Left: The Jagger Reading Room before the fire. Right: The Jagger Reading Room after the fire. Courtesy of University of Cape Town
On Sunday 18th of April 2021, a fire that started on Table Mountain spread to the Jagger Library Reading Room — home to the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) special collections. As an alumna of UCT (based in London at the time), I felt the collective shock wave that whipped through fellow students, colleagues and South Africans as we anxiously waited for updates on the scope of the damage. This single event is just about the worst that could happen to any library and archives, but over the last two years the team at UCT have shown their grit and stamina in bringing their collection and services back from the brink. This blog post highlights parts of the story for Ireland and UK archivists who may not have heard about it and may be interested to follow the recovery process, as well as the valuable lessons learned in disaster management.
University of Cape Town on the slopes of Table Mountain. Image courtesy of Grand Duncan Smith. Right: Firefighters on UCT's Upper Campus, tending to the Jagger Library. Courtesy of University of Cape Town
Wildfires are a common occurrence for Capetonians. They sweep across the mountains of the Western Cape province every summer (December to February) and autumn (March to May). They are essential to the region's indigenous fynbos for germination. Over the last decade the severity of the fires has increased significantly, exacerbated by hotter and dryer conditions, and worsened by the introduction of highly flammable alien vegetation. Despite holding a prime spot on the slopes of Table Mountain for more than a century, this was the first time that the fires have had such a devastating effect on UCT's Upper Campus.
The Jagger Library Reading Room was built in the 1930s and served as UCT's main library, the J.W. Jagger Library, for a time. It then became the home of the African Studies collection, started in 1953. South African poet and fellow UCT alumna Finuala Dowling reflected on the loss for those who have “grown tall thoughts and gained the art of living inside others” through its unique holdings in her poem ‘Books, burning’ (21 April 2021). The Reading Room was a site of decolonisation in higher education long before the formal end of the Apartheid regime in the 1990s or the student-led #Fallist movements of recent years. The Special Collections at UCT Libraries gathers materials from the 1500s to the present, including African Studies books and films, rare books, manuscripts, pamphlets, personal papers, films, photographs, maps and more.
Books, burning by Finuala Dowling. Poem shared by Tom Moultrie (@tomtom_m), 21 April 2021 via X.com.
Once it took hold of the building, the fire burned for more than 24 hours. Despite the best efforts of the firefighters, the first and second floors of the reading room were destroyed, along with most of the materials housed in these sections. Fortunately, the fire doors installed prevented the spread of the fire to other parts of the library complex. The ramps leading to the basement were also clear so the fire could not spread into the basement storage areas.
Damage to the materials in the Jagger Reading Room. Courtesy of University of Cape Town.
The UCT Libraries archives team were proactive in the salvage and recovery process. Courtesy of Michal Singer, UCT Libraries
Two days after the fire, the site was ready for access after water had been pumped out of the basement and the remaining building had been assessed and secured for safe access. In the crucial first few weeks, the broader Cape Town community stepped forward to lend their support. Donations were forthcoming and volunteers supported the library’s staff onsite to remove materials from the building, passing crates along human chains to tented triaging areas. Conservation activities began immediately, dealing with both fire and water damage to the material.
On Tuesday, 18 April, UCT commemorated the second anniversary of the April 2021 Table Mountain runaway wildfire that gutted the beloved Jagger Library. Courtesy of University of Cape Town
Fast forwarding two years since the event, the recovery work is still ongoing and there will be more to learn from the UCT Library staff's experiences as they continue to publicise their efforts behind the scenes. A side-effect of the disaster has been the broader knowledge of and interest in the university's special collections by the public. Where the Jagger Reading Room was previously a space mostly reserved for serious academic research, the public is now curious to see and know more about the materials that have survived. This has already been seen through a partnership with DStv (satellite tv broadcaster) and Ogilvy. The 'Stories from the Ashes' project saw the creation of a commemorative book printed using ashes from the fire, as well as a book stand made from debris salvaged from the wrecked building. The book features reflections from UCT alumni, professors and thought leaders such as Albie Sachs, Nkosinathi Biko and Timm Hoffmann. These post-fire artifacts figuratively nod to the new possibilities and stories that will be uncovered as a result of the disaster.
To learn more about the roadmap to recovery, I recommend the following online resources:
The Jagger Recovery website highlights the ongoing work and related events.
Here is a blog post by Principal Archivist, Michal Singer, written 6 months after the fire, where she outlines the immediate priorities of disaster management.
Here is an update 2 years after the fire by Executive Director: Libraries, Ujala Satgoor.
And another 2-year update from Principal Libarian for Published Collections in Special Collections, Mandy Noble.
Visit the Special Collections website to explore the collections.
Marie-Louise Rouget is the Project Digital Archivist for the Kerby A. Miller collection at the University of Galway Library. The Miller collection comprises letter transcripts, memoirs and other research material that captures the story of Irish emigration to North America and the development of Irish diaspora identities over 250 years. She is curating and indexing Miller’s emigrant letters for release to an online repository in early 2024. She has a special interest in death and cemetery studies. In 2023, she published the research article ‘Grave Concerns: the state of public cemetery records management in South Africa’. She also writes on these themes and how they intersect with South African visual arts on Substack, under the moniker Morbid Musings.
ARA Ireland members are all invited to write a blog on their work / collections / institutions.
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