Rescued from the Flames: Special Collections' hidden gem

27 Sep 2023 | By Bev Angus
Various political ephemera laid out on table
27 Sep 2023 | By Bev Angus

The African Studies Collection, part of Published Collections within Special Collections, was established in 1953. This print collection has been conscientiously developed over the decades since then to include all African topics which may be of interest to researchers. One format which has always been included in the library’s acquisition policy is now regarded as one of its greatest treasures - the pamphlet collection - whose value has not always been given the recognition it deserves.

Most importantly, as a complementary collection to the books, it survived the Jagger Library fire of 18 April 2021, which destroyed 60 percent of the book stock. Books in the African Studies Library have the prefix BA, pamphlets BAP and are fondly called BAPS (as in maps) by library staff!

The Library of Congress defines ephemera as non-commercial, non-book publications. Maurice Rickards calls them transient documents of everyday life. A more intriguing label is fugitive material because they are published outside of official or normal channels.

The collection consists of material often referred to as gray matter or ephemera which is classified as minor or informal publications not having the status of a peer-reviewed book issued by a publisher. A pamphlet can be a conference, seminar, working or briefing paper, a research report, a policy statement, an information leaflet, or a guide.

The Library of Congress defines ephemera as non-commercial, non-book publications. Maurice Rickards calls them transient documents of everyday life. A more intriguing label is fugitive material because they are published outside of official or normal channels.

What gives the pamphlet collection its value is not only the diversity of the material and sources, but also its coverage of socio-political movements and history over the last 70 years in South Africa and Africa outside of official and academic channels. Many of these items are now rare objects as they would have had small print runs and disposed of once no longer required, rather than saved and conserved. Now they are a source of evidence and action covering a tumultuous time on the African continent. The pamphlet collection mirrors the book collection covering topics such as media, religion, gender studies, sociology, education, politics, economics, community health, local history.

Memorist, a heritage conservation company, has just recently completed a project digitising this complete collection of older pamphlets for posterity.

When Margaret Richards became head of African Studies in 1982, it was already a well-established collection. Older pamphlets, referred to as Southern African Pamphlets, had been bound into volumes which librarians referred to as the Blue Books and probably represent the origins of the pamphlet collection. They were given the shelf number for Africana – BAA plus P for pamphlet. In 1959 E.S. Roberts compiled the Preliminary finding-list of southern African pamphlets in the University of Cape Town Libraries. (BA 968 ROBE). When Sandra Shell was head of African Studies Library, she instituted a project in which analytics were done for individual volumes, making each item within discoverable on the library catalogue.

Memorist, a heritage conservation company, has just recently completed a project digitising this complete collection of older pamphlets for posterity.

Consistent acquisition over the years has resulted in a body of work approaching 40 000 items. Margaret Richards encouraged librarians to be active in creating and maintaining links with researchers and activists during the apartheid era, resulting in the comprehensive acquisition of ephemera from political activist organisations such as the UDF (United Democratic Front), the ECC (End Conscription Campaign), Detainees Parents Support Committee and, later, to HIV/Aids activist groups such as the Treatment Action Campaign. Leaflets calling for boycotts, stayaways and protest meetings would have been handed out in the streets and later thrown away. Many of these publications, such as the histories of the SACP (South African Communist Party) and the ANC (African National Congress), were under scrutiny from the Nationalist Government and regularly banned.

Publications emanating from banned organisations and persons were illegal. One such pamphlet published by the ANC in the late 1960s, and disguised as a 36-page comic book, is The story of Simon and Jane (BAP 322.42 STOR). Sue Ogterop recalls how all library staff kept their eyes and ears open for news of conferences, seminars, and political meetings, and then either personally attended these events or requested relevant print material from the presenters. Many of these acquisitions now make up the Political Ephemera collection which consists of 20 boxes of pamphlets, newsletters, flyers etc. pertaining to anti-apartheid movements active in South Africa during the apartheid era (circa 1970-1994).

Allegra Louw says that the collection is a rich source of information on the local history of the Western Cape. Another prolific source of seminar papers was from the Centre for Humanities Research and Department of History, headed by Premesh Lalu, at UWC, and faithfully forwarded to Allegra Louw over many years. 

Research on land history, land reform and restitution were supplied by the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS,) at UWC.  As the pamphlet collection grew and became well-regarded, unsolicited donations became more common. The library also subscribed to publications from organisations such as the South African Institute of Race Relations, founded in 1929, which produced vast numbers of research reports relating to the apartheid government’s policies of segregation.

All items have been processed and are discoverable in the UCT Library catalogue, shelved in boxes according to Dewey Decimal guidelines, just like the books.

In the run-up to South Africa’s first democratic elections, a pivotal moment in South Africa’s history, staff also collected and requested leaflets, posters, ballot papers and party manifestos from the political parties fielding candidates. These have proved useful to researchers investigating the changing political landscape of the country.

A more recent collection of material (28 boxes) donated by the UCT (University of Cape Town) Muslim Students Association contains miscellaneous publications relating to aspects of Muslim life in South Africa such as Muslim education, Muslim/Christian relations, Muslim political parties in South Africa.

Book stack of pamphlets reshelved inside boxes
Processed pamphlets and ephemera are shelved in file boxes on bookshelves.

However, none of these items would be of any value if they could not be sourced by researchers and herein lies the collection’s greatest value. All items have been processed and are discoverable in the UCT Library catalogue, shelved in boxes according to Dewey Decimal guidelines, just like the books. UCT Library’s Inter-Library Loans department receives many requests from international institutions for items from this amazing collection as it is often the only library in WorldCat (an international database of information about library collections) to have the item listed in its library holdings. Sandra Shell recalls that during her time at Cory Library, Grahamstown, staff were envious of the comprehensive pamphlet collection at UCT Libraries. She also points out their importance in providing an alternative view of issues relevant to researchers, reflecting the voice of the people.

    In conclusion, Special Collections was most fortunate that the bulk of the pamphlet collection was saved. Housed in the basement, the fire did not consume it, although some items were affected by water seeping through the reading room floor. After extraction from the basement, each pamphlet was updated on the library catalogue by Belinda Southgate as having ‘survived the fire’. Belinda has also been instrumental, with assistance from her colleagues, in getting 2300 new pamphlet boxes back onto the available shelving. Some 35 000 pamphlets can now be located if requested. This achievement is of great significance in the progress of Published Collections towards re-establishing itself as a renowned research facility.


    Story compiled by Bev Angus, retired librarian, from contributions by:

    • Mandy Noble: Principal Librarian: Published Collections, Special Collections
    • Belinda Southgate: Principal Library Assistant, Published Collections, Special Collections
    • Sue Ogterop: Librarian, retired
    • Allegra Louw: Librarian, retired
    • Sandra Shell: Librarian, retired
    • Margaret Richards: Librarian, retired