Reflections on the third anniversary of the Jagger Fire

18 Apr 2024
Silhouette photo of Ujala Satgoor wearing a hard hat standing in the dark Jagger Library
18 Apr 2024

Dear Staff and Students

18 April will always represent a bittersweet day for UCT Libraries and the impact of the loss of the Jagger Library is still felt differently by many. However as we acknowledge the third anniversary of the devastating fire that destroyed the Jagger Reading Room and all that came to pass thereafter, this last year has been driven by the desire to turn the page to a new chapter in the life of Special Collections. This included clarity of purpose regarding the recovery processes, the completion of restoration projects, making courageous decisions within challenging environments for future sustainability and emerging confidence in the resumption of services. 

Resilience and a “can-do” attitude 

As with the original team that built the collections since the 1950s, so too must we recognise the invaluable efforts of the current team to rebuild that was lost in 2021.

 “[The] talk of celebrating the 3rd anniversary of the Jagger Fire might cause emotional and intellectual discomfort at the strange juxtaposition of states of joy and disaster. When unpacked beyond that first impression, the word ‘celebrate’ refers to acknowledgement, reaching a milestone, marking a notable occasion, to honour, to salute and many more descriptions that speak to the character of UCT Libraries staff, especially those directly affected by the Fire: the Special Collections team.  The response to the Fire is to be admired and lauded as has been done from the onset. This does not speak to perfection or everything done by the book. We have walked a jagged line at times going a bit back before moving forward but our trajectory of Recovery has been distinctive for its progress which in many ways has equalled or surpassed that of similar or greater disasters of this type. Therefore, while one remembers where they were that moment they first saw the visual of the Jagger Library and Reading Room being engulfed in voracious unrelenting flames, it must be accompanied by the “celebration” of the resilience of the human spirit, that within the imperfection of the losses, the emotional rebuilding, the physical rebuilding, the restoration of research services, we, the UCT Libraries staff continue to advance from this catastrophe day by day and step by step to the point where the reports on progress clearly demonstrate the restitution and reclaiming of the Jagger Library and Reading Room from the 2021 Fire. It is worth celebrating!”  - Nikki Crowster (Director: Information Systems & Resources)

A new recovery normal 

In normalising recovery, the major outsourced recovery projects involving digitisation of paper and audio-visual materials were completed, the restoration of antiquarian books is almost completed, and the major collection of deep-frozen materials will be addressed in the coming year.  

"The highlight for me over the past year is that there is sufficient advancement in the recovery projects (outlined below) that we have been able to promote access to our truly rich and diverse collections through in person services, albeit by appointment in an empty office. There has been a slow, steady return to in person services for the archives for the first time since before the lockdown. These nascent services provided the team to rebuild the services and manage the logistics of providing research services while off campus”. - Michal Singer (Principal Archivist: Primary Collections)
  • Completion of the AVA Digitisation project by March 2024. This enabled the Special Collections (SC) AV archive materials and staff to move to Birkdale 3 
  • Digitisation of selected Special Collections Manuscripts & Archives and Africana - with work divided between the Libraries’ Digitisation Unit and the onsite vendor, Memorist, we continued with the work of recovery and digitization of selected archives, including 
    • Over two thousand pre-1925 Africana pamphlets 
    • Office records and drawings by architectural firms Black and Fagg, Hawke and McKinlay, and prolific South African architects, Max Policansky and Roelof Uytenbogaart 
    • Selections from the papers of James Stewart, principal of Lovedale College, Professor Neville Alexander and Monica Wilson 
    • The salvaged administrative archives recovered from the Jagger Archive Office was restored and fully digitized. 
  • Stock take and rehousing of more than half the Manuscript collections / archives that were salvaged, approximately 120 collections, over 3000 box files replaced and relabelled. These collections are now in stored in Special Collections Oppenheimer storeroom and available to researchers. 
  • Purchase of new map cabinets for the rehousing of the architecture collections restored by Memorist, as well as the Libraries All Things UCT Collections. 

Rebuilding the African Studies Collection, the kernel of the future African Library 

“[The highlights of the last year have been] the beginning of a reference service using the Loans desk in the Chancellor Oppenheimer Library and more recently Government Publications, and the positive impact this has had on staff morale. Secondly, the completion of the reconciliation project for the African Studies books and pamphlets”. -Mandy Noble (Principal Librarian: Published Collections)
  • Completion of the checking in of the African Studies Library books. This was accomplished through the involvement of contract staff 
  • More than 1000 Rare Books restored by DK Conservators 
  • Implementation of reference services including available books and archives, but not all. 

The Conservation Unit: a new reality 

The new established Conservation Unit is well on its way towards becoming embedded into Special Collections. With the appointment of Daniele Knoetze on a 5-year contract, the Unit is also making it possible to provide teaching and learning opportunities towards the continued growth of conservation studies in South Africa. The acquisition of necessary conservation equipment such as a  PPE (fume hood) has accelerated the work being done.  Nearly 1000 items have stabilised or restored to date. The hosting of local and international interns for whom the recovery project is a real-time conservation and preservation experience is an added advantage. Currently we are hosting a UP Tangible Heritage intern and last year we hosted interns from France, who were funded by Memorist. 

Reopening of the Government Publications reading room 

The newly refurbished Government Publications reading room on level 5 of the Chancellor Oppenheimer library opened for use in March 2024. The Government Publications team headed by Laureen Rushby, Senior Librarian, with Zukie Wani, Library Assistant, and the newly appointed Talisa Fisher as a Principal Library Assistant, have moved in and once again are offering a service to researchers. They are also able to begin the reconciliation of the materials that survived the fire and are shelved on compactus shelving in the space. Operating hours for the first term will be from 8:00-17:00, Monday to Friday. This will be reviewed at the start of the second term depending on the demand for services. It is possible to leave materials at the Loans desk for researchers if required after hours.  

Maintaining visibility of our recovery efforts 

The Special Collections team continue to share the recovery efforts undertaken by the Libraries and the lessons learnt. These include: 

Leveraging the moment for national dialogues 

On 08-09 October 2023, UCT Libraries in partnership with the National Library of South Africa (NLSA), the Endangered Archives Programme of the British Library and the National University of Lesotho hosted a round table on Preservation and Conservation of Documentary Heritage: A Strategic Imperative. The 2021 Jagger Fire, the destruction of documentary heritage due to political strife and climate change have served as impetus for this conversation. Limited to fifty participants, it was a gathering of professionals from Cameroon, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mali, Namibia, South Africa, United Kingdom, United States of America and Zambia, representing national libraries, university libraries, government agencies responsible for arts and culture, archives, museums, galleries and vendors. The outcome of this 2-day dialogue is a policy framework that could be adapted for different contexts on the continent. 

What’s next? 

The priorities for the year ahead are: 

  • Finalising the commercial solution for the vacuum freeze drying of the 10 000 items in cold storage 
  • Relocating the affected Special Collections to a new location as the current premises are proving to be increasingly challenging for our purpose 
  • Commencing the first phase of the Libraries Master Plan, namely a comprehensive spatial audit of all sites in the Libraries network including the Jagger. This will then inform the purpose, requirements and design of the Jagger as a separate project. 

This year has shown us what is possible with the right attitude, pragmatism and the latitude to re-think archives and Special Collections. But most importantly the professionalism of the Special Collections team towards their work and determination of the other sections within UCT Libraries who have collaborated with and supported Special Collections to ensure their mandates are met, is to be lauded. We still have lots to do and look forward to in the next year. With the lessons learnt in the last three years, I’m confident we will reach our goal. 

Best regards 

Ujala Satgoor
Executive Director: Libraries