21 March 2018

South Africa: SA Wine Tax for Books and Five Other Things About SA's Grand Old Lady

The National Library of South Africa (NLSA) turned 200 on Tuesday, making it the oldest library and public institution of any kind in the country.

Celebrating the anniversary, CEO and national librarian Rocky Ralebipi-Simela acknowledged the institution's "empty shelves, quiet spaces and locked rooms".

On a literal level, empty cabinets were signs of lost opportunities for collecting printed material in the past.

On a more metaphorical level, there were parts of history that citizens would rather not remember and which were locked away.

There were also spaces in the collection, because some local items were not proudly on display at home, but locked up in other institutions overseas.

Going forward, she said there was a need for true African voices to be heard, which would inspire a child from Thohoyandou, for example, to become a musician, historian or scientist, and not only think about being an athlete.

Here are five things you may not have known about South Africa's grand old lady:

- The NLSA has its origins in the South African Library, which was founded in 1818 by the governor of the Cape Colony, Lord Charles Somerset. It seemed he believed that, if people could enjoy wine, they should have access to books too. So he imposed a wine tax "to place the means of knowledge within the reach of the youth of this remote corner of the Globe, and bring within their reach what the most eloquent of ancient writers has considered to be one of the first blessings of life, 'Home Education'."

- The personal collection of Joachim Nikolaus von Dessin, an educated German national who settled in the Cape Colony, was the first significant acquisition of the SA Library. The collection includes the valuable first editions of books by French philosopher René Descartes and a copy of the diary of Adam Tas, a community leader in the colony who challenged corruption by Dutch East India Company administrators.

- The National Library of SA has two sites, in Pretoria and Cape Town. The Cape Town site is flanked by the Company's Gardens, Parliament and St George's Cathedral. Just 100 metres away, there are two blue plaques on the walls of the Western Cape legislature which mark the site where Dessin's collection was first held, between 1756 and 1761.

- Brittle historical newspapers that were primarily written in indigenous languages as part of protest press, are being preserved in digital format thanks to a digitisation project at the library.

- The NLSA is the third-largest national library in Africa and the Middle East with some 2.8 million books, according to the 3rd edition of the Library World Records. The largest is the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, with 5.6m books, followed by the National Library of Egypt in Cairo, with 3.2m books.

Source: News24

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