'It's all gone': UCT says flames consumed African treasure trove

21 April 2021 - 14:23 By TimesLIVE
The remains of the Jagger Reading Room at the University of Cape Town.
The remains of the Jagger Reading Room at the University of Cape Town.
Image: Anthony Molyneaux

Everything in the Jagger Reading Room was destroyed by the wildfire that spread to six University of Cape Town buildings on Sunday, UCT confirmed on Wednesday.

“The archival and published print collections kept within the reading room were consumed by the flames,” said a university statement.

“These include the vast majority of the African studies published print collection (about 70,000 items), the entire African studies film collection on DVD (about 3,500), all the UCT university calendars, some of the heavily used government publications documents from SA and across the continent, and manuscripts and archives kept in the reading room for processing or digitisation, or awaiting transfer after being digitised.”

The statement said the library staff at UCT “anticipate residual damage due to the flooding of the building and possible seepage into the various spaces and two basement stores”.

Vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng said the loss would be felt deeply.

“We cannot replace the treasures of scholarship we have lost, but we can create new treasures out of our own scholarship. In the same way, each of us can rebuild our own sense of purpose out of this tragedy,” she said.

“Our colleagues in the libraries have a long road ahead of them and many of us feel the devastation of the loss of this significant institutional asset, but we will walk this road to rebuild our facilities together.”

A mapping exercise has identified the contents of the reading room, but UCT said a full assessment would happen only once the building is declared safe and staff are permitted to enter.

“A list will eventually be made available once donors and owners of collections entrusted to UCT libraries are informed,” said the statement.

In the meantime, “a significant institutional loss is the original card catalogues for the manuscripts and archives repositories, the history of UCT libraries, and the special collections archive office and administrative records”.

The areas where residual damage is suspected “house part of the African studies collection; the pamphlet collections; the African studies poster collection; rare and antiquarian books; primary source materials, including the manuscripts and archives repository; the modern photography prints; the All Things UCT collection, which includes photographs, news clippings, periodicals and publications related to the history of the university; and the architectural collections, which includes most oversized architectural drawings”.

The statement said UCT acknowledged “the outpouring of sorrow and commiseration, the messages of support and offers of assistance from both national entities and international institutions for crisis conservation and library disaster recovery efforts”.

“UCT will certainly call upon them to be a part of this recovery process.”

The Jagger Reading Room, which had recently been restored over several years, was built as UCT's main library in the 1930s.
The Jagger Reading Room, which had recently been restored over several years, was built as UCT's main library in the 1930s.
Image: University of Cape Town

The Jagger Reading Room, formerly the JW Jagger Library, was built in the 1930s and originally used as UCT's main library. In 2000, it became the reading room of the African Studies Library.

UCT said its destroyed collections were especially valuable to gender studies, media studies, HIV/Aids issues and debates on the character of African studies as a discipline.

“There was an important collection on Southern African languages, donated to the university in the 1950s, which included religious texts and school textbooks as well as dictionaries.

“Some of the titles in these collections, published in the 19th and early 20th centuries, were extremely rare.”