'It was such a special place. It was my church': heartbroken academics share memories of burnt-out UCT library

The building was constructed in the 1930s and housed priceless material

19 April 2021 - 17:54
By Tanya Farber
Before the fire: the Jagger Reading Room.
Image: University of Cape Town Before the fire: the Jagger Reading Room.

Pendant lights, arched windows, carved legs of wooden tables: the Jagger Reading Room in UCT’s African Studies Library was more than just a place — it was a spiritual home to many.

Now it is nothing but rubble, soot and charred remains. 

“The reading room was such a special place for me. It was my church,” Dr Martha Evans, a senior lecturer in media studies at UCT, told TimesLIVE. “It was a space that somehow transcended the divisions that have afflicted the institution in recent years.”

Having spent countless hours at the wooden desks with elegant pillars looking on, Evans has a heart and soul that are connected to the experience of being there.

“The room was always quiet. You’d order your item, take your seat at a desk and wait for the librarian to bring you your treasure: a rare book, an old pamphlet or letter, some artefact from long ago. I made so many discoveries in that space,” she said, adding that “it was always frequented by like-minded students and staff, and that’s what made it so special”.

“Nobody would speak, unless in hushed tones,” she recalls. “But we might smile at one another, taking comfort in knowing that we were all there for the same purpose: the pursuit of knowledge.

“That room was the very heart of UCT. Its loss is immeasurable.”

Ujala Satgoor, executive director of libraries at UCT, said she and others had watched, on site, “in horror and helplessness as this elegant and historical library” burnt.

As images emerged of its once-beautiful interior now lying in ashes, Satgoor said she could “only imagine the shock and horror” everyone felt.

After the fire: the Jagger Reading Room.
Image: Anthony Molyneaux After the fire: the Jagger Reading Room.

For Dr Ian-Malcolm Rijsdijk, a senior lecturer in film and television studies, the soot and rubble are what remain of the place that sparked his entire academic career. 

“I fell in love with film in the building that is now the African Studies Library. Back then, it was the short-loan section and I opened the catalogue of VHS tapes at A and began my film education,” he said on Monday. 

“The losses are more than just the physical materials that may have been lost, but also the place of the library in the ecology of learning,” he said, adding, “It is so connected to my teaching of African and South African film over the past 20 years, and I always relish the chance to guide students to the special video collections housed there.”

For Evans, the reading room wasn’t just a place of utility where one finds resources; it was an experience in and of itself. “Entering the reading room was always a beautiful, reflective and inspiring moment, too,” she said.

The university confirmed that fire shutters were triggered, thereby protecting some of the collections stored in the building, but the full extent of what was lost and what was saved is not yet known.

TimesLIVE