Reflections on the second anniversary of the Jagger Fire

09 May 2023
Silhouette photo of Ujala Satgoor wearing a hard hat standing in the dark Jagger Library
09 May 2023

Dear staff and students

The second anniversary of the Jagger Library fire was marked by the launch on 18 April 2023 of an extraordinary book entitled “The Book from the Ashes” at an event co-hosted by the Interim Vice Chancellor, Prof Daya Reddy and the Executive Director: UCT Libraries. This 289-page book, developed over a period of 20 months, is an outcome of a collaboration between DSTV/Multichoice, Ogilvy and UCT Libraries Special Collections. It is a compilation of texts from remnants and salvaged items and printed with ash ink developed from the ash and rubble collected from the site.

Ujala Satgoor pages through a large book on the steel sculpured fire book stand inside Jagger Library

This unique book, Stories from the Ashes, is a single literary art piece and symbolic of the knowledge and human endeavours linked to the Jagger Library. It is symbolic of the collections painstakingly developed and managed since the early 1950s representing the evolution of an academic and research African Studies collection at a time when libraries and access to libraries were political. It also represents the commitment and tenacity of the individuals and professionals behind the scenes who were tasked with sourcing materials from the continent and carefully curating collections of the continent and for the continent. It also alludes to new beginnings and the optimism we have for the future of the new African Library and Archives.


Year Two in perspective

This second year may be described as a year of achieving small but significant successes, understanding the financial value of a library, acknowledging the collective human endeavour and the importance of keeping sight of the goal despite the noise in the wings.

It has also been a year which has:

  • Brought greater acceptance of our huge loss and concomitant implications of this loss. We acknowledge this is a multi-year recovery project which has huge financial and space implications for reconstructing the Jagger Library, rebuilding collections and new location for the proposed centralised working archives. We have extended the lease for another year at River Park, Mowbray, which will enable the Special Collections team to be located here until June 2024.
  • Normalised or mainstreamed recovery for the Special Collections teams.
    • Nikki Crowster
      After deep consideration, 2022 was declared the Year of Normalisation. This action signalled ongoing confidence in the resilience of the UCTL staff involved in the Recovery phase of the 2021 Jagger Fire. Without a repositioning from the lens of disaster to a mindset of successful persistence, characterised by being able to confront challenges while maintaining perspective within complex or difficult situations, the likelihood existed that we would be stuck in a quagmire of negativity and despair and that state is not one I know to be prevalent in UCT Libraries staff. Instead, they have courageously and with dedication and fierceness dived into the Salvage and Recovery of the Jagger Library and Reading Room selflessly. This is not to say that we were without fear, despair, anger, frustration, or other negative emotions but rather that as a collective forged in this instance by a voracious Fire, we signalled our determination to move past these aided by various interventions, guidance from the ED: Libraries and Library Management, 360-degree leadership that saw many staff steering notable initiatives and, organisational and one-on-one support for emotional well-being. With this ‘winners win’ approach, we have delivered more successes than not and the work of UCT Libraries in response to the Fire continues to receive admiration from peers and other influencers. 18 April will always be a sad commemoration of a life-changing event and also, a reminder to all of us that we are stronger than we think especially when we have each other to lean on and to support.
    • Mandy Noble
      The Published Collections team based at Maitland House, has been continuing to reconcile the salvaged African Studies books against Primo, the Libraries’ catalogue. An estimated 30 000 African Studies books were salvaged from the Jagger building. Of these, 28 002 have been checked in and will show as ‘Survived the fire’ on Primo. Of the 35 000 pamphlets salvaged, 29 819 have been checked in. In addition to the African Studies books that have been checked in, 3538 new print book titles have been added to the collection, as well as 221 pamphlets and 448 DVDs.
      The Government Publications team, temporarily based on level 7 of the Chancellor Oppenheimer Library, have been cataloguing and processing new materials either donated or purchased to the collection. To date, 2287 new books have been catalogued and added to the collection and 2398 journals have been added.

      Published Collections: Our ongoing Recovery, nearly two years on by Mandy Noble
      As a declared NIHSS Humanities Hub, the recovery and rebuilding of the published African and other monograph collections are being carefully considered, managed and curated. The recovery aspect has been captured on the Memory@UCT Blog. Read more
    • Michal Singer
      The Primary Collections team has been focused on auditing all collections affected by the fire. The process for auditing is threefold - the collection is removed from crates and laid out in order. Working with original inventories, we note missing folders or boxes and record these. Once we are able to re-integrate the materials currently in cold storage, we will be able to provide final reports on how each collection fared after the fire
      Between September and November 2022, the first fifty archival collections in the sequence of collections (BC1 TO BC330) have undergone stock take and by January 2023, they were all re-shelved in Oppenheimer. This includes the collection range from BC1 (Mackenzie Collection) to BC330 (Molteno Murray Collection).
      In the first quarter, the team swiftly proceeded with stock-taking for twenty-three discrete collections. BC326: Hawke and McKinley was handed over to Memorist for stabilisation and digitisation. The team has completed assessments for collections in the range from BC345: M Ballinger Papers sequentially until BC586: Leo Marquard NUSAS Papers, which we are still busy with. BC586, with over five hundred boxes, is one of the largest in the collection, and its completion will signify a mid-point in the MSS stock take. All of these collections were found to be in good order with almost no gaps.
      Following an invitation to present at the tenth annual conference commemorating Neville Alexander in late 2022, the team proceeded to assess and re-box that collection, as well as the papers of RO Dudley.
      Recovery and Capacity Building in Special Collections by Michal Singer
      The recovery of the primary collections and the visit of Tina Lohr, a conservator from Germany. Read more
  • Affirmed who we are as library and librarians, and the confidence of individuals to entrust their valuable personal libraries and collections into our care. These have included Alumni and academics from within and beyond UCT such as Prof Gerhard Totemeyer of Namibia, whose collection of literature and writings on Namibia predominantly during the colonial periods (South West Africa/ Germany and South Africa) will be a valuable addition to the African Studies Collection and Government Publications.
  • Engendered a deeper understanding of the correct valuation of library holdings, especially after having to do various calculations based on different business models to arrive at a reasonable and logical replacement value of the lost collections towards finalising the insurance claim.
  • Highlighted the huge cost of recovery and the financial impact on the Libraries. By adopting a phased approach and prioritising our restoration efforts, we have managed to contain costs up to a point. A fund-raising campaign is being formulated in collaboration with DAD.
  • Demonstrated repeatedly the resilience of the human spirit and endeavour in the face of both success and challenge. In embracing recovery as their “new normal” the Special Collections team continue with a more conscious values-based way of working.  However we cannot under-estimate the emotional and psychological impact of this experience on the well-being of each individual.  

Useful links for more information

While we have been able to make significant progress with our recovery in the past year, we are going forward with a greater sense of hope and cautious optimism as it will be a year of fundraising, advocacy and professional engagement that will make “rising from the ashes” a reality!

Best regards

Ujala Satgoor
Executive Director: Libraries