The Library that Shrinks
The McMillan Memorial Library is one of the oldest libraries in Nairobi. It has a picturesque exterior architecture, finished in Nairobi blue stone. The front entrance is marked by classic large pillars and stone lion sculptures. It was established in 1931 and named after Lord William Northrup McMillan, a man who was larger than life — literally, being 7 feet tall with a girth that needed a five-foot belt to go around. Lord McMillan was an American big game hunter in Kenya who ‘owned’ Ol Donyo Sabuk and the areas surrounding this mountain during the colonial era. The library was built in his memory by his wife. It was initially reserved for use by the European community only, until it was taken over by the Nairobi City Council in 1962 and is now the headquarters of the Nairobi City Library Services.
The library houses reading facilities and allows lending of books. It also houses an Africana section with some rare first edition books; periodicals section with newspapers and journals, dating as far back as 1906! Also in the library are works of art, including portraits and sculptures (these include a sculpture by Cesare Lapini and a portrait of Andrew Carnegie).
The library is built using the Nairobi blue stone and is finished with a very well-done plaster that requires no paint on the outside walls. Buildings such as these in Europe have lasted hundreds of years. Blue stone is a hard stone which is very good for construction. The Stonehenge in Britain dating 2,300 BC is a collection of blue stones.
The McMillan Library is located in Nairobi’s central business district. The state of the building outside belies the neglect inside. During my visit last year, I only lasted five minutes inside before I decided that my lungs were more important than the dusty masterpiece I was reading. In this age of the internet, very few people still visit the library for leisure reading and research. With the interior of the library in a sad state, it further discourages the culture of going to read in the library.
Located in the heart of the country’s capital, the McMillan Library is slowly shrinking beneath the splendor of the ever rising skyscrapers. It is easy to pass it by unnoticed, as it is now tucked in between, shiny high-rise buildings that draw attention away from the antique library.
The interior of the library, in my opinion, should be modernized, complete with an ICT center in order to attract young readers and ensure that it is not reduced to a monument, but remains fully functional for many years to come. The exterior of the library should not be interfered with, in order to preserve the intricate architectural designs and character of the building.
With the growing thirst for land in Nairobi city by corporations, it is a relief to know that the McMillan Library is protected from demolition and land grabbing. It is the only landmark building in Nairobi that is specifically protected by an act of parliament. This library will therefore remain for years as a showcase of Victorian architecture, no one will ever be allowed to change its design and ownership.
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