The Alan Paton Centre houses, on permanent loan, the Special Collections of the Natal Society. The Natal Society was founded in Pietermaritzburg on 9 May 1851, its original purpose being to make the actual conditions of the Colony of Natal better known and understood overseas, for the benefit of prospective settlers. The library was not its original main goal, and it started as a small subscription library, based on the donations of books by its members. Over the last 150 years, the Natal Society Library has grown into a very large, multi-racial lending, reference and Legal Deposit library. It is to be taken over by the Msundusi Municipality in 2003.
The Special Collections comprise the Africana, the O’Brien and Hattersley Collections. The Africana Collection consists of books and pamphlets collected by the Natal Society in the earlier years of its existence. The Africana include many books and pamphlets about important historical figures, such as Bishop Colenso, and reflect the early history of the Colony of Natal.
The O’Brien Collection was bequeathed by William John O’Brien, and came to the Natal Society after his death, aged 99, in 1959. O’Brien rose from being the son of an Irish wool merchant from Count Tipperary, to a highly respected and involved member of the Natal Society. He became auditor to the Pietermaritzburg City Council in 1891, and thereafter a city councillor, the mayor, MP for Pietermaritzburg South for the Economic Conference in London, and a Senator in 1939. His business acumen involved him in the development of the gold mining industry on the Witwatersrand, and he became a director of the Anglo-American Corporation and of other mining companies. He was also very involved with the foundation of Natal University and the board of Grey’s Hospital, which he maintained should be open to all races when it became a government hospital in 1924. He was a humanitarian, and very involved on the committees of welfare organisations, educational institutions, the Royal Agricultural Society, the Pietermaritzburg Botanical Society and various sports clubs. His library reflected his wide range of interests, and also his love of literature.