Until 1 November 1999, for historical reasons, South Africa had two national libraries, the South African Library, founded in 1818, in Cape Town, and the State Library, founded in 1887, in Pretoria.
During the 1990s the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology began a review of all legislation under its jurisdiction, including the National Libraries Act, No 56 of 1985. The Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology in 1996 appointed a Working Group on the National Libraries of South Africa to advise him on the future of the two national libraries. The most important recommendation of the Working Group was that the two national libraries be amalgamated to form a dual-site (Cape Town and Pretoria) national library, to be known as the National Library of South Africa.
The creation of the new National Library looks ahead to a revitalising and transformation that will align the new institution with the goals of the new democracy. The new institution was constituted on 1 November 1999. On that day the South Afrucan Library and the State Library ceased to exist as separate entities and became the Cape Town and Pretoria campusses respectively of the National Library of South Africa.
The South African Library, until it became part of the National Library, was the oldest library in the country. Its origins date back to 1818 when Lord Charles Somerset, Governor of the Cape Colony, issued a proclamation launching the South African Public Library. Somerset stipulated that a wine tax would be levied "to place the means of knowledge within the reach of the youth of this remote corner of the Globe, and bring within their reach what the most eloquent of ancient writers has considered to be one of the first blessings of life, 'Home Education'."
The Library's first significant acquisition was the collection of Joachim Nicolaus von Dessin, who bequeathed his books to the Dutch Reformed Church in 1761 to serve as the foundation of a public library. In 1820 the board of trustees decided to donate the Dessinian Collection to the new library. Other notable donations followed over the years, among others Sir George Grey who when he left South Africa in 1861 presented the Library with his remarkable personal collection of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts and rare books.
In 1873 the South African Public Library became a legal deposit library for the Cape Colony, and from 1916 it received all printed items published throughout the country. The Library continued as a lending library until 1954, when this function was taken over by the City of Cape Town. From then on it began to develop its unique character as a national reference library devoted to research based on its extensive stock, with a concurrent name change in 1967 to the South African Library.
The "Staats-Bibliotheek der Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek" (State Library of the South African Republic) came into being thanks to a donation of books from the Maatschappij der Nederlandsche Letterkunde. These books consisted of a complete library of of Dutch works, mainly Dutch literature and language, to the Transvaal Republic's government. The first consignment of eight chests of books arrived in 1883, including a chest from the Dutch Bible Society. On 21 September 1887 the Transvaal government approved the constitution of the Staats-Bibliotheek.
As Pretoria began to grow in size, there arose a need for a public library. The first Pretoria Public Library had opened its doors in 1878, but because of ongoing financial problems was closed down in 1890. In 1893 strong public support and a collection of 700 saw another public library arise, this time under the wing of the Staats-Bibliotheek and with the bookstock of the former Public Library. From that time onward until 1964, the State Library performed a dual role as public library and national library.
The first national librarian, the Afrikaans poet Jan Celliers, saw exchange agreements as a means of enriching the State Library's collections. The first exchange agreement was entered into in 1898 with the Smithsonian Institution of Washington in the United States. In terms of the agreement the State Library would receive all American official publications in exchange for two copies of each official publication of the South African republic.
From the early thirties under the guidance of the visionary national librarian Matthew Stirling, the State Library began to develop the character of a central library for South Africa, taking on functions such as striving for a national library lending system and a centre for bibliographical information.