Howard College law library: More than just a site of learning

James Rycroft

The devastation of the Howard College law library has kicked me in the stomach. Not just because I was one of the many law students who used the space as so much more than a library, but also because of why and how that space came into being.

My dad was the Dean of Law at UKZN. During his tenure (’95 to ’00), the number of law students increased. The original law library – a pokey, small space that smelled of mustiness and old ideas – was unable to provide enough spaces for law students to learn and study. The faculty felt that a lack of an appropriately sized library posed significant limitations on the quality of the learning experience, and resolved to develop a new space.

A joint effort between the law faculty and the varsity admin saw funds raised – not enough to pursue the original concept of a grand, underground library that utilized the cellars and foundations of the Howard College building – but enough to enclose the northern quadrangle. This decision utilized the space of the existing library, and the result was a modern, excellent facility. Being a law school in the Constitutional era, each of the rights contained in the Bill of Rights was sandblasted onto a window or glass enclosure as a visual affirmation of our democratic commitment.

The library build was overseen by the late Prof Ronald Louw during his tenure as Dean. Ronald, a fearless human rights campaigner and formidable academic, was (in my dad’s words) possessed of “manic energy and project management skills”, drove the project until finalization. UKZN law students will remember Ronald as the loud reminder of the pressing need for silence in a library (often delivered as a shout-whisper over the balustrade of the uppermost walkway).

For me, the library was the place where I earned my law degree. I have fond memories of working alongside my peers in that space – late nights until closing time, early mornings from opening, procrastination and frustration, immersion and learning – the kinship of a shared moment.

That library was a great space. Not a good one, or an OK one – but a great one. It was a space that the faculty chose for themselves in response to a resourcing issue, and much, much hard work was done to develop the library. It meant a lot to me because of my father’s involvement – I clearly remember the original plans being excitedly discussed at home – and his and the faculty pride and ownership of the space following its completion.

There are certainly reasons – justified or otherwise – for the destruction of the library. There are many important contributions that need to be written about Fees Must Fall and the reimagining of our campuses into inclusive, accessible, safe spaces for all South Africans. However, at this moment, for me there is just this sadness – at the loss of that wonderful space and for the work done to create it.James Rycroft is an independent consultant, living and working in Johannesburg. His father gave his first lecture at UKZN on the day James was born. James has studied at Rhodes, UKZN and UCT.