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BBesides providing access to reading materials and serving as resource centres for schools and tertiary education, South African libraries are custodians of South African knowledge and essential in preserving the history and identity of the nation. Discover rare collections of books from around the country, as well as periodicals, newspapers and Africana.
Among the top South African libraries is the National Library of South Africa, which is co-located in Pretoria and Cape Town. This library has a Parliamentary mandate to collect and preserve important publications and documents and make them accessible to the public.
The National Library in Pretoria can accommodate 1 300 visitors at a time and stocks about 2-million books – with capacity for another 3.5 million. It houses rare collections of books from South Africa and around the world, as well as periodicals, newspapers and Africana. Many items are available on CD or microfilm, in digital format or online for research.
Among these treasures are 115 medieval and renaissance manuscripts, including the oldest in Southern Africa – a Latin copy of the 4 gospels dated between AD 875 and 900. There are also first and second Shakespeare folios.
Cape Town's central library, housed in the Old Drill Hall, offers free internet access, an extended art library, a music and performance art library and a children's collection.
Provincial library services offer South Africans wide access to books and can be found in towns and cities throughout the country. The Bloemfontein Public Library, for example, is home to Africana texts, a unique collection of South African drama texts in its National Drama Library, and the National Afrikaans Literary Museum and Documentation Centre.
Other favourite South African libraries include municipal libraries such as the Johannesburg Public Library, which also offers services such as literacy classes, storytelling sessions and classroom support.
South Africa's universities also house extensive collections of books, but you need to arrange prior access with the university if you're not a student at the institution.
Also look out for South African institutions relating to books and literature, like the National English Literary Museum in Grahamstown. Its mandate is to collect and protect the imaginative and creative writings in English of southern African writers. Another example is the Africa Institute of South Africa, which has the most comprehensive collection of literature concerning the African continent and its politics, economics, socio-economic and developmental issues.
TTravel tips & planning info
Who to contact
National Library of South Africa
Tel: +27 (0)21 424 6320 (Cape Town)
Tel: +27 (0)12 401 9700 (Pretoria)
Best time to visit
Provincial and municipal libraries are open from 8am to 4pm on weekdays.
Tours to do
Check the library websites for any special book events coming up.
What will it cost?
You may be required to sign up a library membership for a small fee.
Length of stay
Browse to your heart’s content. Many libraries offer seating and desks and some offer internet access.
What to eat
Libraries are never more than a stone's throw from coffee shops or eateries.
The Centre for the Book is a unit of the National Library with branches in both Cape Town and Pretoria, promoting reading, writing and publishing in all local languages. It hosts regular literary events, as do other libraries around the country.