Johannesburg City Library boasts a rich history, with its first iteration opened to the public in 1890, four years after Johannesburg was officially declared a city in 1886. Initially, the library operated from temporary spaces, and it was only in 1898 that it moved to a permanent location on Kerk Street in the City Centre. It was only accessible to subscribers at that time.

Fast forward to 1923. After a rowdy meeting, subscribers agreed to transfer the library to the town council, making it a free-lending library. This was a significant change, making the Johannesburg City Library the first major library in the country to allow the free lending of books to the public. A new building was constructed on Market Square, which later became Beyers Naude Square.

This grand, Italianate-style building with marble columns, silver door handles, and Venetian teak floors opened to the public on August 6, 1935, and is now synonymous with the library. The library made history again in 1974 when it became the first South African public library to admit people of all races. After undergoing a R68-million renovation, largely funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York in 2009, it reopened in 2012.

As a result of these renovations, the Johannesburg City Library expanded its collection to include eight distinct categories for visitors to explore. These include African Studies, Performing Arts, Visual Arts, Young Adult Reference, Reference, Children’s Library, Adult Lending, and Newsroom materials. In addition, visitors are welcome to use the e-classroom and stacks. A theatre has been built and can be utilised for conferences and other activities. A music section presents individual listening and viewing stations, where visitors can enjoy recorded music and films. All in all, the library boasts an impressive collection of 1.5 million items, including approximately 700,000 books.

The Covid-19 pandemic and beyond (2020 –)

The Johannesburg City Library remains closed indefinitely. Photo: Johannesburg Heritage Foundation.

Johannesburg City Library has been closed to the public since March 2020. Initially, this closure was due to lockdown restrictions brought on by the pandemic. However, on May 24, 2021, it was announced that the library would remain closed until further notice. The reason cited was that the building needs major repairs and maintenance work before it can be deemed safe for public use. The estimated cost of these repairs is more than R100 million, and the current estimated reopening is not until the 2025 financial year, which seems excessive for a library that underwent extensive renovations just over 10 years ago.

Johannesburg Heritage Foundation (JHF) has expressed its desire to assist the authorities in reopening the library as soon as possible. Like the JHF, Johannesburg In Your Pocket believes that authorities should not view libraries as a luxury or a non-essential service. Libraries like the Johannesburg City Library are essential facilities that promote learning and literacy, offering educational and recreational services to a diverse community of people, including scholars, students, researchers, inner-city residents, and citizens of Johannesburg.

Since 1994 the City Centre has converted from a commercial centre to a densely populated (in some districts) residential space. Thousands of people living within close walking distance of the library are deprived of a space for learning, reading, safety, and quiet. 

In a country where reading for meaning is becoming a scarce skill, the Johannesburg City Library and all libraries play a vital role. As the JHF points out, access to information is a right prescribed in South Africa's Bill of Rights. Therefore, every day that Johannesburg City Library remains closed is a violation of the rights of Johannesburg's citizens.

The JHF has been engaging with the City of Johannesburg and the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) to bring back those rights. JHF conducted a site visit in March 2024 and found that the essential fire suppression system, installed in 2012 during previous renovations, has not yet been commissioned. They recommend this be made a matter of emergency and completed within a few months for the library to be safe to reopen to the public. Additionally, the JHF found that a section of the roof is leaking, despite the JDA having employed and paid three different contractors to repair it previously. However, the leaking roof does not pose an immediate safety risk to the collections or the public. Therefore, it can be repaired while the library is open to the public with proper planning. The JHF has requested additional information so that their team of volunteer experts can help formulate an effective way forward. Some of this material has been provided but communications with the City are halting. 

Along with the JHF representatives, the Johannesburg Literary District's Griffin Shea was also part of the group invited to visit the library in March 2024. The Johannesburg Literary District is a project of the African Book Trust that celebrates the city's rich literary heritage by fostering a clean, safe, walkable neighbourhood around the Johannesburg City Library at Beyers Naude Square. Throughout the year, various projects like book donations, street libraries, street clean-ups, and a publishing programme aim to enrich the community's literary experience while the Johannesburg City Library remains closed.

Public protest: Reopen the Johannesburg City Library!

The protest on 18 May is to take place outside the closed Johannesburg City Library. Photo: Johannesburg Heritage Foundation.

Since communication has reached a dead end, JHF is staging a public protest to convince the authorities that this matter won't go away lightly and that there is strong public support for re-opening the library. All stakeholders and concerned citizens are encouraged to join and show their support for this vital educational and community resource.

The protest takes place on Sat, May 18 from 10:00 – 11:00, gathering outside the Johannesburg City Library in Beyers Naude Square, corner of Albert Sisulu Street and Fraser Street.

Parking: It's preferable to Uber, as parking around the library is an issue. Alternatively, take the Gautrain to Park Station, then Rea Vaya bus (F12 Library Gardens Eastbound) to the bus stop in front of City Hall. Please leave plenty of time to catch both the train and bus. 

For more information, contact Johannesburg Heritage Foundation at or call +27 60 813 3239.

You can help support the city's libraries in other ways with The Friends of the Johannesburg Public Libraries' regular Bumper Book Sale. A day-long sale of second-hand fiction and non-fiction, art books, Africana, and collectables at prices as low as R15. All proceeds go towards supplementing the book stocks of Joburg’s libraries, particularly those in underprivileged areas, and reading programmes to encourage residents to use their libraries. Keep your eyes on the Joburg Libraries Facebook page for announcements and details on the next sale.


Conference facilities


Closed until further notice.


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