On 23 April 2021, a report by Clive Kirkwood (Archivist) was read at the Centre for Curating the Archive Session Mourning the Loss of the African Studies Library and Archive. Due to recovery attempts, the Special Collections staff were unable to attend the session in person. The report is reproduced below.
The staff of Special Collections are grateful to the CCA for providing the opportunity today for reflection on the loss of unique research resources in the devastating fire in the Jagger Library on Sunday 18 April, and indeed for the outpouring of expressions of solidarity and support.
Given the risks involved, the building could only be entered from Tuesday 20 April for an initial assessment of damage and to begin a disaster recovery process. Professional disaster management specialists and conservation experts needed then to be deployed speedily to oversee disaster recovery in terms of the disaster recovery plan, as such recovery is time-sensitive and of the greatest urgency. This is our immediate and highest priority: to ensure that resources which did not succumb to the blaze are speedily removed from the risk of water damage and treated. Indeed, a team of librarians, archivists and conservators was mobilized to work late into last night to assist in removing all the extensive remaining resources from the Jagger Library so that assessment and triage can carried out on the most vulnerable material. I can confirm that the first archival collection moved to a safe location was the Bleek and Lloyd Collection, inscribed as it is in UNESCO’s Register of the Memory of the World.
As Special Collections staff need to focus all our energy on speedy disaster recovery, we are not able to take an active part in today’s event. While the tangible and intangible support being shown from all over the world gives us encouragement for the task of rebuilding to enable Special Collections to rise from the ashes, we would like respectfully to request to be given space and time to focus on the most urgent steps in disaster recovery followed by assessment.
We are nevertheless facilitating a means of public communication and participation. A web portal will shortly be available enabling anyone to post messages of support and offers of assistance, as well as reflections on and memories of the Jagger Library, including photographs. In the same portal, staff are already logging messages received directly of support and offers of help of various kinds; and keeping a record of related articles, and social media posts. One of the purposes envisaged is to create a commemorative website, with the consent of contributors. We have noted with appreciation that the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative has created a space on their website make accessible online links on updates and information resources about developments following the Jagger Library fire.
One of the immediate concerns of creators and donors of collections and their families, and scholars and researchers with a deep interest in particular fields, is to establish whether this material has survived and we are receiving numerous such requests. While we have determined which sections of the holdings were destroyed in the fire, given the urgency of disaster recovery, a full assessment of individual collections is not possible yet. We are explaining this to inquirers and recording each such inquiry for follow up when it becomes possible. The protocol that will be followed in such inquiries is that status reports will in the first instance be made available to the creator or donor or their families. A generic email address is available for status inquiries or related communications: firstname.lastname@example.org.
We are aware of initiatives that are seeking to gather information on copies of material in Special Collections that researchers may have made and could contribute. We welcome the willingness of the research community to be involved and contribute, but we do have some concerns. The recovery and assessment process would need to take place before gaps in the holdings are determined. Coordination of such a replacement digital resource would need a project in its own right. And it is uncertain whether the content and structure of the information being gathered would in fact be adequate. We will therefore seek to make contact and engage with such initiatives.
The email from the Vice-Chancellor’s Desk of 21 April “Recognising the loss of the Jagger Reading Room” provided a synoptic overview of the extent of destruction and the areas that may be affected by residual water damage. While we mourn the loss and damage of much material, some of which is irreplaceable, I am also able to convey more positive news that has been established in the past day or two. And this is that overall, the degree of destruction and water damage is not as great as we had feared watching the conflagration. Some library storage areas adjacent to the reading room were not penetrated by the fire, nor were the largest storage areas in the two basement and interspace levels of the building. Much water did seep through the basement levels to settle at the lowest level and had to be pumped out. This is the area in which audiovisual and contemporary photographic archives are stored. Inevitably there will be a degree of water damage in particular collections which we are urgently seeking to mitigate. A particular concern is collections of architectural drawings. We are hopeful however that overall a much higher percentage of the unique collections of audiovisual and photographic archives as well as paper-based manuscripts will remain undamaged.
The African Studies Library book stock that we think was not affected by the fire includes a large book store housing most of the books catalogued as Afrikaans literature, African literature and history. There has however been extensive water damage and due to the location of this book stock directly behind the Jagger Reading room we have not been able to gain access and assess. The area of the Library where the art, architecture and English literature books were shelved was undamaged by the fire and has not had water damage but we do need to remove it from the building as soon as possible. This area also housed some of the oldest Government Publications. Also remaining unscathed are the full holdings of South African and African periodicals. The Rare Books section too may have suffered less or minimal water damage, but will have to be removed from the Basement store as a matter of urgency to prevent any damage.
In establishing a full picture of the extent of loss and survival within the holdings, we should mention that in addition to the Jagger Library, Special Collections maintains several off-site archival stores in which both primary and published material are housed, which are unaffected. This includes the holdings of older, often rare, African Studies books as well as pamphlets, that are considered archival in nature, the entire hardcopy thesis collection of UCT, the back issues of the newspaper titles that Special Collections retains either permanently or for a five-year timeframe, and some government publications. Collectively these stores also house some 60% of the paper-based manuscript archival holdings.
However, it is so that the most heavily used and precious Special Collections holdings are or were kept in the Jagger Library. The destruction caused by the fire to the reading room that had been beautifully restored in 2012 and surrounding staff spaces and galleries was total, including the original furnishing from the 1930s and modern equipment and computers. Some of the losses of information resources are irreparable. As an archivist, I am distressed by the loss of the institutional records related to the donation and administrative history of each individual archival collection. A database recording the essential information had fortunately nearly been completed. Archival collections that my colleagues and I had completed processing at home under lockdown and had recently returned to the library, were destroyed or damaged. Nevertheless, it is a great consolation that a substantial part of the overall holdings remains unscathed.
UCT Libraries is encouraged and strengthened by the support shown to enable us to embark on the tasks of recovery, assessment and rebuilding of Special Collections to fulfill its mission as a leading repository of African research resources. Thank you.