Devastating Cape Town fire destroys University Library Archives and Special Collections

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Newlands, Cape Town, South Africa - April 25 2021. Volunteers saving historic materials from the Jagger Library archives, which were damaged in the recent wild fires at University of Cape Town.  Gail Euston-Brown / Shutterstock.com.

On the morning of Sunday, 18 April, a wildfire was first spotted on the slopes of Devil’s Peak, the iconic Table Mountain ridge which rises up behind Cape Town in South Africa. Strong winds and high temperatures fanned the blaze which overtook the mountainside for several days while firefighters struggled to gain control over the wildfire with helicopters dumping water overhead and hundreds of ground crew working around the clock.

As the fire tore down the ridge over the weekend, important landmarks, including the Rhodes Memorial and Mostert’s Mill, a historic windmill built in 1796, were destroyed. Neighborhoods were evacuated, including 4,000 students from the University of Cape Town which sits in the foothills, directly in the path of the raging fire.

Most devastating was the damage done to the University of Cape Town’s library; Jagger Library’s Special Collections holds one of the most important archives of rare and first-edition books, films, photographs, and other documentation of Southern African history. One of the library curators, Pippa Skotnes, reported that the Library’s African film collection, which held 3,500 films (one of the largest in the world), had been destroyed.

“We are of course devastated about the loss of our special collection in the Library; it’s things that we cannot replace. It pains us to see what it looks like now in ashes,” University of Cape Town Vice Chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng said on Monday, 19 April. “The resources that we had there, the collections that we had in the library were not just for us but for the continent.”

Despite the University’s recent digitization project, only a small portion of the Library’s special collections had been processed; with such a vast collection and the tedious nature of the work, it is slow going. While a huge portion of the above-ground collection was lost, there is hope that the two below-ground storage floors might be salvageable despite  water damage due to flooding from the efforts to put out the fire above.

Within a week, clean-up and rescue efforts had already begun at the Library, as the campus community began to see what could be salvaged.  The Library is conducting a full assessment of what has been lost, but as PhD student Sibusiso Nkomo lamented, the community already knows, “We’ve lost valuable history that tells us where we’ve come from.” A loss surely to be felt worldwide.

To learn more about how you can contribute to the recovery efforts, visit here: http://www.lib.uct.ac.za/jagger-recovery

Read more and see rescue effort updates from the University here: https://www.news.uct.ac.za/campus/communications/updates/

(Read the entire article and watch the video surveying the damage, in the June-July 2021 "News in Conservation" Issue 84, p. 8-9)

 

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“We are of course devastated about the loss of our special collection in the Library; it’s things that we cannot replace. It pains us to see what it looks like now in ashes,” University of Cape Town Vice Chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng said on Monday, 19 April. “The resources that we had there, the collections that we had in the library were not just for us but for the continent.”
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