Guy Butler, the famous South African writer and poet who, in his later life, became a professor and Head of English at Rhodes University, was the founder of the National English Literary Museum. In the 1960s many South African literary manuscripts were ending up in collections in foreign countries. Butler had a vision of a national repository for South African literary manuscripts, and this was the genesis of NELM. The Thomas Pringle Collection for English in Africa was founded in 1972. In 1974 this became the National Documentation Centre for English and in 1980 was declared a cultural institution and renamed the National English Literary Museum and Documentation Centre.
In 2017 the number of literary artefacts in the museum’s collection stood at over 100 000. These include authors’ manuscripts, printers’ proofs, diaries, correspondence, publishers’ archives, photographs, posters, play-scripts, theatre programmes and cultural artefacts. The museum’s collection of published poems, short stories, novels, plays, autobiographies, travel writing and children’s literature exceeds 30 000.
Guy Butler was aware of the cultural poverty of the lives of many South Africans and worked hard to counteract elitism in literature and ensure that all people should have access to literature, theatre and local history in order to enrich their lives. The National English Literary Museum hopes to continue this legacy.