February 25, 2011

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.

20 comments :

Doty's said...

Hi Sine,
I just came across your blog, thanks goodness! My husband is looking to take an expat assignment (our first) in SA (we are coming from the US)and as you can imagine, we have many questions (and concerns). We are scheduled to fly in for a look-see the first week in March. I would love to chat via email if possible. I just subscribed to your blog so not sure if you have my information or not but please let me know the best way to get in touch. Thanks so much.

Sine said...

I'm so excited for you and love when prospective expats find my blog. That's what it's there for! (other than indulging my propensity to ramble). I've already sent you an email so that you can ask all your questions directly. In fact, it'll be great for me to use to update my FAQ section!

Anonymous said...

Johannesburg also has loads of 2nd hand book stores, often with newish books, which make up for the ancient libraries and expensive prices in the handful of quality book stores. I would also recommend www.take2.co.za

Debbie Ann said...

I just managed to get a library card - it wasn't that easy. First I went to the Melville library and was really sad about the selection, but then I found the Rosebank library is just a short walk from the Rosebank mall and the selection is better - especially for South African writers and also African writers - even though the books are old, I haven't read them. I also found free New Yorkers, which are gold as far as I'm concerned. I was stunned when they date stamped my book, I think I haven't experienced that in 30 years. ok maybe 20. Anyway, it is better than the 'libraries' I found in Bangalore, where I had to pay to borrow books.

I do think Joburg has a much better used bookstore selection than a lot of the US. I like bookdealers in Rosebank and Melville.

I use my kindle app on my android phone for the new U.S. books.

Great post.

expatAmerican

Debbie Ann said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sine said...

Hi Debbie Ann - I've never checked out the Rosebank library but it sounds much better than the one here at Norscot Manor (where I can only take out 3 books per card and I had to pay money for each of those cards, even if it wasn't much). I must say I have all but given up on libraries here and just bite the bullet and pay for Kindle books (which are supposed to now be available to lend from US libraries but I haven't been able to figure out how from overseas) and make the occasional trip to Scoobs, which I love. Yep, they date stamp your books here. I find even the smell of the libraries reminds me of my childhood. You're not the first one to mention used bookstores - I have yet to visit one of those as well. Another thing to put on my expat to do list I suppose!

Johan Coetzee said...

Hello

I've grown up in SA, albeit not in Johannesburg. The state of our public libraries has really become a very sad and sorry affair. I have exactly the same memories as you of taking my bike to get fresh books. However, sadly, funding for public libraries has dried up. A couple of years ago I chatted with a library manager, who told me that with the budget they receive is enough for about 100 books after building maintenance, salaries, etc. has been paid for.

In a country where we should be promoting the value of education, can we afford not to have excellent libraries? How will we instill a culture of reading if the stock of books available is so dated that it borders on archaic? Our libraries should be an intellectual refuge for those who are trying to improve their lot in life, but instead it has become a dusty pile of old books.

For myself, I have stopped going to the library about five years ago. It was just too sad. Not to mention that I had a hard time finding anything I was interested in reading.

My advice to the bookworms is exactly what you have also mentioned – get a kindle. This works brilliantly for the international book selection. I am, however, Afrikaans speaking. The last time I checked, the only Afrikaans title available on Kindle is the Bible. Which is awesome, but it is not really light reading. This only leaves the option to buy the Afrikaans books. These I have found to be even more expensive, presumably due to the limited number of copies printed.

Now here I am rambling on your blog. Sorry about that.

Thanks for the very interesting posts. It is awesome to read how a foreign expat experiences South Africa.

Debbie Ann said...

I have just started going to the city library (easy to get there on Rea Vaya) and they have a pretty good collection of books. And the physical library is beautiful - the windows, the wooden shelving. Still no card catalog that I can see, but they do have a current collection w books I want to read.

Sine said...

Johan, thanks so much for leaving your comment. I haven't even thought of the plight for Afrikaans speaking South Africans. That library at Norscot Manor did have a whole shelf of Afrikaans children's books, which at the time seemed nice to me, but i'm sure they were as outdated as everything else. It was really sad to see that the kids' school library was much more modern than the public one. Glad you Kindle works out for you - now there just needs to be a bigger Afrikaans community to demand more Kindle books. Maybe you should write one:-)

Sine said...

Hi again Debbie Ann - I now regret not going to the city library even once to check it out. I have seen pictures of it on another blog and it looked lovely, so if it also has a more current collection that's good news. It's just so inconvenient to get to if you live in the Northern suburbs.

I must say, when I first visited the local library here in Brentwood TN upon our return to the US, my eyes almost watered. It is unbelievable. But I'll have to make it a habit again for all of us to go there regularly - we've fallen out of that during our time in SA!

W. A. Jeffrey said...

I like old fashioned libraries and having lived my whole life in small towns I was not aware that there were any other kinds. I just figured the bigger the town the bigger the library and perhaps the fancier the building.

Funding is a tricky question. Personally I think it is better off to fund via donations or perhaps large scale giving by a wealthy benefactor like the United States did ala Andrew Carnegie. Over the years as governments take over more and more responsibilities it ends up crowding out potential giving which tends to be spent more efficiently than tax money.

As to buying books (always my preferred method once I got to the point where I could readily afford it), the advertised prices on Exclusive Books' website doesn't seem to be too bad. I found plenty that were not quite double the USA prices. For the Amazon fantatic moving from the USA to SA there is always Stackry or some similar service which from what I can tell is cheaper than paying Amazon directly for express insured shipping. Now I don't know what Stackry uses but the mail forwarding companies usually use DHL, FedEx, or UPS which would bypass the postal theft problem. But depending on the cost I suppose paying higher local prices for the titles that are available might end up being the cheaper option. Kindles are all well and good but I have never much cared for ebooks. Just doesn't feel like I am reading a real book. I also hate ebook prices because they are a colossal ripoff. I wonder why books are higher in SA? I suppose it could be the old import regulations and tariffs again but maybe it is because it is a much smaller market. Considering how the book markets have changed in the wealthier countries with much higher literacy rates maybe we should be glad that there are books stores at all. That said, most of the large publishers have offices in SA and they wouldn't do that if the market was super small. Maybe somebody should ask one of the managers in Exclusive Books or email corporate and see if they can explain it?

In my particular case I have over 4,000 books, most of which I have not read yet, but I doubt I will move all of them in case of damage in transit or theft. I have heard also that when shipping your belongings you are not supposed to bring much beyond what a typical household has or you might end up having to pay substantial duties or risk confiscation.

One final point regarding SA libraries... I don't think it would be too bad to be limited to older books because you never know what you might find. There are tons of out of print authors that are just as good (if not better) than what you can find today. The more I learn about life in SA I sometimes stop and wonder if maybe we shouldn't wish for so much modernization and other things to be more like our home countries. In an era of globalization sometimes it is nice to have some particular things that make a place unique. We wouldn't like it if the only differences between countries were weather and scenery.

Sine said...

can't say I agree with you on libraries. Every state I've lived in I got to know the public library, and all of them were publicly funded, even in conservative states, and they all did a superb job. Libraries are one of the prime examples where I think government and taxes do a superb job at delivering a public good that is needed and appreciated. Nowhere in the US have I seen a mismanaged library where you were thinking, hell, there go my taxpayer dollars. I've always been impressed. SA would be a prime example where private funding is sorely needed for the library system and I haven't seen any evidence of it.

W. A. Jeffrey said...

What I was getting at about the funding aspect was that nobody should be forced to pay for a library that they do not use. And sadly, too many conservatives are perfectly comfortable with using the power of the state to steal from their fellow citizens if the money is used for something they want.

You would be forgiven for thinking I am a radical crank for making the above statement but as a libertarian I am used to it.

Sine said...

Ah, but that is where taxes are used and needed and where libertarianism has its limits: Paying for the common good. The downside that you may not use it or at least not all of it is made up for by the upside that it is more efficient for some things to be run by the state rather than each person individually. Police and fire department come to mind. And libraries. Not everyone might use them, although I would say it'd be good if they did:-)

Beccy said...

I've been living in Jo'burg for 20 years, and have also lived in London and elsewhere in South Africa. The statement about libraries being run by volunteers is not correct. They are municipal employees, and very few know anything about the books, which is a huge shame, as when I was a kid, the librarians were really informed. The best way to find out what books are where is to use the OPAC catalogue. In some libraries they have had a terminal available for the public to use, with access to the catalogue, but the libraries I go to now don't seem to have this option. However, in any Jo'burg library you can get the librarian to look up books for you. Then you can find out where the book is, and chase down the appropriate library. This can be very helpful as the libraries have very different stock. I found, for example, that the Sandton library has very few early readers for its size, but the Linden and Blackheath libraries, which are much smaller, have far more early readers.

Oh - and about bookshops: Kalahari is now called takealot and they courier the books to your door. But yes, Kindle is definitely the way to go for new books, as they are just so expensive here.

Sine said...

Aha, Beccy, thank you so much for your informed comments! As you say, I also noticed the same thing - big variation between libraries. I remember going to the Sandton one the first time thinking it would be great because it's fairly large and in a modern building, and I was sorely disappointed.

In any case, nothing can compare with our library here in the U.S. Funny, Americans like to complain about their services (and the taxes they have to pay for them), but they are so much better than in so many other countries. Here, I have a state of the art online system, I go in there and check out my books, I get a text message when it's available, I drive up to the library, I go inside and grab my books off the holding shelf, and I check out and leave. Takes me about 30 seconds. For dropoff they have a drive through lane. Oh, and they also let you check out books via One Click Digital and Overdrive app for ebooks and audio books.

I'd love to live in South Africa again, but the one thing I'd really miss is our American library:)

Unknown said...

Try Parkview library for kids books- very decent selection- I take my school kids there every 2nd week or so. Staff are friendly and helpful and very welcoming to a bunch of noisyish grd 6 pupils. Selection for adults maybe not as great but worth a visit definitely.

Sine said...

Thank you so much for the comment! That's great to know, will share with my readers on Joburg Expat Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/JoburgExpat/.

Melanie said...

I am coming into this discussion late, but I feel that it is important to say the following:
The basic definition of a library is that it is a collection of books. So, flexibility is necessary in order to maintain and develop the library resources a country has. Libraries should be maintained within a continuum ranging from absolute ideal to the I am coming barest minimum resource, rather than writing off partial resources because they don't match the ideal. Johannesburg alone has 83 libraries (check the internet) of various sizes and capabilities. There are study opportunities for librarian qualifications at tertiary level at numerous South African universities (and just to challenge negative assumptions about South Africa's university standards: Wits and UCT are in the top 250 out of 50,000 world-wide universities ranked in the Times Higher International rankings. UJ and Unisa are in the top 600). While our infrastructures still exist, they are deteriorating, but this country was forced to make massive overnight changes in multi-cultural, multi language, highly complicated situations after decades of boycotts, states of emergency, and South Africa will be trying to find its feet for a long time. Hold your heads up high. We didn't collapse into total destruction. The point being that South Africans cannot allow themselves to become depressed by negative, non-factual judgements. Yes, criticism can be valuable - if it is factual, and helpful. So: South Africans reading this: Do NOT get so depressed that you don't visit and maintain your libraries - contribute as many new books, dvds, games, beanbags to sit in, etc. that you can. If you are good at lively reading then offer your services - at least ten of the libraries I know have scheduled children's reading sessions. I spend Wednesday afternoons at the Parkview library, selling second hand books, which the library cannot use because they are either old, or they have many copies of the book etc. There are opportunities for volunteers who are doing their best to help the situation (eg. Friends of the Library). We are not a first world country. We do not have the luxury of contributing in taxes to our infrastructure, and then just use it. We HAVE to try to maintain and build it ourselves. Some helpful support from other countries would help, but we can't expect that. Let's endeavour to do what we can to keep this country going, until hopefully this horrible era of instability and corruption ends. (A final point: our scorned date stamp - if we printed out 83 libraries X minimum 20 pages per day X 6 days X 48 weeks = 478,000 pieces of paper per year, just in Johannesburg! How much wood and water is being wasted? Maybe in this case it is not South Africa that needs to change).
Melanie Dobbs, University of the Witwatersrand, 5 May 2017

Melanie said...

APOLOGIES – THIS IS RE-SENT, CORRECTING TYPOS IN MY FIRST COMMENT
I am coming into this discussion late, but I feel that it is important to say the following:
The basic definition of a library is that it is a collection of books. So, flexibility is necessary in order to maintain and develop the library resources a country has. Libraries should be maintained within a continuum ranging from absolute ideal to the barest minimum resource, rather than writing off partial resources because they don't match the ideal. Johannesburg alone has 83 libraries (check the internet) of various sizes and capabilities. There are study opportunities for librarian qualifications at tertiary level at numerous South African universities (and just to challenge negative assumptions about South Africa's university standards: Wits and UCT are in the top 250 out of 50,000 world-wide universities ranked in the Times Higher International rankings. UJ and Unisa are in the top 600). While our infrastructures still exist, they are deteriorating, but this country was forced to make massive overnight changes in multi-cultural, multi language, highly complicated situations after decades of boycotts, states of emergency, and South Africa will be trying to find its feet for a long time. Hold your heads up high. We didn't collapse into total destruction. The point being that South Africans cannot allow themselves to become depressed by negative, non-factual judgements. Yes, criticism can be valuable - if it is factual, and helpful. So: South Africans reading this: Do NOT get so depressed that you don't visit and maintain your libraries - contribute as many new books, dvds, games, beanbags to sit in, etc. that you can. If you are good at lively reading then offer your services - at least ten of the libraries I know have scheduled children's reading sessions. I spend Wednesday afternoons at the Parkview library, selling second hand books, which the library cannot use because they are either old, or they have many copies of the books etc. There are opportunities for volunteers who are doing their best to help the situation (eg. Friends of the Library). We are not a first world country. We do not have the luxury of contributing in taxes to our infrastructure, and then just use it. We HAVE to try to maintain and build it ourselves. Some helpful support from other countries would help, but we can't expect that. Let's endeavour to do what we can to keep this country going, until hopefully this horrible era of instability and corruption ends. (A final point: our scorned date stamp - if we printed out 83 libraries X minimum 20 pages per day X 6 days X 48 weeks = 478,000 pieces of paper per year, just in Johannesburg! How much wood and water is being wasted? Maybe in this case it is not South Africa that needs to change).
Melanie Dobbs, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, 5 May 2017