Early Hebraica and Judaica at the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research at the University of Cape Town

by Veronica Belling

With the recent renovation and upgrade of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research at UCT, former Jewish Studies Librarian and Alumnus Veronica Belling reflects on the rare book collection of Hebraica and Judaica now housed and displayed in the Kaplan Centre. The books will be on display until June 2019.

Hebrew was a subject of instruction at the South African College – the forerunner of the University of Cape Town – from its inception in 1829. After falling into abeyance between 1874 and 1895, it was revived in 1896 with the arrival in the Cape Colony of Reverend Alfred Philipp Bender, an M.A. graduate from the University of Cambridge, to take up the ministry of the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation. A chair was endowed at the University of Cape Town with funding from the Jewish community and in 1896 Reverend Bender became the first Professor of Hebrew at the South African College.

The Kaplan Centre holds volumes of Hebraica from the old South African College Library, that were formerly preserved in the UCT Libraries Rare Books collection. The oldest is an item of Christian Hebraica, the Bibliotheca Magna Rabbinica, a four volume bibliography of Hebrew literature, compiled by Giulio Bartoloccio (1613-1687), a Cistercian monk, and published between 1675 and 1693. Also transferred from Rare Books is a facsimile copy of the Codex Sinaiticus, one of the four extant handwritten manuscripts of the Greek bible dating back to the 4th century. (1) The Kaplan Centre later acquired a facsimile copy of the Aleppo Codex, Keter Aram Tsova – The Crown of Aleppo, a 10th century manuscript of the Hebrew bible, that was written in Tiberias and was endorsed for its accuracy by Moses Maimonides (1135-1204). (2)

UCT Libraries’ Hebraica and Judaica holdings are generally traced back to a donation of 520 pounds from Jewish students received in 1921. This collection includes books in English and German but the majority are in Hebrew. Prominent among the Hebrew books is a collection of 44 volumes from the series Bibliyotekah ha-Ivrit (Hebrew Library) that was published by the Tushiyah Press in Warsaw between 1898 and 1902. These books represent the intellectual world of the Jews during those years. They include literature, natural and social sciences, biographies, philosophy, the history of literature, translated works, and original Hebrew works. English books include the Jewish Encyclopedia published by Funk & Wagnalls in New York, 1901-1906.

The Kaplan Centre also holds a large collection of rabbinic literature that was published in Vilna (Vilnius) in Lithuania by the famous Romm Press, the largest publisher of rabbinic literature in eastern Europe before the Second World War. The books include daily and festival prayerbooks, Mishnayot (Oral Law), Talmuds, and ethical works, that were brought to South Africa by Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. It also holds volumes of the Shulhan Aruch (Compendium of Jewish Law) by Joseph Caro (1488-1575), published in Lemberg in Poland in 1864 or 65, that were in the possession of the Malmesbury Zionist Society, as well as a set of Sefer ha-Halakhot by the 11th century rabbi Isaac Alfasi (1013-1103), published in Sulzbach in Germany.

The Centre also has several volumes that were looted by the Nazis during the Second World War that were distributed to South Africa by the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction Commission in New York in 1949. One of these is an En Ya’akov, a collection of Jewish legends that was published in Hrubieszow in Poland in 1889. It originally belonged to a Jewish Aged Home and has the stamp with the Nazi eagle on the title page.

With the establishment of the Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research in 1980, the ambit of Judaica collection was widened with the acquisition of the multilingual collection of modern Jewish Studies from Professor Abraham Duker of the United States, the Rajak donation and many others. The Duker collection includes some early texts of the Wissenschaft des Judentum – the group of German Jewish scholars who created modern Jewish Studies – as well as the original Russian Jewish Encyclopedia, the Yevreyskaya Entsiklopediya published between 1906 and 1913.

The Centre also holds a comprehensive collection of South African Yiddish and Hebrew literature. Amongst these are two very rare early newspapers that were passed on to the Kaplan Centre by the Jewish Museum. These are Der Kriegestaphet or “The War Dispatch”, that was published daily during the South African war between 20 October and December 1899 and Der Yiddisher Advokat, a weekly newspaper that appeared between 1904 and 1914. Both were published by the Yiddishist, David Goldblatt, who together with leader of the Jewish community at the Cape, Morris Alexander, fought for Yiddish to be recognised as a European language for the purposes of immigration. (3) The collection also includes the Sefer ha-Zikhroynes – “Book of Memories” by Nehemiah Dov Baer Hoffman, the first Yiddish and Hebrew book ever published in South Africa in 1916.


1. Codex Sinaiticus Available

2. Aleppo Codex, Available

3. Milton Shain, Jewry and Cape Society: the Origins and Activities of the Jewish Board of Deputies for the Cape Colony, Historical Publication Society, Cape Town, 1983.

Unbanned: the Films South Africans Were Not Allowed to See

This exhibit coincides with World Press Freedom Day on 3 May 2019. World Press Freedom Day is intended to highlight issues of censorship, restraint, and oppression, as well as paying tribute to those journalists that have lost their lives simply for doing their jobs. Reporters Without Borders maintains a World Press Freedom Index, which ranked South Africa 31st in the world and 3rd in Africa in 2019.

Cameraman Craig Matthews and his soundman, who were filming anti-apartheid protests in Cape Town, are arrested by police with orders to prevent media coverage of the unrest, October 1985, Cape Town, South Africa.
Cameraman Craig Matthews and his soundman, who were filming anti-apartheid protests in Cape Town, are arrested by police with orders to prevent media coverage of the unrest, October 1985, Cape Town, South Africa. (c) Louise Gubb.

Had the index been around during apartheid, I do not doubt that South Africa would be far lower down the scale. Under the apartheid government, the freedom of the press was slowly eroded away, resulting in the banning of topics, publications, and even people. While the exhibit includes displays of material more broadly related to press freedom in South Africa, this blog post focuses on the Unbanned series.

Unbanned promotional postcard.

In 1995 Unbanned: the Films South Africans Were Not Allowed to See was broadcast. The 16 part series was the brainchild of South African filmmaker Lindy Wilson and featured 18 films that were banned by the apartheid government because they resisted the injustice of the law, and attempted to bring these injustices and inequalities to the attention of the public both locally and globally. Some of the films were made illegally, and many were produced in other countries due to the opposition of the apartheid government. Each of the films was introduced by its director(s) and the films spanned a number of decades and a wide variety of topics.

DVD cover for The Cry of Reason.

A number of the films in the series are biographical. Biko : the Spirit Lives (1988), by Terrence Francis, which describes Steve Biko’s leadership of the Black Consciousness Movement and the events leading up to his death. The Comrade King (1994), by Ben Horowitz, which is about King Sabata Dalindyebo’s life and his reburial by the Thembu nation. The Cry of Reason : Beyers Naudé — an Afrikaner Speaks Out (1988), by Robert Bilheimer, is about one man’s journey from supporting apartheid, to his active opposition to it. The Long Journey of Clement Zulu (1992), by Liz Fish, documents the reintegration into society, and their old lives, of Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim, James Mange, and Clement Zulu after their release from Robben Island in 1991. The Search for Sandra Laing (1977), by Anthony Thomas, tells the story of a young girl that was classified coloured, though her parents were white, and the effects this had on their family and community. Songololo : Voices of Change (1990), by Marianne Kaplan and Cari Green, focuses on Gcina Mhlope and Mzwakhe Mbuli and the ways in which culture and artistic performance contributed to the struggle against apartheid.

DVD cover of Last Grave at Dimbaza.

Some of the films were more directly about the fight against the injustice of apartheid. Compelling Freedom (1987), by Molete Mokonenyana, Laurence Dworkin, and Brian Tilley, shows the ways in which ordinary workers used their culture against apartheid. Fruits of Defiance (1990), by Brian Tilley and Oliver Schmitz, documents the period around the 1989 General Election in Manenberg on the Cape Flats. Generations of Resistance (1980), by Peter Davis, covers 70 years of resistance to white supremacy, beginning with the Bambata Rebellion of 1906.

The series included films that focused on the injustices perpetrated under apartheid. Any Child is My Child (1988), by Barry Feinberg, focuses its attention on the brutality and suffering experienced by black children at the hands of the security forces. Certain Unknown Persons (1988), by Laurence Dworkin, looks at a number of cases of assassination of anti-apartheid activists. Last Grave at Dimbaza (1974), by Nana Mahomo, examined the human costs of apartheid and was so powerful that the South African government produced a film with the specific intention of countering its claims.

Two of the films are about forced removals that resulted from the Group Areas Act. Freedom Square and Back of the Moon (1988), by William Kentridge and Angus Gibson, is about the destruction of Sophiatown. Last Supper in Hortsley Street (1983), by Lindy Wilson, follows one of the last families that were moved from District Six.

DVD cover of Freedom Beat.

Freedom Beat (1989), by Charles Mcdougall, shows the concert put together by Artists Against Apartheid’s Freedom Festival. Have You Seen Drum Recently? (1989), by Jurgen Schadeberg, showcases black urban life in the 1950s. Passing the Message (1983), by Cliff Bestall and Michael Gavshon, is about the growth of the trade union movement. The Two Rivers (1986), by Mark Newman, traces the stories of migrants moving between Johannesburg and Venda.

The Lindy Wilson collection in the Special Collections Audiovisual Archive includes all of these films, the interviews with the directors, and documentation relating to the production of the series and the selection of the films. A far larger number of films were under consideration than the 18 that were finally selected, and the documentation shows the selection process involved. The African Studies Film Collection has copies of the films on DVD and/or VHS.

The Long Walk to Academic Freedom

by Isaac Ntabankulu

When we celebrate Freedom Day on 27 April we must not forget those who challenged the unjust system of the past and fought tirelessly for education to be accessible to all, not the select few. Contrary to expectations, the Nationalist Party won the whites-only 1948 general election and extended the racial segregation that was already widely practised in South Africa. This form of institutionalised racial segregation was called apartheid or ‘apartness’. Strategists in the Nationalist Party invented apartheid to cement their control over the economic and social system. The implementation of apartheid was made possible through a raft of laws, including the Population Registration Act of 1950 which classified all South Africans as either African, Coloured, White, or Indian.

A woman holds a placard that says "UCT demands the return of academic freedom" beside a woman holding a lit torch. Both are in academic dress.
Women protesting in support of academic freedom.

This racial segregation was extended to all aspects of life and all South African institutions, including the institutions of higher education. The Extension of University Education Act removed from universities the freedom to decide whom they would admit as students. African, Coloured, and Indian students would have to receive special ministerial permission before they could attend a ‘white university’. In 1953, Dr Malan, as Chancellor of the University of Stellenbosch, announced the government’s plans to introduce academic apartheid at the universities of Cape Town and the Witwatersrand. These unjust apartheid laws were challenged by students and academic staff, and the struggle for academic freedom began. Their view was that academic freedom implies that teachers should be free to teach the truth as they see it and that they should not have to bow to sectional, political, religious, or ideological dogmas or beliefs. When commemorating those who sacrificed their lives and fought for academic freedom, the Special Collections Department will mount on display cabinets of published and unpublished documents that have information on academic freedom.

The UCT academic freedom dedication.
UCT’s academic freedom dedication.

Indlela ende eya kwinkululeko yokufundisa ngaphandle kokulawulwa nguRhulumente

ngu Isaac Ntabankulu

Nanjengoko isizwe sizakube sibhiyozela uMhla weNkulukelo, ozakube ungomhla wama27 kwinyanga kaTshazimpunzi, kufuneka sibakhumbule abo bazijula ijacu bachasa imithetho yocalu-calulo neyayithintela abantu abantsundu bangayifumani imfundo ekumgangatho ophezulu neyayixhanyulwa ligcuntswana lwabamhlophe.

A group of people protesting in support of academic freedom. The posters say "Reopen our universities", "Closed universities, closed minds", and "UCT does not forget 1959".
Protesters supporting academic freedom, specifically objecting to UCT being closed to non-whites in 1959.

Ngokuchasene noko kwakulindelwe ngabantu, iNational Party yaluphumelela ukhetho lukazwelonke olwalungenelwe ngabamhlophe bodwa ngomnyaka we1948. Nangona yayihleli ikhona imithetho yocalu-calulo eMzantsi Afrika, yayenza yambi ngakhulu imeko yomntu omnyama iNational Party ngethuba kwaxhuzula yona imikhalal yolawulo. Olu calu-calu nolwalenziwe umthetho lwalubizwa i-apateyiti okanye iyantlukwano. Iziphathamandla zeNational Party zeza neli qhinga lokulawula ngokucalula abantu ukuze zongamele uqoqosho nentlalo yabantu. Kwamiselwa umthetho owawugunyazisa abantu bohlulwe ngokuthi kubekho um-Afrika, oweBala, uMlungu, okanye umNdiya. Oku kwahlulwa kwabantu kwanatyiselwa kuzo zonke iindawo ekuphila kuzo abantu eMzantsi Afrika, kuquka nemfundo ephakamileyo. Umthetho owawubizwa iSihlomelo kwiMfundo ePhakamileyo wabangela ucalulo kwindlela ekwamkelwa ngayo abafundi kumaziko aphakamileyo. Loo nto yabangela ukuba abafundi abangama-Afrika, nabantu beBala kunye namaNdiya bafune imvume kwabasemagunyeni phambi kokuba bomkelwe kwiiyunivesiti zabamhlophe. Ngomnyaka we1953, uGqirha Malan, owayeyingqonyela kwiYunivesiti yaseStellenbosch wabhengeza amanyathelo awayethathwa nguRhulumente, angokufakwa kwemithetho yocalu-calulo kwiyunivesiti yaseKapa neyaseWitwatersrand. Loo mithetho yocalu-calulo yabangela uqhankqalazo olwasenziwa ngabafundi nabahlohli kumaziko aphamileyo. La matsha-ntliziyo ayekholelwa kwelokuba inkululeko kwimfundo ithetha ukuba abahlohli baseyunivesiti kufuneka bafundise ngokukhululekiyo, bayidandalazise inyani ngobunjalo bayo, bangathobeli abo bohlula abantu ngokwezopolitiko, inkolo, nabanyanzelisa ukusetyenziswa koluvo lwabo okanye iinkolelo. ISebe leThala leNcwadi iSpecial Collections lizakhumbula loo magorha azincamayo anikezela ngobom bawo alwela imfundo ekhululekileyo ngokuthi libenomboniso lisebenzise iincwadi namaxwebhu angapapashwanga abalisa ngale mbali.

UCT's re-dedication to the principles of academic freedom
UCT’s academic freedom re-dedication.


Today’s guest post comes from the pen of retired librarian Tanya Barben. Tanya joined the staff of UCT Libraries in 1971 and retired from her position as rare books librarian at the end of 2013. Her interest in the history of the book and reading continues. She spends her retirement attending book launches, scouring through second-hand bookshops, as a volunteer for the Shine Centre, reading to Grade R school children, and as an editor and indexer.


by Tanya Barben

Tucked away in Solander boxes on shelves in climate-controlled stacks within the University of Cape Town Libraries’ Special Collections are almost 200 hidden treasures. These are books with paintings on their fore edges (the side of the book that is opposite to the spine), some created with consummate skill by accomplished artists and others painted by amateurs (whose persistence is, nevertheless, worthy of congratulation).

Fore-edge paintings (FEPs) have a long history. The first FEP practitioner is considered to be a sixteenth-century Italian artist, working at the behest of a book collector. One of his successors in the creation of this conceit was Samuel Mearne, binder to England’s Charles II. But even before (and, in fact, since) the titles of books and the names or initials of their owners have been written on their fore-edges.

It was in the early nineteenth century that FEPs became popular among book collectors, particularly in Britain. UCT Libraries’ collection mainly comprises beautifully decorated calf leather-bound books of poetry (by, among others, Cowper, Byron, Scott, Thomson, Rogers, and Young), religious texts, and memoirs. Most of the artists are unknown, although in recent years FEPs by Martin Frost were acquired (Hannay’s Concordance of 1844, with painting of maps on the fore-edge and bottom and top edges, and an 1823 scholar’s edition of Horace’s works embellished by FEPs of Roam ruins).

The Libraries’ former binder, Eric Tucker, executed a beautiful view of the Upper Campus with Devil’s Peak towering over it on a copy of Herschel’s astronomical observations made at the Cape.

Some FEPs show scenes of the Cape (for example, the 1823 two-volume memoirs of one General Burn, which have a view of Table Bay on one volume and of Cape Point on another). In most cases, the painting has no connection to the text, although a delightfully appropriate exception is the FEP of William Hogarth’s Sleeping congregation on the works of the eighteenth-century ‘divine’, William Paley.

What, in fact, are these ‘hidden treasures’ and how are they created? Fore-edge paintings are decorations that appear on the fore-edges of books. They are created before or after the binding process and are painted using a very thin dry brush on the prepared surface of a fanned-out fore edge of a book. The painting is then coated with a mixture of egg white, alum, and water and (generally) gilded. The images are hidden when the book is closed and appear only when the pages are fanned out.

There are quite a number of doubles (that is, a different picture appears when the book is fanned out front to back and back to front). They are a marvel of human endeavour, and should be seen by anyone who believes that the book can also be an intrinsically beautiful cultural artefact.

The Libraries acquired the bulk of this collection thanks to the generosity of the late Commander Clifford Hall, a collector of books of great beauty and esoteric interest, many of which are to be found on the shelves of the Libraries’ rare books collection.


By André Landman

As a long-time Joseph Heller fan, I have read most of what he has written. I have read all of his novels several times, always delighting in his dark humour and satirical style. But the novel I revisit most often is his anti-war cult classic, Catch-22.

Recently, Catch-22 visited me. Not the novel, or the film, but in the form of a photograph album. I know that sounds rather strange, so allow me to explain.

I recently processed a small collection known as the Julian Ozinsky Papers. Roughly half the papers had to do with Ozinsky’s involvement in Jewish cultural organisations. The other half had to do with his exploits in the Second World War. He served as an aerial photographer with the South African Air Force, first in North Africa, and then in Italy.

So what does this have to do with Catch-22?

Let me begin by removing the italics. Catch-22. The title of Heller’s novel has entered our lexicon, with a variety of meanings centred on the idea of a paradoxical or illogical situation. One such sense, according to Merriam-Webster, is “a situation presenting two equally undesirable alternatives”. It was in this sense that the Julian Ozinsky papers presented me with an “archival Catch-22”, in the form of a photograph album.

As I indicated before, half of the collection documents Ozinsky’s war experiences. The photograph album falls into this category. As I opened it, I experienced two conflicting emotions ­– wonder and dismay. Wonder because the photographs were a rich pictorial record of the aerial war and the role of 3 (SA) Wing in North Africa and Italy; dismay because the photographs had been stuck into the album with adhesive tape!

“Do not dismantle photograph albums and scrapbooks,” Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler writes. “They possess their greatest historical significance and artefactual value as whole original objects; the photographs should be seen in the sequence and context that was imposed by the creator” (Photographs: Archival Care and Management, 2008, p. 248). Indeed; but what about that adhesive tape, and the threat of damage to the emulsion onto which it was stuck?

With painstaking caution, I worked my way through the album, trying not to dislodge any photographs. It was apparent that the album itself did not date from the war years; it was actually more like a simple scrap-book than an album. It was also apparent that the photographs were not in any sequence. In fact, many had come loose over time and had been relegated to the back pages of the album, sans tape. In consultation with the donor, it was decided that the album was of no sentimental or historical value. That, and the fact that the photographs were not in any sequence that had meaning but had simply been pasted into the album in a haphazard manner, made it easier to resolve this Catch-22.

I decided to remove the photographs.

Working as carefully as possible, photograph by photograph, I loosened the adhesive from the black paper page of the album. To my relief, I found that the adhesive had become so dry that minimal pressure or force was needed to remove it, and the adhesive tape lifted off the print equally effortlessly. No damage was detectable. A very light clean with an appropriate cloth was applied to remove any traces of residual adhesive.

And so the photographs were removed, and the album discarded.

Which brings me back to Catch-22, italicised, i.e., the novel.

Processing the prints that I had retrieved from the album involved elements of traditional processing and digital processing. Apart from taking care to rehouse the physical objects in a manner that would ensure their longevity, I also wanted to digitize them, for access as well as preservation. As I worked through the prints, capturing metadata for the digital objects, cleaning and re-housing the originals, it struck me that many of the images could well have come directly from the pages of Heller’s Catch-22.

Heller, you might recall, was himself a bomber pilot in the Mediterranean theatre. He flew more than 60 missions. Ozinsky was attached to a bomber squadron, and the missions he flew would have been very much the same as those flown by Heller and described in Catch-22.

And so it was that as I arranged and described and metadata-ed and scanned and cleaned and re-housed and boxed and did all the other things an archivist does, I was lost in the parallel worlds of the real Ozinsky and the fictional Yossarian as they flew their missions over the war-torn landscapes of Italy and beyond.

Indulge me for just a while and I will try to illustrate what I mean.

Heller’s novel is set on the island of Pianosa. The men live in tents. Yossarian shares a tent with Orr, who was always trying to make the tent more liveable, much to Yossarian’s chagrin. Worse, “The dead man in Yossarian’s tent was a pest, and Yossarian didn’t like him, even though he had never seen him.” I doubt Ozinsky had the same problems, or tent mates, but these images reminded me of the many hilarious tent scenes in the novel.

Like Yossarian, Ozinsky was attached to a bomber wing. The planes they flew in may have been different, but the missions were much the same.

Milo Minderbinder was the powerful mess officer who created a “syndicate” (M&M Enterprises) in which everyone had a share. In this image (pay day in the real war), I imagine Milo trying to explain to Yossarian how he was able to buy eggs in Malta for seven cents apiece and sell them at a profit in Pianosa for five cents. 

One of my favourite supporting characters in the novel is Doc Daneeka, the squadron’s physician. But Doc Daneeka leaves the doctoring to his two orderlies, Wes and Gus, while he indulges his hypochondria and does all he can to avoid dying. In this image, I imagine Wes and Gus giving Doc Daneeka an injection …

In Catch-22, Yossarian and his friends often frolic on the beach. It seems from  images such as this that Ozinsky and friends did the same.

A key moment in the novel is the death of Snowden. He was manning a gun turret much like the one below when he was shot. He died in Yossarian’s arms. “Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?” is another Catch-22 phrase that has entered the popular culture.

At one point, Yossarian is terrified because his squadron has been “volunteered” to bomb Bologna, which they know will be heavily defended. In a desperate bid to save his own life, he sneaks into the ops room and moves the bomb line past Bologna. As I looked at the first of the two photographs below, I could just imagine the perplexed officers saying, “Look! The bomb line is past Bologna! The city has been captured. We don’t have to bomb it after all.” The other image shows an official notice that the bombing in North Africa was over, since the German and Italian armies had surrendered. What Yossarian wouldn’t have given to see one of those with Italy on it in place of Africa.

“’Now, men, we are going to synchronise our watches,’ Colonel Korn began …”

I could go on and on, but I think you can see why a Joseph Heller fan like me would draw the obvious similarities between Yossarian’s fictional experiences as portrayed on the printed page and the real-life experiences of  Julian Ozinsky as captured by these photographs.

My aim with this post is twofold.

The first aim is to draw attention to an on-going (and potentially never-ending) project to arrange and describe all photographs housed in legacy collections in an overarching “photograph collection”. Many of the collections taken in at UCT Libraries Special Collections over the decades have significant photographic components. These photographs have untapped documentary, historical, and social value. Unfortunately, in most cases they are either not described at all, or described in a rudimentary fashion, thus limiting accessibility. Many are also in danger of degradation, making physical and digital preservation a necessity.

The second aim is to shine a spotlight on the photographs in the Julian Ozinsky collection. Once they have all been digitized, they will represent a significant record of the South African Air Force’s role in the war, and should be of interest to military and aviation historians.

They will also be of interest to historians of Jewish South Africans. An as yet unresolved issue relating to Catch-22 concerns Yossarian’s nationality. Many have speculated that he was Jewish. Based on this album, I’ say he was.

The Julian Ozinsky Papers are described here.

A sample of the photographs from the album can be viewed here.

In time, they will all be accessible online. And there won’t be a catch, not even Catch-22 …







Why yet another blog?

Why a Special Collections blog?

Why a blog about “memory”?

Why memory at UCT?

The title (and focus) of this introductory post is adapted from the title of a book by Simon Sinek, Start with why (2009). In it he suggests that why we do things is more important to our success and fulfilment than what we do or how we do it. I don’t know if that is true in all areas of life, but it rings true for me in my work as an archivist.

So let me start with why I do what I do. And that may answer the questions about this blog posed above.

Let’s face it — much of the work of an archivist, like that of a lexicographer, is drudgery. I’m not sure I would call it harmless drudgery, à la Samuel Johnson. For a start, there is a lot of heavy lifting involved. And dust. And mould. And paper cuts. And any archivist who has arranged and described a large organisational archive will testify to how deathly boring those records can be. One of my favourite articles about the work of an archivist has the title “Archival theory: much ado about shelving”. Alas, to a large extent that is true; much of the work of a traditional archivist involves moving large volumes of paper from one form of container into another and ultimately onto a shelf.

So why do I do it?

Here I must resort to a sort of meta-narrative — using a story about an archive to tell the story of why I am an archivist.

The story I have in mind is a television drama, Shooting the past, a 1999 masterpiece (IMO) by Stephen Poliakoff. It is the story of a photograph archive that is threatened by an American property developer. The developer has bought the building that houses the collection, and wants to remodel it for commercial purposes. The collection must thus be moved. The staff is determined to prevent the collection being dispersed, broken up, or destroyed. Using the extraordinary power of photographs to tell stories of the past, they work to change the mind of the rapacious developer.

Aside from being a meditation on the magic of photographs, Shooting the past is a commentary on the split between two worlds – the cut-throat world of “progress” and “development”, and the gentler world of those who seek to preserve the past. What struck me most, however, was the personal toll exacted on staff members by the imminent threat of their collection being gutted – and I use that word deliberately because the staff felt real pain, visceral pain, at the prospect. One of them even tries to commit suicide … but I won’t elaborate further. If you have not seen the production, I’d recommend that you do.

The point I am making with all this is that Shooting the past illustrates very vividly why I do what I do – it is because of the collections. Whether they are boring organisational archives, or fading, sepia-toned or silvering historical photographs, or the dusty, insect eaten papers of a notable person rescued from some attic, it is the collections that matter. They are the bread-crumb trails to truth, the remnants of a distant reality, pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that is the past, fragments of memory that, when reassembled, tell stories that are worth telling.

It is all about the collections.

That’s why I do what I do.

And that is why this blog now exists. It is one more avenue for the collections to become more widely known and used.

The primary focus of the blog will be on what we do in Special Collections to preserve memory. Not simply UCT’s institutional memory, though we do that; society’s memory – the memory of people and places and events that mattered, and still matter.

Memory, as we well know in South Africa, is and will always be a contested space. Memory, particular constellated memory such as that found in institutions such as archival repositories, can be skewed; it can be erased; the memory of a group can be under- or over-represented, mirroring the power structures within a society. This blog will grapple with these issues as we go about the work of preserving memory at UCT. But it will also encompass issues that affect memory and memory institutions (heritage institutions) more generally – issues such as the challenges posed by the ubiquity of digital technology and our inability to preserve but a sliver of this vast record; issues such as states that want to operate in secret and a populace that is becoming more insistent upon openness.

And fear not. I won’t be writing all these posts myself. My learned and competent colleagues in Special Collections will be sharing that responsibility.

So, welcome to Memory@UCT. I hope through this blog you will come to appreciate the “why” of archives and special collections.

André Landman   

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