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‘Hopefully, it’s all been digitised . . .’

As news spread via news sites and social media of the wildfire that destroyed the University of Cape Town’s Jagger Library Reading Room, readers expressed dismay, shock, and grief. The weight of loss has been felt by many — staff, students, alumni and visitors alike. 

Anger often accompanies grief, so some lashed out, demanding answers. Suspicions were raised and conspiracy theories exchanged: Why did the library burn, while other buildings closer to the source of the fire were unscathed? Could this have been prevented? Who was to blame?

But there was no conspiracy and, at least in terms of how the fire had reached the library, no one to blame. As that horrific day unfolded, we became partly familiar with fire behaviour, perhaps encountering the term “spot fires” for the first time, and discovering how, in the right weather conditions, embers can leap a great distance and spark new fires. 

In a statement made the following day, library director Ujala Satgoor reassured us that the library had measures in place to contain disasters like this. A fire detection system had mercifully triggered shutters that prevented the fire from spreading to other parts of the library and protected many collections.

Perhaps casting about for reassurance in the face of what was looking like utter devastation, some people speculated about the digitisation of destroyed materials. The expectation was that many collections would have been digitised and some hoped that “everything” had been saved. 

Their answer arrived a few days later, as library staff picked through the debris and assessed what had been lost: just a fraction of these priceless collections have been digitised and made accessible. Could this have been avoided? Was it a sign of mismanagement or negligence? Was there blame to be laid here?

In a word, no. The principal archivist in special collections Michal Singer put it simply in a TV interview: “Unfortunately, not everything was scanned. But to those who wonder why not everything in the libraries and the archives was scanned: it is not realistic to expect that.”

There are challenges to the digitisation of heritage materials that might escape those of us who only have experience with backing up our personal files. A 2019 study of 28 libraries, archives and museums in the Western Cape identified these challenges, chief among them the absence of training in digitisation skills, a dearth of skilled digitisation staff, a shortage of funding for digitisation projects and poor technology infrastructure such as low bandwidth or substandard equipment. The authors found that most of the institutions interviewed experienced some or all these challenges. Importantly, they noted they aren’t unique to South Africa but are faced by similar institutions worldwide.

Archivists have started collecting recovered artefacts but nowhere near all the material was digitised. (David Harrison/M&G)

Singer is right. It’s not realistic to expect UCT library staff to have digitised everything, because the digitisation of heritage materials in libraries, archives and museums is a complex, and costly process. Although it requires similar tools to those used when we scan our family pics and save them to an external hard drive, this is where the similarity ends. 

Barring small, niche subject libraries, it’s rare for a library to plan to digitise the entirety of its holdings. There are precious few libraries in the world with sufficient staff and funding to dedicate to such a colossal task. 

And sadly, it’s not realistic, because South African copyright law prohibits libraries from digitising some material. Denise Nicholson, a specialist librarian in copyright and scholarly communication, calls for the urgent passing of the Copyright Amendment Bill in a blog post. “Libraries and archives have no place in the South African Copyright Act itself,” she writes. “Currently, libraries and archives require prior permission before they can digitise, convert or format-shift material. This is costly, time-consuming and often unsuccessful when rights-holders deny permission or set restrictive conditions before material can be digitised. This leaves gaps in digital collections that ultimately affect accessibility, use and re-use of material, and digital curation.”

To digitise documents and images for preservation is no small task and worlds away from our experience with scanning personal files. Professionals refer to the “life cycle” of digital objects, beginning with the original object and including its preservation, digitisation and curation. As part of an object’s life cycle, digitisation itself is a multistep process involving a lot more than pressing a button on a scanner. 

Library and archives staff trained in digitisation are able to identify and prioritise collections most at risk of deterioration, or those of the most research value. They can differentiate between file formats and understand why some aren’t appropriate for archival storage and meticulously follow metadata standards, which are the systems that enable the tagging and description of digitised items so that they will be found. 

They also understand and can implement digital preservation strategies, which are the methods used to ensure digital items are usable in the future. Digital hard- and software typically has a short life span and a digital preservation strategy outlines remedies to this, like the conversion of files to archival formats.

Libraries that responsibly manage digitisation have access to petabytes of storage, because archival files are large and guzzle digital space. They employ an army of digitisation staff, trained in the handling of archival material, who patiently scan one page at a time and methodically follow file-naming conventions, ensuring the link between the original and the digital object is maintained. 

UCT Libraries is a leader in the digitisation of heritage collections in South Africa. Its digital library services department was one of the first in South Africa and the centre of an extensive digitisation effort. Yet, just like neighbouring South African academic libraries, it’s had to grapple with some of the same challenges to digitisation of archival material and operate within certain constraints. 

It’s heartbreaking that only a fraction of the material lost on the day of the fire had been digitised. UCT staff who worked in the Reading Room describe their grief as akin to losing a loved one. But there was nothing sinister about this fire and it was a blameless tragedy. The focus now should be on selecting and prioritising the digitisation of salvaged collections and acknowledging that those that are digitally available have been responsibly curated, described, and preserved and are rich in research potential. 

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Janine Dunlop
Janine Dunlop is a freelance writer who has been a librarian for more than 25 years. She was part of the team that started the digitisation programme at UCT Libraries and, for three years, managed the digitisation unit

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