Mary Lister, Librarian at the UCT GSB reflects on the devastating fire that gutted parts of the UCT Library on Upper Campus towards the end of April and explains how people can get involved if they want to help.
Many of you will have heard about the extraordinary events on the slopes of Table Mountain on Sunday 18 April 2021. A small fire just above Philip Kgosana Drive (formerly de Waal Drive), driven by high winds and extreme heat, suddenly got out of control. Many of us watched social media in disbelief as first the iconic Rhodes Memorial Restaurant went up in flames and then UCT Upper Campus was threatened. Who could have imagined that it would be the buildings in the heart of the campus that would be affected — the Jagger Reading Room, Smuts and Fuller Residences and the HW Pearson building — rather than those on the outskirts?
We will all have our different memories of these buildings if we did our under- and/or postgraduate degrees at UCT. As a student in the 1980s, resident in Fuller at the time, I remember the Jagger Reading Room as the Short Loan Centre — it was readily accessible to all students from the Jammie Steps. Here students would rush in to book out the readings for the next assignment and then wind down the stairs to the photocopy centre in the basement and stand in long queues to makes copies. It was a functional, busy area of the Library.
In 2000, Short Loan moved out, and the African Studies Library moved in, and then with the amalgamation of all the special collections into one department, the reading room was restored to its original beauty with a restoration programme that began in 2011. The basements where the photocopiers once hummed became stack rooms with row upon row of compactus units to house the majority of the special collections’ materials.
UCT Libraries staff, both current and retired, who have worked in the Special Collections departments have understandably very mixed emotions as they remembered their association with the Reading Room.
Watching the Jagger Reading Room go up in flames was surreal — this was a building I knew well. The desks and working lives of longstanding colleagues and friends were in upstairs galleries that were now glowing orange from the fire within. Naturally, there was nothing we could do but wait until the fire was quenched, the building declared safe and for the UCT Libraries staff to report back on the extent of the damage — and the waiting seemed interminable.
Finally, the news came through. The fire detection system had activated and although the Reading Room had been gutted, the materials in the three basements below had not been affected by the fire. What had been damaged by water would still have to be assessed.
What has definitely been lost is the African Studies Book Collection which was housed in the Jagger Reading Room — on either sides of the study desks and in the galleries. Downstairs, protected by fire shutters, are the other collections — Manuscripts, Maps, Pamphlets & Ephemera, Photographs & Images, Rare and Antiquarian Books.
There is no denying that the UCT Library staff have a long road ahead of them as they work out systems and processes to manage and move forward with all those items that make up “Special Collections”. Many have inquired about digitisation and UCT Libraries do have a Digital Library Services department, which is constantly working on the digitisation of material held by the library, but prioritisation and capacity is always an issue as with so many sectors today.
Even though this has been a very difficult time, Executive Director of UCT Libraries, Ujala Satgoor, has looked for the positives throughout the process. Chief among these has been the wonderful response from UCT staff, students and members of the public who have stepped up to help with salvaging the items from the basements and moving them to other storage spaces on campus. On a personal note, my daughter, Kath, was one of the volunteers working to move the Rare Books to another site and ended up working alongside side Linda Fasham’s daughter, Nicole.