In South Africa, the Public Library Institution was founded in Cape Town in 1818 and supported by a tax on wine. Other public libraries were established at Swellendam in 1838, George in 1840, and Graaff-Reinet and Uitenhage in 1847.
In Port Elizabeth, a small reading society, known as the Port Elizabeth News Societ,y was established in 1844 and housed in a rented room above a shop in Jetty Street. The reading matter consisted mainly of English magazines and London newspapers and the main South African newspapers published at the time, in addition to a small collection of books. In 1845, the Society moved to a rented room in the Commercial Hall which stood on the site of the present Main Library building. At a public meeting held on 26 July 1848, the residents decided to start a subscription library. £585 was collected from public subscriptions, and a yearly income of £197 was guaranteed. In addition, the government of the day gave a grant of £200.
The Public Library was very successful and, partly through buying shares, but mostly through members who donated their shares, managed to acquire the Commercial Hall wholly as their own building. In 1854, the library moved out and rented the building to the Government, which used the old Commercial Hall as a court house. The library was housed at various sites until 31 July 1902, when it was officially opened and housed in its present building. In the 1960’s, plans were mooted to demolish the building in order to make way for the erection of a Provincial Administration block, which would include space for a Provincial Library Service. Fortunately, this never happened, and in 1983, the building was declared a historic monument. Today it is the only historic building in South Africa built as a Public Library which is still functioning as a public library. In 1965, after a public referendum was held, the assets of the Port Elizabeth Public Library and the North End Library were handed over to the Port Elizabeth Municipality and, together with the assets of the Walmer Library, formed the nucleus of the municipal Port Elizabeth Public Libraries.
On 5 October 1894, the North End Library opened in the Mutual Hall. The library offered recreation facilities as well as books, magazines and newspapers. In March 1896, the library moved to 74 Princes Street and had reading and games rooms. In 1901, the library requested a grant of the land next to the gaol from the Governor, and the foundation stone of the new building was laid on 28 April 1909. The library was opened on 8 October 1909. On 17 December 1927, additions to the building were built and the present library building was opened in 1937.
On 16 January 1900, a Library for the residents of the separate municipality of Walmer was opened in St John’s schoolroom and by the end of 1914, the library was housed in a room in the Walmer Town Hall. These premises became inadequate as time passed by and by 1935 it was stated that the library was temporarily closed “for want of accommodation”. Of course, from 1902 the Port Elizabeth Public Library’s new building in the Market Square was open and Walmer residents became subscribers and made use of it when they came to “town”, as they had to do for shopping and business matters. Getting into Port Elizabeth became much easier after the opening of the train line in 1906. The Walmer Municipality gave an annual grant to the Public Library in recognition of its importance to Walmer residents.
By the late 1950s, there was a move to establish a library in Walmer once again. It could have been a branch of the public library, but that institution’s future was uncertain at the time, as the building was to be sold to the Cape Provincial Authorities and a branch of the Provincial Library Service set up in a new building. This did not eventuate and the Port Elizabeth Municipality instead formed its own library service and took over the Public Library building. Walmer, however, felt that the free Provincial Library Service could offer far more than the Port Elizabeth Municipality, but Walmer first had to provide a suitable building and obtain the funds to maintain it and to pay staff. An informal steering committee with enthusiasts such as Margaret Rainier and Paula Arderne meanwhile gathered support and kept the pot boiling.
In February 1962, a public meeting agreed that Walmer would choose the Provincial option. The Municipality offered a site adjoining the Town Hall and in March 1965, the building of the first stage began, the architect being B. Simpson. The new library was officially opened on27 August 1965 by Mr JC Heunis, Member of the Executive Council, with Mrs Arderne as the first Librarian. Extensions in 1967 included a group activities room with a film projector.
The library was warmly welcomed by Walmer residents – 1 500 children joined in the first few months. Records and framed art prints could also be borrowed, a novelty at that time. With the inclusion of the Walmer Township in the Port Elizabeth Municipality on 1 January 1967, the Cape Provincial Library Service continued to supply the library with material, and it was only in 1969 that it was incorporated into the Port Elizabeth Library Service.
In 1993, further extensions were undertaken to accommodate the ever-expanding population, which includes Qebega and Summerstrand, the areas as far as Seaview, and all the emerging new suburbs. These alterations also paved the way for computerisation and the ability to make the hall available for students to use for studying.
Walmer has continued to expand and grow and has quite a large staff complement, which is needed to deal with the 6 000 registered queries that they receive each month. The Children’s Library provides an excellent service, with weekly story-times for pre-school children. Holiday activities for the older children and visits to and by schools for library orientation are regular activities.
On 2 March 193,7 the Mayor opened the New Brighton Library in a room in the T.C. White Hall. This was the work of the local Joint Council under the leadership of L.F. Addis-Smith and Miss Violet Couldridge. Councillor Holland took a particular interest in this Library.
In May 1939, it was reported to have 11,000 books and was used extensively by the members of the Debating Club and local residents.
When an Advisory Board was established to handle the affairs of New Brighton, the care of the Library fell under the supervision of a Councillor and prominent teacher, Mr Vikiwe. Regrettably, public interest in the Library waned during the war years.
Mr Mama, Secretary of the Advisory Board, was appointed as Librarian-in-Charge and it was only when the library was transferred to its own premises in the newly built Centenary Hall in 1962 that it obtained its own purpose built space and proper library furniture. Mr Mama’s dream became a reality in 1977 when the New Brighton Library affiliated to the Cape Provincial Library Service, receiving book stock directly from the Provincial Library Service.
In 1994, with the One City Initiative, New Brighton Library was integrated into the Port Elizabeth Library Services, and with the formation of the Metropolitan Municipality in December 2000, it became part of the Metro Library Services.
The Newton Park Library was opened on 14 July 1964 as the H.B. Smith Library, moving to the current building on 12 January 1979. The auditorium was opened on 28 July 1981.
Redhouse and its Library were incorporated into the Port Elizabeth Municipality in October 1966. The library moved to new premises in February 1968. Due to poor support by the public, the Municipality withdrew full service in February 1998. A depot consisting of Port Elizabeth Library material is currently run by volunteers.
The plans for the Korsten Library were passed in October 1965, and the library was opened on 23 October 1967 by the Mayor, Mr N.P. Rademeyer. The official opening took place on 21 November 1967.
Lobbied for by their constituency Ward Councillor, James Kleynhans, designed by the Port Elizabeth City Engineers Architectural Division, and built by Mike de Lange Contractors, the Linton Grange Library was officially opened on 2 October 1972, by Mayor Solly Rubin. In 1985, the courtyard was enclosed and the adult and childrens’ library counters were combined into one. In September of the same year, the Linton Grange Library became the first public library in Port Elizabeth to become computerised.
The West End Library opened its doors to the public on 5 May 1973. It was initially a depot service operated from the Korsten Library. Membership and interest grew to such an extent that it soon adopted the normal operating hours of the other libraries. Due to the ever-increasing demand placed on the services rendered, extensions to the building were made in 1986 and 1989. Over the years, services to far-flung areas and the less fortunate were added. The services are Bethelsdorp Old Age Homes in 1989, a service in Kleinskool in 1990, the House of the Resurrection Aids Haven in 1994, Cheshire Homes in 1996, and the Missionvale Care Centre in 1997. Due to lack of staff, the services to the Aids Haven and Cheshire Homes have been discontinued, while the service to Missionvale is now rendered by the Korsten Library.
The Gelvandale Library opened its doors on 17 November 1977. Mr Louis Allen was Librarian of both this library and the Korsten Library. Mr P. Plaatjies was the Senior Assistant, with Mr Vernon Sauls and Mr Neville Ally forming the rest of the staff complement.
The Algoa Park Library opened on 7 December 1979, after a depot service to children had been operating at the ACVV Haas Das Speelkas for some years. The official opening ceremony took place on 28 January 1980. In November 2001 the OWLS, the Friends of Algoa Park Library, was established.
The idea of a public library at Chatty was the brainchild of a persistent and determined Mr Louis Allen, the then Librarian at Korsten Library. At that stage Chatty Extension was the most remote and isolated development in the Northern Areas. The Chatty Library was completed in February 1982 and was officially opened on 9 June 1982 by the Mayor of Port Elizabeth, Mr H van Zyl Cillier. Mr Johan van der Westhuizen was the first Librarian, shortly followed by Mr Neville Ally, in 1983. Together with Mr Sam Olivier, Ms Maxine Cunningham and Ms Subeiga de Pearce, they formed the foundation staff of this branch.
The Booysen Park Library was completed in December 1983, and the official opening took place on 9 February 1984. The residential area developed somewhat slower than expected, and the staff consequently initiated outreach programmes. At present, they run services to housebound borrowers, a senior citizen club at a local church, and the Algoa Frail Aged Care Centre.
In 1987, the New Brighton Library established a satellite library in one of the offices at the Zwide Administration building. Manned by an Assistant Librarian, the clientele consisted of administration staff and people who came to attend to business at the administration offices. About a year later, the library moved into the premises of a vacated clinic on the same site.
Children flocked to the library after school, while the adults were attracted by the availability of reference material, newspapers and magazines. The students were accommodated in in two small rooms equipped with study desks and tables.
The existing Zwide Library was opened in February 1993, as part of the Cape Provincial Library Service. It was taken over by the Port Elizabeth City Library Service in 1994 and, together with the 17 libraries in Port Elizabeth, the 4 libraries in Uitenhage and the library in Despatch, fell under the auspices of the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality from December 2000.
The Library consists of a lending hall, study hall, activities hall, separate workroom, office and kitchen. This library services a very large community and acts as an information provider for the learners, students, and teachers of ten Senior Schools, 21 Primary Schools and the Vista Campus of NMMU.
A Library, operated by the Read Foundation, situated in the Enkuthazweni Resource Centre in Stofile Street, Kwazakhele, was conditionally handed over to the Port Elizabeth Municipality on 1 July 1995. The KwaZakhele Library operates as a Reference Library, and from 1998 the opening hours have been reduced from 40 to 20 when the Librarian, Ms Mavis Tetyana,was transferred to Motherwell to establish a service in the newly built Motherwell Library.
On 17 September 1996, the KwaDwesi Library started its service to the community. The membership originally consisted of a few adults, and pupils from the surrounding schools.
The KwaMagxaki Library was opened on 1 February 1997. The staff consisted of Ms Bongiwe Chigumbu (Assistant Librarian); Ms Nomvuyo Madubedube (Library Assistant); Ms Nokuzola Madlingozi (Cleaner); and Mr Z.S. Mkalipi (Custodian). After Ms Madubedube left the Library Service, four different library assistants took her place until Ms Joyce Cekisani joined the staff in November 2000. Ms Cystal Woodford was transferred from the Redhouse Library in 1998, and, in the same year, Mr Mkalipi was replaced by Mr M.S. Simakuhle.
The site and foundations on which the Motherwell Library is built, was originally that of a police station. As the community objected to the police station being built there, as they would have preferred a library, the station was burnt to the ground. After lying derelict for some time, the community’s wish was fulfilled when the Motherwell Library was opened on 1 April 1998. The only public library in this vast area, it serves 25 primary schools, four high schools, and a population of about 250,000. The Library opened its outreach depot at the Eluyolweni Service Centre during National Library Week in March 2003.