Are There Public Libraries in Johannesburg?

The answer to this one, much like the question about your iPhone in South Africa, has to be “Yes, but….” Yes, there are public libraries in Johannesburg. The best place to find the one nearest you is to figure out in which of the 7 regions of Johannesburg you reside, and then looking at the library list for that particular region.

Joburg 7 regions
Joburg library list per region (scroll down for links to each region)

The ones nearest the Dainfern/Fourways area in the Northern Suburbs are either Norscot Manor (Cnr William Nicol/Leslie, Penguin Dr, 011 705 3323) or Bryanston (Cnr New/Payne Street, Bryanston, 011 706 3518).

BUT, and it is indeed a big but, these libraries are so ridiculously behind the modern times that try as you might, you will not be drawn to them. I think they’re mostly run by volunteers, and I really do commend them, but if  you come from a city like Overland Park, which is dotted with a network of state of the art libraries where you can order pretty much any book or DVD online, receive an email notification that it has arrived at your preferred library (no matter which library it actually was shelved at), and then pick it up from a drive-through window without ever leaving your car, you will understand how I feel.

When I first stepped into the library at Norscot Manor last year, I instantly felt transported back in time. You know that smell of old building and old books? No? Anyway, it smelled just like the library in my hometown of Tubingen, Germany, where I spent many an afternoon when I was about eleven years old. I’d load up on a stack of Agatha Christie’s or Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, drop them at the desk of the stern looking lady who’d inspect my library card and then proceed to stamp the little piece of paper pasted on the inside of the cover, and then I’d stuff everything into the saddle bags of my bike and pedal home, where I didn’t lose any time to flop onto my bed and start reading. Well, let me just tell you, Norscot Manor has exactly the same selection of books as my childhood library, except a lot smaller. If you’re happy with anything written before 1970, it is not so bad. It uses exactly the same system of stamps to remind you when your book is due, and trust me, the lady is just as stern, except black.

When I first signed up for library cards, I was given the choice of a free membership, which lets you borrow 3 books at a time, and some sort of preferred membership for R30 per year that ups your book limit to a whopping 5 books. Needless to say, I got cards for my entire family so that I could take home the stack of books I was accustomed to. If you do this, just make sure you bring your passport and proof of residence and birth certificates for the children. Then you only have to wait for about two weeks and bingo, you can go pick up your library card(s). When I first had to return our books was when true pain set in: Can you imagine going back to the old days of having to hunt through your house for books you might have borrowed, not really knowing which ones they are? Without an email reminder and printout telling you the titles?

To be fair, Norscot Manor is a bit of an anomaly, even for South Africa, in that it is some kind of old family estate on beautiful grounds, parts of which have been refashioned into a community center, hence the library. You should definitely check it out and have a coffee on the beautiful lawn overlooking Johannesburg.  As for other libraries, I read somewhere that the Johannesburg Central library has 1.5 million books on its shelves, so maybe that is worth checking out, but I’m not sure if it’s in a part of town I’d want to go to. I recently went to the one in Sandton (Nelson Mandela Square, 011 282 5911overlooking Mandela Square, and the building it resides in is stunning, reminding me a bit of the Guggenheim Museum with its curved pathways leading to higher up stories. However, the stock of books on display there is almost as ancient as the one at Norscot Manor, just more plentiful. And I dearly paid for the one book I did pick up there in terms of trying to be rid of it again. I hardly ever get to Mandela Square (although it is also beautiful and well worth a visit and maybe dinner at Lekgotla) so that I returned the book at Norscot Manor (which I was assured was possible) where I waited about 20 minutes for the lady to go photocopy some ancient form, or actually two of them, and fill them out painstakingly with all my personal details (and a generous dose of tipp-ex) before I was allowed to leave.

Fine, you might say, too  much trouble, I’ll just buy my books instead. I had a feeling you’d come up with that, so just a tiny word of caution here as well: Books are very expensive in South Africa, I’d say up to twice the price of books in the U.S., if not more. And they’re not as easy to find either, with many bookstores not carrying what you’re looking for (and not knowing how to order). I’ve been disappointed with Kalahari.net, the sort of Amazon.com equivalent in South Africa, both with their price and availability (and God knows how you will actually get your stuff with all this fraud within the Postal Service), but that is one option. Another new bookstore that looks promising and has been on my list to check out (mostly for the very exciting fact that they also serve Starbucks coffee!) is Skoobs at Montecasino. Here is a quick list of the bookstores I can think of:

I’m sorry if this is not the most uplifting post (unless you’re nostalgic about the library of your youth). But there is a solution, one which I’ve already put on the kids’ birthday lists: Buying everyone a Kindle, which works just as fine in South Africa as anywhere else. I’ve been unhappy with the fact that our kids are not nearly reading as much as back in the U.S., and the books that they do occasionally read are all imported via some back avenues from Amazon. If I want the kids to read, I’ll have to give them each an exciting device where they have a world of reading at their fingertips. Even if it won’t come cheap. In fact, maybe it will actually come cheap in the not so distant future, when Kindle books will be made available to borrow from libraries, as some other e-books already are. Either way, if you’re in the process of relocating to South Africa, arm yourself with a few Kindles.

You won’t regret it.