Destruction of UCT’s special collections is less than imagined

The fire damage to the University of Cape Town’s special collections is not as extensive as first thought, according to UCT’s principal archivist. 

It has been four days since the Table Mountain fire started its destructive descent along the slopes of Devil’s Peak towards Rhodes Memorial and UCT’s upper campus. The blaze soon made its way to the university’s treasured African Studies Library reading room, engulfing it in flames and causing concern among students, academics and the public about the fate of its treasured, rare collections. 

Principal archivist Michal Singer visited the library on Tuesday for the first time since the fire was contained. While assessing what has been destroyed, she told the Mail & Guardian that she was relieved that more materials had survived than previously thought.

Constructed in the 1930s, the African Studies Library was previously known as the JW Jagger Library and is home to international research collections. It comprises  printed and audiovisual material on African studies and other specialised subjects. 

The university said the collection of books and pamphlets exceeded 85 000 items on African studies alone.  

“I’ve been wavering between shock and confusion. It’s a bit surreal. I have no words; it takes time to process,” Singer said. 

“Me and my colleagues, our team of archivists, we just keep realising, ‘Oh no, we’ve also lost this,’ but we haven’t been able to check. So today [Tuesday] I’m able to really assess what survived and it is more than I thought of the African Studies Library itself, which I think is really important for people to know.”

Pointing to the front corner of the gutted building, Singer said: “Unfortunately, the African Studies film collection was up there. So that’s gone. Now it’s [a matter of] just trying to salvage it.”

The collection was the most extensive in the world, with more than 3 000 films available for viewing and research.

“There were lots of concerns about the Black Sash and the Bleek and Lloyd Collections [of notebooks and drawings on the culture, language and history of the |xam and !kun]. Although we might have lost small elements of those collections, they are intact, but will still require some conservation,” said Singer. 

UCT’s director at the Centre for Curating the Archive, Professor Pippa Skotnes, said in a statement on Tuesday that the Bleek and Lloyd Collection was “safe”, although “certain photographs by Dorothea Bleek which were being worked on in the Reading Room are likely lost. Fortuitously these had been digitised”. 

The Bolus Herbarium, which dates back to 1865 and is the oldest functioning herbarium in South Africa, has survived. It was kept in the biological science building, the Pearson Building, which was also damaged by the fire. 

Singer said what was “really sad” was that “in cases where collections were lost — and it seems it’s not as much as we thought — we’re going to be contacting people who had made those donations, so I’ll have the job of telling people whether their collections survived or didn’t.”

Despite the losses, a wider audience now knows about the special collections, thanks to social media posts about the fire. 

“We’ve had 1 000 new likes [on Twitter], new people liking our Facebook group. It’s just unbelievable. What is amazing is the support. I didn’t expect that. It’s unbelievable,” Singer said.

The extent of the loss is yet to be determined, and the executive director of UCT’s libraries, Ujala Satgoor, said when it is, the authors and exhibitors who contributed to the collections would be the first to be told.

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Eunice Stoltz
Eunice Stoltz is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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