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UCT’s Ujala Satgoor: I think it’s the worst nightmare for any director to see a library go up in flames

UCT Libraries Executive Director Ujala Satgoor began her tenure in January 2019. (Photo: Je'nine May)

Just two years into her tenure, the executive director of UCT Libraries, Ujala Satgoor, faces the mammoth task of trying to recover and rebuild what was lost in the recent fire, which destroyed a large part of the university’s African Studies Collection.

Of the losses caused by the recent Cape Town fire, the destruction of part of the University of Cape Town’s Jagger Reading Room and its historic documents and collections has been the most poignant.

“I think it’s the worst nightmare for any library director to see a library go up in flames,” said Ujala Satgoor, the executive director of UCT Libraries.

Satgoor witnessed the inferno first-hand and “stood there in absolute shock and horror”.

“It was a devastating moment.”

The Jagger Reading Room (formerly known as the JW Jagger Library) was gutted. The fire destroyed the library’s roof, galleries, adjacent stores and offices.

It was home to the African Studies Collection, which was started in 1953. Tens of thousands of items were destroyed in the fire, including most of the African Studies Published Print Collection, the entire African Studies Film Collection on DVD, and government publications from South Africa and the rest of the continent.

The Jagger Library Reading Room before it was engulfed in flames, destroying precious African Studies Collections. (Photo: Theresa Schoeman)
The damage caused to the Jagger Library Reading Room resulted in the loss of nearly 74,000 African Studies materials. (Photo: Ujala Satgoor)

“It covers all subject areas that are being researched that are topical, but also historical, anthropological, social sciences, politics, etc. So it ranged from works of leading politicians, thought leaders on African philosophy and politics. It was a very unique collection. It’s a huge loss.”

However, it’s not just the loss of physical items but “the human experience as well”, said Satgoor.

Images from the aftermath of the blaze show blackened pillars, broken bricks and the charred remains of books and rubble strewn across the floor of the Jagger Reading Room.

Satgoor has been at the helm of UCT Libraries since January 2019 and gained most of her academic library experience at Rhodes University and the University of Pretoria.

“I’ve seen how libraries are evolving, and how we are adapting and responding to the needs of the day and becoming pivotal to the academy.

“It is truly a historic moment, the destruction of this library, and that is why we’re seeing this groundswell of support to say, ‘How can we assist you to rebuild this very valuable collection and library?’ And so it becomes our responsibility to respond in a very positive, visionary way and say, yes, we will rebuild it.”

The Jagger Reading Room was engulfed in flames after a fire ripped through Rhodes Memorial and made its way to the UCT campus. (Photo: Lerato Maduna)
Part of the Special Collections destroyed in the fire. (Photo: Lerato Maduna)

Her optimism is palpable as she describes her gratitude for the immense support from the academic community.

In one example, a campaign that originated outside the university encouraged researchers and academics from around the world to submit any photocopies or mobile images of documents from the Special Collections in their possession.

Satgoor said the process of digitisation had been under way for several years before the fire.

“We have started identifying and prioritising collections and one of our most recent digitisation initiatives was of all the Struggle posters, etc, which is a brilliant showcase of a period and a moment in history in South Africa. And lots of other collections have all been digitised and are being prepared for upload on to our showcase platform.”

But not all materials can be digitised as some are too fragile for excessive handling.

Satgoor said her most important task is ensuring the well-being of her staff, some of whom had spent their entire careers collecting and curating materials for the library.

“Collections don’t just develop by themselves, it’s the people behind it. And I think this is what we need to recognise, how invaluable the library staff are.” 

As a library director, her focus is to create a space for her staff to use their initiative, creativity, passion and to employ best practice. 

She said counselling had been made available for staff and a memorial was held on Thursday. 

“It’s heartbreaking.” DM 

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