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What we collect

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The Collections Management Programme administers all collections held by the National Library.

Items in the collections can be found by consulting the National Library database or enquiring from the reference service

Principal groupings of publications are:

SA Publications

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In terms of the Legal Deposit Act, the National Library receives a copy of each book, pamphlet, periodical, newspaper or other publication that is published in South Africa. A wide range of South African legislation, government publications, maps and atlases forms part of the collection.

Foreign Official Publications

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The National Library has an extensive collection of international publications from countries such as Germany, Canada, Australia and Belgium, ranging from national bibliographies and publications of other national libraries to complete series of government publications, patent abstracts, statistics, government regulations, international treaties, conventions and agreements, resolutions and reports.

The collection consists of four parts:

  • US collection
  • UN collection
  • Foreign governments
  • International organisations

US collection The National Library receives the official publications of the Federal Government of the United States in terms of an agreement that dates back to 1898. The collection does not include publications of private organizations or individual states.

UN collection The National Library is a depository library for United Nations material. A collection of documents and publications of the League of Nations is also maintained.

Foreign governments A selection of official publications from foreign countries are available, including Belgium, Canada, and the Netherlands.

International organisations Some of the international organisations are related to the United Nations; the nature of the affiliation varies. These agencies include:

  • FAO - Food and Agriculture Organization
  • ILO - International Labor Organization
  • IMF - International Monetary Fund
  • IMO - International Maritime Organization
  • LOS - Law of the Sea
  • UNCTAD - UN Conference on Trade and Development
  • UNESCO - UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • UNIDIR - UN Institute for Disarmament Research
  • UNIDO - UN Industrial Development Organization
  • UNRISD - UN Research Institute for Social Development
  • World Health Organization
  • World Trade Organization
  • World Bank

Information about these publications is available through the reference service or by e-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Special Collections

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The special interest section contains a number of interesting and unique collections

Special interest

Newspaper and periodicals collection

Apart from the newspapers and periodicals received on legal deposit at both campuses of the National Library, the Cape Town campus additionally holds a collection of bound newspapers, based on the comprehensive collection of the Cape Colonial Office which it received as a donation in 1910. It includes the first South African newspaper, The Cape Town Gazette and African Advertiser (1800), which subsequently became the Government Gazette of the Cape, as well as the first privately published paper, the famous South African Commercial Advertiser (1824).

There is also a large and varied periodicals collection acquired over the last seventeen decades, including such important titles as the Cape Monthly Magazine (1857-62: 1870-81), and The Owl (Penstone's Weekly) (1896-1907).

As a legal-deposit library copies of all periodicals (including newspapers) currently published in South Africa are received. The collection also includes a number of overseas journals, many with very long runs, such as the Illustrated London News (1843-1993), Blackwood's Magazine (1820-1980) and the Gentleman's Magazine (1731-1907).

The subject emphasis is on the humanities, though the Library does possess some long runs of scientific journals such as Curtis's Botanical Magazine, which it has from the first issue in 1787, and Petermann's geographische Mitteilungen (1855-1990), as well as the Philosophical Transaction of the Royal Society of London (1655-1950) and the Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des s衮ces de l'Acad譩e des Sciences, Paris (1895-1975).

Manuscripts collection

Excluding those manuscript items in the Grey and Dessinian Collections, the Cape Town Division nearly 1000 manuscript collections, ranging from single items such as letters from Gilbert White (1780) and Charles Boycott (1880) to the 106 boxes of correspondence of John X. Merriman, the 69 boxes of C.P. Hoogenhout's papers, and the 56 000 items in the Crail Collection on George, Knysna and Mossel Bay.

The manuscripts cover a variety of subjects and include personal papers (e.g. those of "Onze Jan" Hofmeyr, Sir James Rose Innes, W.P. Schreiner, Lady Anne Barnard and the Rex and Findlay families, some literary manuscripts of writers such as Olive Schreiner, Stephen Black, Uys Krige and "Boerneef" (I.W. van der Merwe), and artists like Irma Stern, and the records of societies, institutions and religious bodies (e.g. the South African National Society, the Seven Arts Club, the Cape Field Artillery, and the Methodist Church, Cape Town). Also of interest are the extensive research notes of modern scholars, and writers such as V.S. Forbes, W.J. de Kock, H.C. Hopkins and Eric Rosenthal.

Most noteworthy among the pictorial items in the collection are the anonymous Khoi sketches (ca 1700) which have been published by the Library. There are furthermore sketchbooks and travel accounts by the artist Hendrik Claudius (1685), the missionary John Campbell (1820) and the politician Stanley Leighton (1889). Other sketchbooks are those of Catherine Cloete (1842- 55), Col and Mrs. J.E. Mitchell (1872-3) and Gertrude Edwards (early twentieth century).

Picture collection

The Library's collection of photo-albums, photographs and prints has been acquired over a period of many years and the earliest items date back to the 1850s. The collection in particular contains material about Cape Town, its immediate environs and the Western Cape, but towns such as Kimberley, Beaufort West, Grahamstown and Port Elizabeth are well covered, as are such neighbouring states as Namibia and Zimbabwe; comprehensive coverage of certain specific subjects such as ships and shipping and Cape slavery is also attempted. In practice it is a reference and research collection recording the socio-cultural lives of all sections of the community in the colonial past.

The Picture Collection further contains some 10 000 postcards of South African interest (in which once again Cape Town features largely), together with a number of glass slides and glass plate negatives.

In 1958 a set of photographic prints of original works of art in the Mendelssohn Collection (housed in the Library of Parliament) was deposited with the South African Library. Since 1980 the Cape Times negatives collection of some 50 000 items, covering the period 1930-75 and subsequently augmented to 1985, has been donated to the Library.

A selection from the photographic portraits in the collection has been published under the title The Face of the Country : a South African family album.

Atlas and map collection

Atlases found in the Dessinian Collection form the basis of the present large collection of maps and atlases, both early and modern, the area covered being mainly Africa, with special emphasis on Southern Africa.

The earliest published atlas in the collection is the fourth edition of Mercator, Atlas sive Cosmographicae meditationes de fabrica mundi et fabricati figura (1619), but modern facsimile editions have enabled the Library to obtain copies of earlier atlases, in particular the manuscript Catalan Atlas of 1375 and Berlinghiere Atlas of 1482. Among the other well-known early atlases are Blaeu, Grooten atlas, oft Wereltbeschryving (1664-5) and Delisle, Atlas nouveau (1730).

Sheet maps by early cartographers such as Ortelius, De Wit, Hondius, Moll and Ottens are to be found in the map collection, and the 20 000 strong collection of sheet maps published after 1900 includes the maps in series issued by the South African Surveyor-General and the International Map of the World, as well as maps published by the British Directorate of Overseas Surveys, and many others. There are also town plans such as the invaluable Goad insurance maps of the main cities, and the folded maps produced by the Intelligence Branch of the British War Office during the Anglo Boer War (1899-1902).

Cape Times and Argus Clippings

These clippings and scrapbook collections cover the period from 1919 to 1998, when press clippings were replaced by electronic full-text searching: they are a record of information extracted from the Cape Town newspapers the Cape Times and Argus and more selectively from other contemporary newspapers such as Die Burger. The collection includes biographies, court proceedings and sports reports, and comprises about 100 000 files. Other personal clippings collections have subsequently been added to the main collection, notably those of Miss K.M Jeffreys (covering the years 1900-70) and AA Fullalove (1875-1960).

Grey Collection

Sir George Grey (1812-98) was Governor of the Cape from 1854 to 1861, excluding a brief period in 1859-1860 when he was recalled to London. He took a particular interest in the South African Public Library, and it was during his tenure as Governor that the site for the present library building was chosen, the foundation-stone being laid by him in 1858.

In 1861 therefore, already installed as Governor of New Zealand, he decided to present his collection to the South African Public Library.

There are approximately 5,000 volumes in this most important collection, including 115 medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. Among the latter there are some outstanding examples of illumination and decoration, particularly in the many Books of Hours and Bibles. A copy of the four Gospels in Latin, made between AD 875 and 900, is the oldest manuscript in Southern Africa. There are also a number of notable secular texts such as Dante's Divine Comedy and Petrarch's Sonnets. Among over 10 incunabula in the collection are the works of such printers as Caxton, Wynken de Worde, Peter Schoeffer and Nicolas Jenson, while early English works printed in the seventeenth and eighteenth century include the First and Second Folio Shakespeare.

Sir George Grey also realised the value of early printed ephemera in South Africa, and there is in his collection the very first example of printing in the country, a page from an almanac printed in Cape Town by Ritter in 1796, as well as the only extant copy of the poem De Maan by the Revd Meent Borcherds which appeared in 1802.

The products of the early South African mission presses were also preserved by Sir George, including many rare pamphlets and tracts published at stations such as Lovedale, Mont Coke, Beersheba, Platberg and Kuruman.

Dessinian Collection

Joachim Nicolaus von Dessin was born in 1704 at Rostock in Germany, coming to the Cape in 1727 and remaining there until his death in 1761.

During his period of residence he accumulated a "gentleman's library" of approximately 4 500 volumes which he bequeathed to the Dutch Reformed Church to be the foundation of a public library for the community. In 1820 the Church agreed to hand over the collection to the newly established South African Public Library as a nucleus for its own book stock.

The Dessinian Collection covers theology, law, medicine, philosophy, mathematics, history, natural history, geography, philology and miscellanea. The books, many of which are vellum- bound, are in a variety of languages, and most of them were published in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with a few from the sixteenth or nineteenth.

Fairbridge Collection

The library, comprising about 7 000 books, of the Cape bibliophile Charles Aken Fairbridge (1824-93) was purchased for the South African Library in 1925 by Sir Abe Bailey, the mining magnate, who also provided the money for a wing to house it.

The collection is notable not only for the number of rare and interesting volumes on a wide variety of subjects it contains, but also for the quality of its fine bindings, fine printing and books from private presses.

Hofmeyr Collection

Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr (1845-1909), known as "Onze Jan", began his career as a journalist, but was eventually drawn into the political field as a Member of the Cape Parliament. He was known for the support he gave for the use of Dutch in education and public life, and as a prominent member of the Afrikaner Bond exerted great political influence in South Africa.

Hofmeyr was a Trustee of the Library, and on his death his widow, Mrs Johanna Hofmeyr, gave his private papers to this institution, this being one of the first donations received by the future Manuscripts Section. His book collection of about 600 volumes, consisting mainly of nineteenth-century Africana, was also placed in the Library as a memorial to him.

Wessels Collection

On the death in 1913 of Marthinus Laurentius Wessels, former Councillor of the Green and Sea Point Municipalities, Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society since 1897 and Member of the Royal Society of South Africa, the South African Public Library received a bequest of over 2000 books. These were mainly literary works, grammars and dictionaries in such languages as Russian, Arabic, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Assyrian, Greek, Latin, Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish, Danish and German. In addition there are in the collection a number of late nineteenth-century scientific and technical works.

John Armstrong Collection of Vocal Music

In 1953 Mrs. M. Armstrong of Somerset West presented to the Library the vocal music collection gathered by her late husband, John Armstrong ARAM, over many years. There are more than 1 200 items in the collection, which includes classical and modern Lieder composers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Churchill Collection

Frank Oliver Fleetwood Churchill (1861-1934), a farmer, prospector and attorney, was a member of the Natal Legislative Assembly from 1901 and a senator in the Union Parliament from 1910. On his death he left the Library his collection of about 250 volumes, chiefly on genealogy, and especially connected with the families of Churchill and Fleetwood. He also left money for the construction of a special case to house these books.

Cookery collection

C. Louis Leipoldt (1880-1947) was a remarkable figure on the South African scene. A man of wide cultural interests, Leipoldt, in addition to being a journalist, major Afrikaans poet, author, botanist, and physician, was also a culinary expert. In his lifetime he built up a comprehensive collection of books on all aspects of cookery, diet and wine, which he presented to the Library.

The collection consists of about 300 volumes and also a number of pamphlets, and serves to strengthen and add to the comprehensiveness of the Library's resources on cookery.

Another notable collection of cookery books is that brought together by Natalie Nourse, which comprises more popular modern works.

Muir Mathematical Collection

Sir Thomas Muir (1844-1934) was from 1892 to 1915 Superintendent-General of Education for the Cape Colony and later the Cape Province.

He was also a world-renowned mathematician, specialising in algebra, and over many years collected a working library of about 2 500 books and serials to help him in his research, particularly on the theory of determinants, his own particular field of interest.

The Muir Collection is particularly important for its serials and there are complete runs of titles such Journal f? reine und angewandte Mathematic (Crelle's Journal) (1826-) and Annali di mathematici (1858-), and more recent titles such as Journal of Algebra (1864-1984). The collection forms an important research resource for mathematicians throughout the country.

Pama Collection of Heraldry and Genealogy

The Pama Collection was built up over twenty-five years as the working library of Dr Cornelius Pama, well-known writer on heraldry and genealogy. It comprises about 800 items in the collection, which covers many European countries as well as containing all available works on South African genealogy and heraldry, and all aspects of heraldry, such as private, state, civic, military and ecclesiastical heraldry, are included.

Marischal Murray Collection on Ships and Shipping

On his death in 1963 at the age of 64, Marischal Murray, former librarian and teacher, and author of Ships and South Africa and Union Castle Chronicle, bequeathed his working collection of more than 200 books and pamphlets on ships and shipping to the South African Library. This material has been integrated with the general bookstock.


Nourse Collection

G.B. Nourse, a lecturer in history at the University of Cape Town, formed a remarkable collection of material relating to the English Civil War which comprises well over a thousand books and pamphlets. The Nourse Collection came to the Library when he died in 1990.

Schapera Etiquette Collection

Isaac Schapera, the noted anthropologist, was Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Cape Town (1935-50) and the London School of Economics (1950-69). While still in South Africa he was a Trustee of the Library and in 1950, as a result of his interest in this institution, he presented to it his etiquette collection, which includes such works as Richard Allestree, The Gentleman's calling and The ladies calling (1673), J. Casa his Galateus, or A treatise on manners (1710) and Swift, A complete collection of genteel and ingenious conversations (1738), as well as later writers such as Emily Post.

Springbok Memorial Collection

The Springbok Memorial Collection was brought together by the late Mrs Ann Lidderdale as a mark of gratitude from the British people for the part played by the South African forces during World War II. The collection of nearly 1000 volumes was presented to the Library in 1946 and is housed in specially constructed cases. The works chosen are intended to reflect British life and thought, and particularly noteworthy are the many fine-press books and fine bindings and the autographs of prominent people who presented books to the collection.

Travers Jackson Alpine Collection

George F. Travers Jackson (1880-1964) grew up in Cape Town and was an enthusiastic mountain climber from an early age. He was founder member of the Mountain Club of South Africa and climbed both in South African and Europe. In 1940 he presented about 100 books and journals to the Library, the majority being nineteenth-century accounts of mountaineering expeditions and explorations. These titles have also been integrated into the general bookstock.

Alain White Chess Problems Collection

The Alain White Collection of about 500 volumes was the result of many years of enthusiastic and knowledgeable collecting by the late Donald G. McIntyre and was presented to the Library in 1955 and added to after that date. The collection was named after Alain Campbell White (1880-1951), an American chess expert with whom Mr McIntyre had corresponded on chess problems for over forty years, and includes most of White's own publications, as well as works on chess problems by masters all over the world.

BSA Collection

Publications with a South African focus published outside the country are not obtained by legal deposit and have to be acquired. These include foreign publications about South Africa; works written by South African authors in any of the eleven official languages of South Africa which are published outside South Africa; theses relevant to South Africa, or about South African citizens, or that are written by South African citizens that are printed in foreign countries; and single editions of foreign periodicals that deal with matters related to South Africa.

Africa Collection

The National Library has a collection of items with an African focus, including: Publications in English about Southern African states, namely Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Angola, Uganda, Tanzania and Zaire (including available government publications); and publications about other African states are selectively purchased provided that the contents have a bearing on South Africa.

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