A love letter to libraries and a confession

Dear Cape Town Library, about that thing that happened 30 years ago…

I’m participating in my first (mini) book fair this weekend and it’s being held at the Tokai Library. So I feel like this is the perfect time for a confession.

Right. Here goes…

For years I’ve been too scared to apply for a library card or take books out because at some point I did evil and I got blacklisted or whatever the library equivalent is.

By “at some point” I mean in the late 90s. And by “evil” I mean that I lost three expenny art books and was too poor to pay the fee. And by “lost” I mean “fell asleep on the train and woke up a million stops after my home station and landed up somewhere in farmland and rushed off the carriage in a panic leaving the books behind and had to call my dad from a local cafe store owner’s house to come fetch me because it was before cellphones and it was the last train of the day and it was getting dark and I was literally in the middle of corn fields.”

I felt like a real poo.

So I stopped going to the Cape Town library and stuck to the Bellville Library (which, to be fair, had an equally kick-ass art section) and just never took out another book. I was used to spending hours in the library so doing this for my research was no big deal, but feeling too ashamed to go back to the Cape Town library meant I had to say goodbye to one of my most favourite experiences as a teen: hanging out in the City Hall and the amazing library it used to be home to.

The 1905 City Hall is one of Cape Town’s biggest historical landmarks next to the old Castle of Good Hope, and made global headlines with Mandela’s seminal speech from the balcony after his release from prison in 1990. But for me in my small, middle-class white life, the significance of that day was lost in the wonders of its halls and rooms on Saturday mornings.

From about the age of 16 I would tell my dad that the only place I could get the art books I needed was the Cape Town Library. So, early Saturday mornings he’d drop me off at City Hall’s single-door side entrance on Darling Street, and up the narrow wooden stairs or the creaking elevator I’d go, into the twisty-turny belly of the building – corridors heading off every which way, stairs leading to in-between platforms and walkways, doors opening onto secret passages and small rooms that seemed to serve no purpose other than to contain a table and a few chairs – up, up, up to the Art Library.

To a young teen from the Northern Suburbs it was fantasyland. It was London, New York, Paris. I realised pretty quickly that there was no security and no one seemed to care where you walked or sat and so, in between work, I’d leave my books and bags on the library table (!), get a coffee in a Styrofoam cup, and head into the marble heart and wide stairwells of the building, making myself comfortable in one of the recesses in the wall with a book and my cigarettes (!!). If I was lucky, the orchestra would be practicing and I would sit and smoke and feel terribly dramatic but at peace with the artistry. One day, I plucked up the courage to take a seat at the back of the Concert Hall with a smattering of other people who sat quietly watching the musicians and the conductor go backwards and forwards over pieces that sounded perfect. Once there was an opera singer.

I’d sometimes slip into the other parts of the library scattered across the different floors of City Hall. I remember finding the philosophy section (I think) and feeling like I’d just stumbled onto a powerful magic when I found Jung’s Collected Works and the mysterious Aion. Conceptually, I’d just come from Wicca, “discovered” the concepts of alchemy and been introduced to Dead Can Dance’s Serpent’s Egg by Robin and so felt as if I was plugged into all of the universe and its dark secrets. Everything was imbued with magic and meaning; everything held a kind of animistic power.

At about lunchtime I’d finish up at the library and then walk the city flat, only going back to City Hall at 5 pm when the Grand Parade was packing up for the day and my dad fetched me to take me back to what felt like the wasteland of life. But that’s all a story for another day.

All of this to say that libraries are so much more than books.

My greatest memory about the Bellville library, apart from the fact that it had a surprising esoteric (aka “Satanic” in conservative N.Subs parlance) section, a kick-ass art room, and the kind of grand and modernistic facebrick architecture that, quite frankly, belonged in Durbanville, was the community presence: there was a music section, readings, an art gallery, art classes, a small eatery (I think, or like, an eating something) and a wonderful garden.

In both these libraries, I always felt as if I was transported to some place mysterious and safe and kind to my storytelling self, far away from my average life filled with its average issues and, to my mind, average ugliness.

Everything was imbued with magic and meaning; everything held an kind of animistic power

I think this is the power of these bookish spaces – whether it’s a library or a good book shop. They care about your imagination and make a safe space for it, they feed it, nurture it with possibility, offer respite from the loud and non-believing world outside over there. And the especially marvellous thing about a library? It’s free. There is nothing they require in return. Other than to bring the books back obviously.


Well it’s time to make good on old debts.

On Saturday, after the fair or before if there’s time, I’m clearing my name, paying the debt and signing up again. I have more money now and pretty certain I can make good. Unless the fines accumulate? If so, I’m pretty fucked. Either way, I’ll get it done! I am determined! I just needed this 30-year turnaround time and memory jog to inspire me. I hope I get a nice librarian who won’t look at me funny.


Pics: Wiki Commons

After thought: While I was putting this together and trying to find when the City Hall lift was installed, I came across The Heritage Portal and when I wanted to confirm the size of the door on Darling Street I came across this piece of magic: The Zamani Project and their 3D rendition of the building which seems incredibly weird given the archaeological wonders they usually focus on. Look at all those little higgledy-piggledy bits!

Actually while I’m confessing: sorry to the Bodleian Library for sneaking in I thought I’d get caught for sure and then little Oxford Harry Potter police would come and snatch me away to Azkaban but we got out and it was very lovely and one day I’d like to spend legitimate time there. GOD WHY AM I SUCH A CRIMINAL?

Also Tom says I should apologise for still calling it the “Buhdlian”. Which I’m not really that sorry for but there you go.