De Oude Leeskamer - where does the name come from?

by 'nDromer | Local News

Did you know that the Oude Leeskamer in Dorpstraat 182 was literally a room for reading in?

At least three book clubs existed in the early 1800s: the Reading Club, who gathered in the Leeskamer (founded in 1847), the Book Society (1829) and the Dutch Leesgeselschap (1840). Before then the town had a postal coach service that occasionally brought books to and from Stellenbosch.

Die Huidige dorpsbiblioteek

The Stellenbosch public library

The town library, as we know it today, has been situated in Plein street since 1940 (next to the town hall, close to our Anna Basson offices). I have fond memories of the library - in the days before internet we always did our school projects there. Who can still remember when the children's section was on the upper story? (excuse the pun). The lending desk had a special wooden step for children so they can submit their own books over the counter.

Tannie Babelie, one of the friendly librarians, sometimes had a storytelling programme, and I remember sitting cross-legged on the floor, listening with big eyes. My little brothers and I loved the library (and the cat and the staircase going up to the second floor. Only when we were older could we lend books from the 'grootmens' section with its hekkie that made 'beep' when you walked through it.

Oude Leeskamer today
Oude Leeskamer today

The reading (and listening) room

The Oude Leeskamer had different functions historically. On occasion it was used by the English church (while their church was in the process of being built) and later by the Moederkerk during reparations. The building was also used for all kinds of public purposes; "Recently restored, the building has over the last two centuries served as a magistrate's office, school, political meeting place, residential home, architecture's studio and originally a Reading Room - hence the name "Oude Leeskamer"" (bron

Until recently it was used as a guest house/hotel (read here), but as far as I know it is currently in private ownership.

In 2017 the Oude Leeskamer (read here) became the property of the Jannie Mouton Foundation. The building was remarkably restored to now host five unique spaces, namely Jannie se Leeskamer, an art gallery, a writer’s flat, De Eetkamer Restaurant, and the Jannie Mouton Foundation offices.

The Oude Leeskamer’s vision is to be a leading heritage asset with the aim of protecting historical worth. At the same time, it aims to be a living space that celebrates South Africa’s unique and diverse arts and culture.

The first subscription library

Apart from the various book clubs, the town's first subscription library was formally founded in 1859 when McLachlan wrote to the authorities:

“We have the honour to inform you that a library and Reading Room have been established here under the conditions stipulated for obtaining a grant of $100 from the public revenue an request you to submit this application to the approval of His Excellence the Governor."

At that stage the library had 80 paying members as well as a permanent venue. The colonial secretary awarded the allowance of 100 pounds.

By 1860 the town had at least 175 books in its collection. (We know this because a certain Mr Henry Hammerschmidt published a pamphlet called “A classified catalogue of 175 works of the Stellenbosch Public Library 1860”). As far as I know, 20 of the original books are still in the library's special collection today.

The collection moves around

Around 1870 the chairman of the municipal council, Mr Carl Pieter Lindenberg, offered to accommodate the library in the upper story of his home, probably at Dorpstraat 103. At his passing in 1875 the collection was moved to the house of the new librarian, JG Mader who lived in the current kerkhuis at that stage. He was paid 36 pounds per year for this service.

Around 1888 the collection was moved to a block of buildings in Bird street, the property of Jannie Marais, where the library was housed for 52 years. In 1915-16 the municipality bought the block of buildings from the estate of late Mr Marais (for 4000 pounds) and the library thus came under the protection of the Municipality. The town hall complex was completed in 1941 with the now free library service operated from there. Since 1959 there has been a public library in Ida's Valley, with the recent additions of Cloetesville and Groendal.

Despite the large impact of the internet, the Stellenbosch library is still active and running! Have a look at their Facebook page for some of their activities.

We would love to hear your stories and memories about the library - feel free to share it with us on this blog or on facebook!

Article and photo: Y Coetsee 2017
Historical photo:
Historical sources: E Engelbrecht, Stellenbosch Drie Eeue 1979
Inligtingsbord buite die dorpsbiblioteek