The Cullen Talks


If the William Cullen library were a book its story would fill a thousand pages.

The Cullen, situated on east campus, is the oldest Wits library.  Its cornerstone was laid by the Governor General the Earl of Clarendon George Herbert Hyde Villiers.

Cullen library was originally situated in central Block until it was destroyed in a fire in 1931. It was rebuilt and relocated in 1934.

During its early years it was referred to as either “the library” or “the old library”. It was officially named the William Cullen Library in March 1974.

THE LEGENDARY “OLD LIBRARY”: The78 year old William Cullen library situated at the heart of Wits east campus.

Cullen’s unknown treasures

Pieces of South Africa’s history can be found throughout the library. Fragments of the Diaz Cross are stored in a replica of the Diaz Cross located in the library’s foyer. The Diaz or Padrão de São Gregório was first erected in Kwaaihoek by Bartholomew Diaz, the founder of the Cape.

The original handwritten documents that former President Nelson Mandela wrote during the Rivonia Trial along with the Gubbins Africana Collection are some of the many famous documents stored in
the library.

The spirits of Cullen

Michele Pickover, a curator of manuscripts in the Cullen research division for 25 years, said: “The Cullen’s purpose is to preserve and safe guard the country’s historical moments.”

Historical documents stored in the Cullen’s archives are occasionally put on display in the foyer. Pickover said these exhibitions help to enlighten the students and visitors about South Africa’s history.

The library’s staff have also contributed to its rich history. Percy Freer was the first librarian in the Cullen and was responsible for the rebuilding of the library after the fire. The library had made history in 1954 when Elizabeth Hartman was elected as head librarian. Hartmann had been the first female university librarian in South Africa.

Cullen library has become a site of interest to Wits students, international researchers and the general public. The library building is a piece of history itself since it has heritage status.