really need to go on it yourself, but introverts, I think we’ve struck gold.

The Johannesburg Library walking tour is led by Kennedy Welani Tembo, an exuberant and athletic man who’s originally from Malawi. His passion for his adopted city is palpable and he really knows his history. He runs his own tour company, called Microadventure Tours, and I’m convinced this guy is Joburg energy, in human form.

[Update April 2023]: It seems that Microadventure Tours no longer does the library tour. Their website hasn’t been updated since November 2022, but their Facebook page is more current with their tour information.

The library tour starts off at 6 Simmonds Street in Marshalltown, at a small and hipsteresque coffee shop called GOAT Coffee (an acronym for Greatest Of All Time). GOAT is right across the road from the Standard Bank headquarters, and I presume it’s frequented by people in suits during the week. Unfortunately they’re only open on weekdays from 7am to 3pm; they open up for the tour though, as the price includes a free coffee.

[Update April 2023]: It appears that GOAT Coffee is no longer in Simmonds Street. They seem to have a pop-up at the Playground Market in Braamfontein, which is held every Saturday from 10am to 6pm at 73 Juta Street. Looks like an introvert’s hellscape but no doubt it’s fun for those who like crowds.

After coffee we set off and head up Simmonds Street, towards the library; it’s a perfect Saturday morning after the previous night’s rain, and the CBD streets are calm and fairly empty. The group is also on the small side, so it’s not overwhelming.

The Johannesburg City Library is located in the centre of Joburg, opposite Beyers Naudé Square (which is named after Beyers Naudé, a former dominee in the Dutch Reformed Church who was banned by the apartheid government). It also happens to be across the road from the ANC’s headquarters, Luthuli House.

The wind from the previous night’s storm has blown some trash on the library steps. It’s peaceful outside and there are no skateboarders today (the library steps and ramps are popular amongst inner-city skaters).

In front of the library is the statue, Democracy is Dialogue, created by Lawrence Lemaoana, which depicts the universal ‘goddess of democracy’: she usually holds a torch, but in this incarnation she holds a Molotov cocktail and she has a baby on her back. The statue symbolises the violence that occurred pre-1994, as well as how women in protest were not passive.

The Democracy is Dialogue statue by Lawrence Lemaoana outside of the Joburg City Library | Johannesburg, 2019

The building’s exterior is impressive. It’s built in an Italianate/neo-Renaissance style, and was designed by Cape Town architect John Perry. Opened in 1935, the library was originally a tin shack in Kerk Street and was subscription-based. At the end of the Anglo-Boer War, the ZAR government – in an attempt to bring some ‘culture’ to the rough and dusty gold-mining town – funded the formation of the library. In 1924 a professional librarian was imported from Liverpool; a plot of land was bought and construction began in 1929.

The triple-arch entrance to the City Library. The metal doors have monograms that read ‘LJ’ and ‘BJ’ (Library of Johannesburg/Biblioteek Johannesburg) | Johannesburg, 2019
The Joburg City Library is built in stone in the Italianate style; it has a number of large figures on its facade designed by Moses Kottler, which represent literature, music, architecture, medicine, philosophy and history | Johannesburg, 2019

The library’s metal entrance doors lead into an imposing foyer: Victorian printing presses flank either side, and marble staircases lead to the floors above. The lending library is on the left (four books can be taken out at a time; membership is free and you just need your proof of residence and ID to sign up). The central reference library is to the right.

The only sound is a squeaky escalator; there’s a definite hush of silence in this space and it’s divine. (Unfortunately no images of the inside of the library are included in this post, as publishing photography of any kind, even on phones, is not allowed).

We’re told by the head librarian that the Johannesburg City Library has over 1.5-million books in its collection and more than 250 000 members. Technically it’s made up of eight specialist libraries, including a children’s library, the Michaelis art library, a music library, and the Harold Strange Library of African Studies, among others. The building consists of three floors, and the library stretches under Simmonds street for a few blocks – the subterranean, temperature-controlled storage area still has space for “a couple more generations”.

The library was closed and upgraded from 2009 to 2012, and it cost R68 million. The City of Johannesburg, along with the Carnegie Corporation of New York, funded the major revamp. The library still has its original tiles, marble and ceilings, but escalators, lifts, a study area with 560 seats, uncapped Wi-Fi, public access internet, and skylights were added.

Over weekends some of the specialist libraries are closed, but the Michaelis art library is open. It’s a beautiful space with shiny parquet flooring and bookshelves that snake in an S-shape (it’s the largest public art library in South Africa).

The tour visits a few other spots, including the Rand Club (which is usually closed to the public and only open to members; here you’ll also get to check out James Findlay Collectable Books & Antique Maps, which is located in the basement of the Rand Club). Along the way you’ll be able to take in some of the city’s architectural sites, too, such as Corner House and Victory House.

Victory House is the oldest remaining building in the part of Marshalltown that was laid out in 1886. It was also the first building in Johannesburg with a lift and cast-iron staircase (and it appears to be on auction…) | Johannesburg, 2019

The tour also visits Bridge Books, a bookshop that has an emphasis on African writers. They have Wi-Fi and a few tables to sit and chill at – the prime spot being a three-seat counter that has big, glass windows that look onto Commissioner Street. They’re also one of the few places in the CBD that are open on a Saturday; my recommendation is to get here early, have an Americano, then walk a few blocks to the library to spend an hour or two at one of the study tables in the Michaelis library, in introvert heaven.

George and Albright, the super friendly guys behind the coffee counter at Bridge Books in the CBD | Johannesburg, 2019

[Update April 2023]: Bridge Books is now located at 98 Commissioner Street, in the Rand Club building. Find out more via their website (which also has an online store). It’s open Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm, 10am to 4pm on Saturdays. Closed Sundays. I have no idea about parking for the Rand Club, as it’s members only as far as I know.

Pro tip: Parking is always a mission in the CBD, but on a Saturday morning you should be able to park close to the library, which is on the corner of Albertina Sisulu Road and Pixley Seme Street (formerly Sauer Street).

There is underground parking right near Beyers Naudé Square, but, even though it’s empty over weekends, you may run into trouble parking here. It belongs to the Gauteng provincial government and I’ve had issues before, so I recommend you rather park in the basement of the Franklin hotel, which is a short walk from the library, on Pritchard Street (it costs R10 per hour)

[Update April 2023]: I don’t know if you can still park at the Franklin. If anyone else can confirm, please add in the blog comments, but I plan to visit the library soon for an update.

Keep in mind that the library is busy during exam time, and school and university holidays (except in December, when it’s apparently almost deserted; it’s closed from 24 December to 2 January though). Avoid between 2pm and 3pm on weekdays when it’s packed and gets a bit noisy. Saturdays are generally a bit crowded too, so try get here earlier in the morning. The library is closed on Sundays.

The central lending library is open from Monday to Friday between 10am and 5pm, and on Saturdays from 9am to 1pm; the reference library’s hours are from 9am to 5pm on weekdays, and from 9am to 1pm on Saturdays. 

[Update April 2023]: According to Google reviews, the library has been under renovation/construction since November 2021 and is closed over weekends.

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