McMillan Library is treasure chest of knowledge built from labour of love

McMillan Memorial Library in Nairobi. PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • Now holding more than 400,000 books, this architectural masterpiece was built by Lady Lucie in honour of her husband.

Today, we visit yet another of McMillan’s legacies.

William Northrup McMillan died on March 20, 1925 in Niece, France while on his way to London for treatment. His remains were returned to Kenya and buried on the summit of Ol Donyo Sabuk Mountain according to his will.

Notwithstanding his inability to give her children and the philandering that characterised their Ol Donyo Sabuk and Chiromo residences, Lady Lucie McMillan loved her husband dearly and even in death, she built a larger-than- life edifice in his memory as a permanent testimony of her love.

The McMillan Memorial Library is situated on Banda Street and is surrounded by Jamia Mosque on two sides. The foundation stone was laid by Sir J.W.Barth CBE acting Governor of Kenya on June 3, 1929. The brainchild of Lady Lucie McMillan, construction of the building was largely financed by the Carnegie Foundation, close family friends of the McMillans.

The Library was officially opened on June 5, 1931 by Sir Joseph A. Byrne, Governor of Kenya.

The building features a neo-classical design with towering granite-clad columns dominating the façade and a grand white marble trapezoidal stairway leading up to the portico.

Twin lions statues stand guard on either side of the entrance way. The statues were donated by Sir John and Lady Harrington, cousins of McMillan.

Walls are built of smooth rendered stone under a flat roof. Windows are glazed in tall steel casements providing ample natural lighting. Doors are made of heavy hardwood panels hung in timber frames, pedimented to the lintels.

Floors are finished in parquet to the main areas with terrazzo to the entrance way. Internal walls are clad in polished timber panels to a height of 1500mm and feature archaded elements to some areas.

A bust of McMillan finished in Makonde black sits atop a mock fireplace overlooking the main reading area, as if in watchful vigil. Twin elephant tusks are mounted at a short distance in front of the mock fireplace.

There are priceless paintings in gilded frames of various friends and relatives of the McMillans including one of businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) as well as period furniture, some said to belong to the Karen Blixen collection.

A number of figurines are present in the main reading areas reflecting period art. These include a marble sculpture (1848) by famed Italian sculptor, Cesare Lapini, from Florence.

High esteem

The main reading area is on the ground floor with the Mabel Rushton Children’s Library, to the right, erected by Lady McMillan in memory of her treasured friend. On the upper floor is the Africana section and a conference hall while the basement contains the newspapers and periodicals section.

The McMillan Library is a treasure trove of information holding more than 400,000 books including East African newspapers and periodicals dating as far back as 1901. It also boasts a collection of Parliamentary proceedings since inception to date.

It is often mistakenly believed that McMillan Memorial Library is the oldest public library in Kenya. However, that distinction is held by the Seif bin Salim Library in Mombasa, opened in 1903 by the Indian community.

Unbeknown to many is that the McMillan Memorial Library is the only building protected by a specific Act of Parliament, the McMillan Memorial Library Act Cap 217 of 1938 which provided that the library was for the exclusive use of Europeans in addition to the usual conditions for preservation of monuments.

This was a rather unusual situation especially considering that there was already an Antiquities and Monuments Act in place.

Perhaps it reflects the high esteem bestowed to the McMillans by the authorities for their outstanding philanthropic work in Kenya.

It is on record that McMillan singlehandedly financed the 25th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers during World War 1 and he built the Kabete Technical School for Africans amongst many other acts of unprecedented generosity.

We need to remember that in 1931, the library was a new building and would not have been covered by the Antiquities and Monuments Act. Lady McMillan may have just been over cautious to make sure that her husband’s memorial would stand forever.

And she was definitely right with the benefit of hindsight, as indeed there was a much published high level attempt to grab this land in the 1990s until the offenders discovered the specific Act of Parliament protecting the site and backed off!

The Library was bequeathed to the Nairobi City Council and was opened to the general public in 1962, ending 31 years of apartheid.

At the time of my visit the building was undergoing a major renovation financed by the Nairobi County Government. The library archives are also being digitized in line with current practice.

According to the Assistant Chief Librarian Jacob Ananda, their main challenge is lack of funds for the upkeep of the premises to the required standards and for updating of their stock of books.

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