Opinionista Shelagh Gastrow 20 April 2021

Mother City fire: UCT’s intellectual heart ripped out after Jagger Library burns

The Jagger Reading Room has been devastated and some of its most precious and irreplaceable intellectual content has been lost. The heart of any university is the library – it is the centre for knowledge production, one of the key purposes of any university.

In 1998, I became part of the fundraising team at the University of Cape Town (UCT) that raised the money to reconfigure the institution’s Upper Campus. This was the vision of the then vice-chancellor, Dr Mamphela Ramphele, who saw part of her legacy as bringing the old infrastructure, including the library, into the modern era. Millions were raised to create what became the Chancellor Oppenheimer Library, along with facilities for the Centre for Higher Education Development, a new student and financial aid centre and numerous new computer laboratories, experimental laboratories, IT labs and modern lecture theatres.  

The heart of any university is the library that is no longer only book collections, but provides students with electronic access to the many academic journals and other important electronic resources. It is the centre for knowledge production, one of the key purposes of any university.

On Sunday, 18 April 2021, we saw the heart ripped out of UCT as a wildfire engulfed the JW Jagger Library (now the Jagger Reading Room), which is named after John William Jagger, a donor and an early industrialist in South Africa. The building was constructed in the early 1930s as the university’s main library, but after the reconstruction of the Upper Campus and the establishment of the new library, it became the reading room of the African Studies Library. In 2011 a restoration project was initiated to return the library to its original form.

The fire was covered by most television stations and we watched as one journalist after another simply had no idea what was lost. An anchor on SABC asked if the paper in the library made the fire worse, and most did not even know that the building was a library. This was exacerbated by a complete vacuum of information from the university and its leadership as to what this meant to Cape Town, South Africa and to the world. It brought to mind other catastrophic crises where leaders took the reins and appeared in public, to reassure people, to explain what was happening, what would be done and what public support was required.

An example was Rudy Giuliani, mayor of New York, (whatever one thinks of his politics) who was at the site of the World Trade Center when it was attacked, and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, when mosques were attacked in Christchurch.

The lone person explaining anything at the site of this devastation was Cape Town’s mayor, Dan Plato, and he would not have known the detail of the contents of the building, yet he was able to say that the quick activation of rolling fire doors meant that some of the most precious documents were saved. He was there, he was interested, he communicated and he understood what this meant to the City.  

While it is understandable that university authorities were dealing with issues relating to student welfare and safety, leadership also requires a show of leadership, decision-making and control in order to build confidence and trust, especially at a time when the public will need to be mobilised to help rebuild.

The Jagger Reading Room has been devastated and some of its most precious and irreplaceable intellectual content has been lost. To quote a tweet from @incunabula: “Aside from priceless early materials, this is one of the great repositories for archives & documents of anti-colonial and liberation movements in South Africa and elsewhere in Africa. This is irreplaceable material.”

This library contained key collections reflecting South Africa’s history, such as the Jack and Ray Simons Collection, the Black Sash Collection and the Richard Rive Collection. There were collections of rare books “representative of humankind’s intellectual and cultural development in the broadest sense, emphasising the book arts and the history, development and future of the book”.

This included a copy of an extremely rare 1535 Dutch Bible as the “edition was suppressed and all copies burned. Indeed, the publisher was condemned to death for publishing it.” The oldest book in the library was by the Roman historian of the first century, Valerius Maximus, published in Germany in 1471.

We don’t really know what has been lost, but according to a tweet from the executive director of UCT Libraries, Ujala Satgoor, the Reading Room “is gutted” but luckily fire-detection systems triggered fire shutters and as a result the fire did not spread to other areas of the library. These possibly include the small fireproof rooms underground. She said that some valuable collections were lost, but that they could only do a full assessment when it was safe to do so.

Of grave concern are the Bleek and Lloyd Collections that include interviews by Dr Wilhelm Bleek and his sister-in-law Lucy Lloyd, with the San prisoners on Robben Island in the 1870s. This collection was donated to UCT, and they recorded their personal stories in the original language and documented their language, “their history, their beliefs and customs”. It also includes photographs and maps. Luckily a significant amount of this collection has been digitised, and hopefully the originals are not lost. This collection is listed in Unesco’s Memory of the World Register as a documentary heritage of international importance.

The Jagger Reading Room also has a collection of atlases and maps, many of which were used by travellers across the continent; government map publications produced by government departments including those from the earliest days of the Cape Colony. The library was also home to more than 1,500 manuscript collections, from personal papers to organisational archives. The Ernst Westphal Papers documented numerous now-extinct languages and contained hand-drawn maps documenting the migration of linguistic groups across southern Africa, while the Talbot Map Collection includes historical maps of the continent of Africa, various maps of African countries, early maps of the Cape of Good Hope as well as valuable military maps used during the Anglo-Boer War.

The library also housed the African Film Collection as well as an audiovisual archive. This included more than 3,000 documentaries, films and TV series made in Africa or were Africa-related – there were about 20,000 items in the archive. The photographic archive in Special Collections had material that spanned “a period from the inception of photography to the present day, from fragile prints to digital format. Fox Talbot’s Pencil of Nature is a rare body of work that found its way to Africa. Many of the early photographs are of Cape Town and its surrounds, reflecting its architecture, environment, and the city’s early development.” The library also held the archives of Jürgen Schadeberg and Ernest Cole, as well as the anthology documenting resistance to apartheid, Beyond the Barricades.

We don’t really know what has been lost, but according to a tweet from the executive director of UCT Libraries, Ujala Satgoor, the Reading Room “is gutted” but luckily fire-detection systems triggered fire shutters and as a result the fire did not spread to other areas of the library. These possibly include the small fireproof rooms underground. She said that some valuable collections were lost, but that they could only do a full assessment when it was safe to do so.

Perhaps this is an opportune time for South Africans to realise how important their heritage is, and where the intellectual hub of that heritage can be found in the archives of universities. It does need to be rebuilt and together with all the other damage, UCT will probably need some billions of rands to repair, rebuild and reconstruct. A university is only as strong as the safety net of those around it – its donors, its alumni, its corporate partners, government at all levels, its research partners, the media, its students, its neighbourhood and the general public who care about education.

It is this safety net that will be called upon to assist as the university cannot do it alone. Let us hope that South Africa will find those resources from wherever they will come to rebuild our intellectual heart. DM

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All Comments 3

  • Thank you for trying to put the the Jagger fire disaster into some kind of perspective. Having worked in the Ms and Archives section I am personally devastated. As staff we had the privilege of not only sorting priceless collections but of making them available to scholars from all over the world.

  • So distressing. Never having visited the Jagger Room and its riches must hope that as many items as possible have been copied/digitised and stored off site to guard against such an “unimaginable”. A hard drive with much of my only (small) history having previously been stolen, I can but sympathise.

  • This may have been a devastating loss … or not. The university’s silence is understandable, if a little worrying. Makes one wonder what had and hadn’t been digitised at the time of the fire… I hope it mostly had …

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