SA Public Library
In September 1761, Joachim Nikolaus von Dessin, who had been secretary of the Orphan Chamber for many years, died. Born in Germany of minor nobility, he had been well educated and came here in the service of the Company in 1724. He had married into a Cape family, but his wife and daughter predeceased him. In his later years, he lived in a single-storied thatched house, which stood on a site, now occupied by the Provincial Administration’s building, at the corner of present day Wale and Queen Victoria Streets.
Von Dessin’s name is linked today with his large library, which, at the time of his death, consisted of 3,856 books. These he bequeathed, together with his bookcases, bookshelves, a collection of paintings and a sum of money, the interest on which was to be used to add to the book collection, to the church council of the Groote Kerk for use as a public library, the public itself to be allowed free access thereto.
One of the clergymen was appointed honorary librarian of the collection, which was placed in the sexton’s house that adjoined the church. Known as the Dessinian Library, this collection formed the nucleus of the first public library in South Africa and, during the next fifty years, some five hundred books were added to it. On the founding of the South African Public Library in 1818, it was handed into the custody of that institution where it still can be seen. The art collection fared less happily. What remained of it was handed over eventually to the South African Museum when it was founded in 1857. When, in 1929, the South African Art Gallery was established here, the few remaining paintings were sent there. No list was made of the paintings, most of which were lost, so it is impossible to determine whether the collection ever contained any art treasures.
The Dessinian Library, however, is one of the most valuable references in existence regarding cultural life at the Cape in the eighteenth century.
It contains books on all the knowledge of the time. There are volumes on philosophy, law, medicine, science, navigation, travel and exploration, and the fact that many are in Dutch, English, German, French, Spanish and Hebrew denotes a man of scholarly mind and serves to corroborate the Abbe de la Caille’s contention that von Dessin himself was one of the three most cultured men in the Colony of his time. To have put together such a collection in days when there were no bookshops, news agencies or publishers, and no printing presses here,proves him to have been a book-lover and book-collector of remarkable enterprise and perseverance. He acquired books at auction sales, from deceased or insolvent
estates, from departing officials and passing travellers, and from ships’ officers in exchange for dried fruit, dried beans and peas, salted butter and other products. officials and well- Among the treasures are first editions of works by Descartes and part of the diary of Adam Tas which the collector copied.
In 1818 a wine merchant, John Collison, took the lead in persuading Lord Charles Somerset to found the South African Public Library which opened its doors in 1822 as one of the first free lending libraries in the British Empire, whereupon His Excellency rewarded Mr. Collison for his efforts by funding the library through the imposition of a special tax of one rixdollar levied on every cask of wine and spirits brought into the town. During the first decade of its existence, the library was housed in the Old Supreme Court Building. In the late 1820’s it was accommodated in the premises of the Commercial Exchange and since 1861 it has occupied its own imposing building on Government Avenue in the Gardens.SA Public Library in The Gardens, is one of the best Iooking buildings in Cape Town. Designed by the architect Kohlerit was built in the style of the Greek Revival and is said to have been based on George Basevi’s design for the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, built in 1845. It is an extremely handsome, straightforward rendering of a strong classical theme.
At the top of a short flight of steps is a central portico, with projecting pediment supported on Corinthian columns of ornamented projecting side wings, cornices, and stringcourses. The Corinthian pilasters have a variation in texture by means of imitation stone courses in the plaster up to the height of the springing of the high arches of the ground floor windows. This provides the building with rich but well-controlled decoration. It was completed in1860. Renovations done in 1973 left the main structure intact.