Published: The East African Nation 3 May 2010

It was curiosity that led me to Mcmillan Memorial library, an iconic building of the 1930s in the midst of Nairobi’s central business district. The curiosity was fuelled by a visit to Mcmillan’s castle in Thika which lay in disrepair and devoid of any belongings or artifact belonging to the Mcmillans’ who were part of Kenya’s colonial history. Researching on this notorious character who was lar

ger than life – literally – seven feet tall with a girth that needed a five-foot belt to go around, the library was built in his memory by his wife. Mcmillan Memorial library is still an impressive building housing priceless first edition books and works of art, many which may be lost. l was looking for the clothbound book by Richard Minsky, a critically acclaimed American artist whose work sells for thousands of dollars. After an extensive search, the book with a price tag of US$ 2,700 today, seems to have disappeared off the shelves.

Mcmillan Memorial library

Mcmillan Library, Nairobi.

It was the axis around which modern Nairobi evolved – with the law courts directly in front of it, and other important buildings coming around it like the Bank of Baroda, the New Stanley hotel (now The Stanley), the railway headquarters and station, the Royal College of East Africa (today’s University of Nairobi) and the Parliament building.

Mcmillan Memorial library was initially to serve the white community in the racially segregated Kenya under British rule. Mcmillan, one of Kenya’s most notorious colonial characters, played host to Sir Winston Churchill, President Theodore Roosevelt and was in the same circle with the Delamere’s and the notorious Sir Ewart Grogan of the Cape to Cairo fame. A pioneer and a philanthropist, he is credited with starting agriculture in Thika and it was on his farm that the firebrand politician Tom Mboya grew up by virtue of his father being an employee. Mboya’s life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet in 1968 in Nairobi aged only 39. Today, both the Mcmillans’ graves lie on the high slopes of Ol Donyo Sabuk overlooking their castle and Fourteen Falls in Thika.

Inside Mcmillan Library
Inside Mcmillan Library

Standing on the top stair of the classical blue stone building flanked by two enormous stone lions one still has an impressive view of the city of Nairobi which received its charter in 1950. The state of the building outside belies its neglect inside.

Iconic Building

Impressive as it is, Mcmillan Memorial library is not Kenya’s first library. The first library in Kenya was the Seif bin Salim library opened in 1903 in Mombasa by the Indian community. It was open to all but because the books were mostly written in the Indian languages, it was used mostly by the Indians.

Mcmillan’s followed in 1931. Musau Kimeu, an architect and environmental design expert who is a lecturer in the department of Architecture and Building Science at the University of Nairobi and chairman of the Environmental Design Consultants Chapter of Architectural Association of Kenya (AAK) gives an interesting narration of the building.

 “The building is built using the Nairobi blue stone and finished with a very well done plaster render which requires no paint on the outside walls,” he explains. “Buildings such as these in Europe have lasted for hundreds of years.”

“Bluestone” is a hard stone very good for construction. In Nairobi, it has been used to build the boundary walls of the August 7th Memorial (former American Embassy site), Kipande house and many other old classical buildings. Stonehenge in Britain dating 2300 BC is a collection of bluestones.

Kipande House Nairobi

“The building’s workmanship and craftsmanship are excellent,” describes the environmental architect. “Its intricate details are superb. Compared to it, most of today’s buildings are very plain and totally lack any serious craftsmanship.”

I ask the architect if the building is appropriate in a modern city and whether it would be appropriate to get rid of it and replace it with a skyscraper?

The architect adamantly states, “It is one of the iconic buildings in the City of Nairobi. It’s a classical architectural style and it must not be pulled down. That would be a big mistake. But while the building’s structure and its external facades should be conserved, the inside can be totally modernized.

“Our architecture students often use it as a case study. Last year, my students spent three weeks studying the building and each student made a proposal on how to modernize its interiors. Using cutting edge interior design can easily do this. Library space planning and library requirements continue to evolve and change with the times. Hence, today’s requirements are different from those of the 1950s or 1960s. If you visit Kipande house along Kenyatta Avenue, which was originally built as a warehouse in 1913, you will see that it now houses a bank and its interiors are not of 1913 but of the present times. Old buildings can be given a new lease of building life and they can be used to accommodate new building activities or tasks.

I prod him on about how ‘green’ is the building in terms of conserving energy since it was built way before terms like ‘environmentally friendly’ became everyday parlance.

“Its thick walls help to minimize the transfer of heat from outside the building to its interiors during the day when the sun is hot and having a high ceiling doubles the volume space. This keeps the interior cool. The windows are relatively small compared to the building, which means that the building does not require air-conditioning and this in turn ensures that the greenhouse effect on the building is minimal. Air conditioning contributes significantly to carbon dioxide (CO2) emission, which is the main cause of global Climate Change and it is a well-established fact that buildings account for over fifty percent of all CO2 emissions globally today”.

In the Inner Sanctum

 Peeling paint and dusty shelves in an otherwise handsome building do little to keep the serious readers away. The library is full, including the children’s section – though it’s not children but adults. Mcmillan’s bust above the fireplace, looks sternly at all entering. It now doubles up as a place for storage – untidy nevertheless. None of the readers in the library, including the librarians’ l interview, know much about Mcmillan save that he was a ‘colonial’. A pair of enormous ivory tusks flanks the fireplace.

An Italian carved alabaster figure of a maiden on pedestal stacked in a corner catches my eye. I read the inscription on it – ‘Passo del Ruscello 1890 Cesare Lapini.’ An internet search reveals an almost identical work by Lapini, an Italian artist of the 19th-  and early 20th century, of a maiden wearing an underdress, lifting her skirts and stepping lightly into a shallow stream. It sold for US $2,160 at an auction.

Walking up the elegant winding staircase to the Africana section are portraits of African soldiers dated 1946, complete with their names and one of Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) gifted by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.  A Scottish-American industrialist, his story is that of a rags-to-riches, working his way up from a messenger boy to the second richest man in the world at the time, following Rockfeller. He made his money mostly in the steel industry and with his fortune turned to philanthropy founding libraries, schools, universities and museums in many countries, including an endowment fund for peace.

The African section reveals a sorrier state of affairs with the books stacked in weather-beaten closets and shelves and tiles pealing off the floor. Antique furniture and canvas paintings worth a fortune lie neglected.

I do not find Richard Minsky book. His innovative use of materials and pioneering techniques has contributed to the expanding field of the book arts for over 30 years and sells for thousands of shillings. The artist’s entire archive spanning fifty years has been bought by The Arts of the Book Collection of the Arts Library at Yale. Minsky still tours the world to promote education through bookart and lectures at universities and examples of his work are held in major museum and library collections worldwide, including The Getty Research Library, Los Angeles, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, as well as the Victoria and Albert Museum, London besides Mcmillan’s.

None of the librarians know of Minsky’s work titled Gerald Jackson’s Adventures in Ku-Ta-Ba Wa-Do. The limited edition book was produced in 1974 and accompanied by a recording (12″ vinyl record) and musical score (a description is at The internet search reveals that the book is worth US$2,700.00 in cloth binding and in leather binding it’s a cool US $3,600.00. In the seventies, the cloth bound copy cost only US$ 50. It was apparently given by Gerald Jackson to someone from Nairobi visiting the USA.


State of Neglect


In 1962, Macmillan library came under the custodianship of the City Council of Nairobi. The last books bought for the library according to sources was in 1985 and the last time it was painted was around 1996. Despite the many requests to Nairobi City Council for such mundane things like polish for the floors and general repairs, nothing has been done. Anyone can use the library for free if they are reading and membership is a ridiculous fee of Ksh 100 per year, which cannot pay for the library’s maintenance.

Maya Alexandri researching for her novel set in Kenya is finding it difficult to get far in her work. Frustrated she states, “The abuse of books depresses me almost as much as the mistreatment of humans; humans have an astounding capacity for resiliency and regeneration, whereas a book once beaten, broken and torn is dependent on a human for restoration.

”In Nairobi’s McMillan library, the card catalog (something I haven’t used for twenty years) is a jumble of worn rectangles of oak tag, occasionally misfiled, imparting unintelligible numbers….Housed in a cabinet that is itself beaten, broken and torn, the card catalog is also surprisingly inaccessible:  many of the drawers don’t open – or only with minutes-worth of cajoling – and arrange themselves in an order than cannot be described as alphabetical.

”Once in the stacks, the story is even sadder.  The relationship between the books listed in the card catalog and those on the shelves is analogous to that of a child with a pretend friend: only one of the four books I’d found in the card catalog was on the shelves, though the other three had not been checked out – they’d been stolen or hopelessly mislaid, since the library doesn’t have a computer system.

”Many of the books are those that are out-of-print, unavailable for purchase, or which retail for prohibitive prices (e.g., US $250).  Once these books are destroyed, humanity will permanently lose their irreplaceable contents.

”Throughout the course of my research in Nairobi thus far, I’ve wished for online or e-access to the contents of the books I’m seeking.  Such access would phenomenally speed and simplify my research, which is crawling along because of inaccessibility and graft.

”In all the wrangling over Google Books, e-readers and libraries lending e-books, I have yet to hear the interests of the developing world represented.  Certainly with the ease of lending e-books, no reason exists why international patrons, including those in the developing world, should not be able to borrow e-books from libraries anywhere on the planet; nor, indeed, why institutions in the developed world could not or should not support the digitization of Nairobi’s collections and make them available electronically to all.

”For the sake of all the under-served readers in the McMillan library – and all the book-starved people in the developing world – I can only hope that Nairobi’s extinction-threatened collections find a conservation area online to which access will be provided on a fair, affordable and convenient basis. Nairobi has plenty of demand for clean libraries with computerized card catalogs and tracking systems that prevent theft of the library’s collections.”

Libraries in Antiquity

 Archaeological findings in Africa dating almost 5000 years have revealed government and temple records on papyrus in Ancient Egypt. In the Middle East, temple rooms full of clay tablets in the city states of Sumer in the pre-Islamic Arab world have been found.

 By the 14th century, important books were written and copied in Timbuktu in the west African country of Mali, establishing the city as the centre of a significant written tradition in Africa. Libraries stretched from West Africa connecting North Africa and East Africa and were called the “African Ink Road“.

Sankore_Mosque_in_Timbuktu Credit upyernoz from Haverford, USA
Sankore_Mosque in Timbuktu Credit upyernoz from Haverford, USA

Timbuktu was the center of learning. However, today it is an impoverished town with its grand mud mosques under threat from new constructions despite it being listed as a World Heritage Site. Sankore University and other madrasas were the epicenter from where Islam spread throughout Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries. It was Timbuktu’s golden age with the town full of scholars and scribes who wrote the manuscripts many of which survive from the 12th century. At one time there were 120 libraries with manuscripts in Timbuktu and surrounding areas. Today there are an estimated 60 to 80 libraries.

Even though virtual libraries exist on the internet, real libraries with their collections are irreplaceable and priceless such as Mcmillan’s, the library is home to parliamentary archives and as of 2002, the library had over 275,000 volumes including the Africana collection.  For many readers in Mcmillan library, it is the ambience of the place – quiet and cool in the midst of a busy city where they can come to read in peace. Instead of having cities, towns and villages filled with bars, dukas and shopping malls, we need to make space for more vibrant libraries full of magazines and newspapers, books and encyclopedias, computers and artworks, meeting rooms and café’s where people can come together and interact, read and discuss and enrich the society with great ideas and innovations.