South Africa

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Phoenix rising? UCT think tank brainstorms a new future for fire-destroyed Jagger library

Phoenix rising? UCT think tank brainstorms a new future for fire-destroyed Jagger library
A fire fighter walks through the destroyed nearly 200-year-old Jagger Library on the University of Cape Town campus in Cape Town, South Africa, 20 April 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Nic Bothma)

The Reimagining Jagger Library Project is conceptualising and imagining a future beyond the reconstruction of the Jagger Reading Room.

In 2018, University of Cape Town (UCT) vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng set up the UCT Futures Think Tank (FTT). This was a proactive step, a way to pre-emptively think and plan for the changes influencing our future, especially given that there was no specific body at UCT that was actively thinking about our future.

The FTT was tasked with exploring how we should respond to forces of change and how we should lead and shape change on the continent and globally. The FTT was composed of a small and diverse group who were tasked to “think outside the box” and not be constrained by university governance and processes, by hierarchies and by regulations. The express intention was to disrupt internally before we were disrupted externally.

The Jagger fire

The Jagger Reading Room, built in 1953, housed UCT’s Special Collections, comprised of printed and audio-visual material on African studies and a wide array of other specialised subjects, as well as more than 1,300 subcollections of unique manuscripts and personal papers. The collection of books and pamphlets had more than 85,000 items on African studies alone, and the collection on African film was among the most extensive in the world, with more than 3,000 films available for viewing and research.

The Jagger Reading Room initially served as the university’s main library, and later as a short-loans centre, before officially becoming the African Studies Library’s reading room. On 18 April 2021, UCT’s historic Jagger Reading Room was destroyed in a fire.

Commenting on the fire’s aftermath, Phakeng said: “Many of us will feel the devastation of the loss of this significant institutional asset but we will walk the road to rebuild our facilities together.”

In recent years there have been enormous upheavals globally for libraries. How they have adapted to such changes can provide larger lessons about how colleges and universities can transform. The changes include libraries becoming hubs for diverse purposes as well as changing expectations as to the role of the library on the campus.

Reimagining Jagger

The Reimagining Jagger Library Project was proposed as a way for the Futures Think Tank to contribute to and supplement UCT’s usual process by which damaged buildings are rebuilt. The aim of the project was to develop interest in reimagining the Jagger library and to imagine a future beyond its reconstruction.

The process, normally closed and internal, was opened to various communities — students, librarians, academics, interested public and various stakeholders — as a gesture towards inclusive and communal exchange.

The aim was to align thinking with UCT’s Vision 2030: “Unleash human potential to create a fair and just society”, thus experimenting with using the Jagger library rebuild as a pilot project for how future university projects could be more inclusive.

The reimagining Jagger project was conceptualised as:

  • A free-thinking, engagement to encourage rethinking the library, its role, our future-orientated campus and promoting experiential interaction and interactive teaching and learning, in addition to contributing to UCT’s vision to construct a post-Covid-19 university.
  • An opportunity to consider a range of possibilities to explore a purpose-built space that celebrates multi-use learning and supports innovative research. This required rethinking, reimagining, re-energising and repurposing to transform and be socially responsive. Could this new space be desirable and become known as a space of excellence, transformation and sustainability? Could it offer a glimpse of what a successful and thriving UCT would look like in 2030?
  • An inclusive process including not only architects and professionals but also laypeople, groups of schoolchildren, students and alumni. Opening the process to a diverse range of views and contributions allowed for a richness and diversity that could be useful and constructive in the implementation phase. The open style of the project also spoke to UCT’s commitment to creativity, experimentation and inclusivity.

This was not the formal, university-run process that would be coordinated through the conventional university structures, but rather a precursor to the formal processes that would also feed into and contribute to the outcome.

The project

Twelve individual brainstorming sessions, “imaginariums”, or workshops were held. These were directed facilitations and creative sessions that invited novel ideas and contributions toward the rebuilding of the Jagger library. Sessions followed a general format in which participants were made aware of the fire and the extensive damage caused. Questions about what makes a library in contemporary times were then discussed. Three key issues predominated the various engagements:

  • What will be the purpose of this new building?
  • How can it better integrate with the university plaza and its surroundings?
  • How can the existing building, a PII Listed Heritage Site, be transformed into something totally new?

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Participants were invited to develop their ideas using a range of simple materials. It was understood that most of the participants were not professionals or trained architects and therefore the models and ideas were expected to be simple and conceptual. We were not looking for formal architectural prototypes.

The sessions were conducted using brainstorming guidelines, which created an environment where creative ideas could be stimulated and encouraged without judgment. The invitation was to share thoughts and dreams on reimagining Jagger.

The sessions included academics, entrepreneurs, young scholars, activists, artists and architects; students and stakeholders; first-year architecture students; literacy-focused NPOs and organisations; UCT librarians; Grade 9 and 10 learners; staff and public (open call); 100UP students and UCT student volunteers. All in all, more than 350 participants took part.

The visualisations were wide-ranging, interesting and far beyond what might have been generated had the sessions been limited to trained professionals. The offerings were also considered to hold an important record for the rebuilding project.

The ideas and visualisations were compiled as a set of composite posters and mounted in a public exhibition in the Molly Blackburn Hall.

Reflections and way forward

This project held within its mechanisms an important intention. The consultations and creative workshops encouraged by this project delivered information above and beyond the redesign of a burned library. The sessions, while configured to focus on the Jagger library, became a conduit for participants to share their thoughts and comments about the university and tertiary education in South Africa.

The offerings ranged from high-level criticisms of persistent colonial structures to personal and emotional reminiscences, hopes and dreams of the future of learning in formation. The facilitation encouraged participants to venture into the realms of imaginary and blue-sky thinking to further communicate their ideas.

Finally, the project generated a repository of drawings, photographs and videos reflecting a useful record of the process and of the institution’s intention towards communal engagement and inclusivity. Besides generating a rich set of information, the project has also coalesced a community of sorts, that is and will be keenly attuned to how the rebuilding of the space transpires. There is an opportunity to make productive use of the shared ideas and dreams.

The project has also gained some momentum in relation to the goals outlined in Vision 2030 and #unleash. There is the potential to further engage these dynamic and growing energies to acknowledge and engage wide-ranging sentiments and interest in institutional change.

The UCT Futures Think Tank has the potential to be a valuable entity that holds in its structure a safe space for the university to grapple with the immense and daunting process of change. DM

Professor Alison Lewis is the dean of the Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment and head of the Futures Think Tank at the University of Cape Town.

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