Cape Town - Hundreds of years of history have gone up in smoke after an “out of control” fire destroyed the the Reading Room of the nearly 200-year-old Jagger Library at the University of Cape Town.
The wildfire broke out early on Sunday morning at Rhodes Memorial and spread to UCT yesterday and then towards the Devils Peak Estate/Vredehoek area of the Cape Town City Bowl overnight. Firefighters are still battling the blaze.
Parts of UCT’s library, residences and upper campus buildings were damaged by the fire.
Director of the UCT Libraries, Ujala Satgoor, confirmed that the reading room of the Jagger Library had been completely gutted, but the fire detection system in place triggered the fire shutters which prevented the spread of the fire to other parts of the library.
“An unexpected natural disaster struck at the heart of UCT Libraries today and I write this message with a deep sense of sorrow and loss at the havoc and devastation it wrought upon the Reading Room of the Jagger Library.
“As some of us watched, from on site, with horror and helplessness this elegant and historical library burn, I can only imagine the shock and horror you must have felt as you watched the news reports and pictures of this destruction,” Satgoor said.
“Some of our valuable collections have been lost. However, a full assessment can only be done once the building has been declared safe and we can enter the building.
“This is indeed a sad day for UCT and UCT Libraries. Although this loss will be felt deeply, we will weather this storm and rise from the ashes,” he said.
The fire is believed to have also affected some parts of the library's priceless African Studies Collection which consists of printed and audiovisual materials on African studies and a wide array of other specialised subjects.
According to the UCT website, the library houses printed and audiovisual materials on African studies as well as 1 300 sub-collections of unique manuscripts and personal papers, more than 85 000 books and pamphlets on African studies and it contains one of the most extensive African film collections in the world.
The African Studies collections were previously housed in the African Studies Library, founded in 1953, and consist of approximately 65 000 volumes, including up-to-date materials as well as works on Africa and South Africa printed before 1925, and many hard-to-find volumes in a wide range of European and African languages.
The special collections boast a specific collection of rare books and journals. This collection contains a copy of a 1535 Dutch Bible, believed+ to be the oldest in South Africa and extremely rare. The collection also includes a copy of the first book to contain photographic illustrations, William Henry Fox Talbot's Pencil of Nature, published in 1844.
There’s also an important collection on Southern African languages, donated to the university in the 1950s, which includes religious texts and school textbooks as well as dictionaries and grammars. Some of the titles in these collections, published in the 19th and early 20th centuries, are extremely rare.
There’s also some 1 300 discrete archival collections, consisting of original research material relating to the political, social, cultural and economic history of Southern Africa, with a strong focus on the Western Cape.
According to former Glamour magazine editor Asanda Sizani, earlier Xhosa publications such as Isigidimi SamaXhosa and Imvo Zabantsundu were housed here.
Imvo Zabantsundu (Black Opinion), the first black-owned newspaper in South Africa, was founded in King William's Town in 1884 with John Tengo Jabavu as editor. It was through this newspaper that Africans were able to share their political views, ranging from pass laws to the laws governing urban locations.
“The special collections library, that’s our biggest concern at the moment. We want to see how much the damage is. We are glad that the fire didn’t spread to the rest of the library. We are going to need a lot of support to recover,” said UCT vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng.
UCT spokesperson Elijah Moholola said the fire would definitely have a financial impact on the university.
“We do not at this stage have a concrete update in terms of the extent of the damage, which buildings have been affected as well as how much damage (there is) in each of the buildings. We are going to be carrying out an assessment later,” said Moholola.
Hundreds of students living on residence have been moved to temporary accommodation, with donors sending food and other essentials.
"All my readings are there," said social sciences student Mpho Mogale, 19, evacuated to a hotel with only the T-shirt, trousers and flip-flops he was wearing.
"I have assignments to submit," he worried, biting into a slice of toast.
"I don't know how we are going to work," he added. "Since all the library is burnt... I don't know how we are going to read."
Anthropology researcher Jess Auerback, who graduated from UCT in 2008, remembered the Jagger library as "one of the most inspiring places on campus".
"It was a place where as an African undergrad you could go and see the magnitude of the richness and knowledge (from the continent)," she told AFP via telephone.
Meanwhile, the Digital Preservation Coalition led by Dr Maha Rafi Atal is calling on academics and other researchers from around the world who have worked in these special collections and have taken photocopies or mobile phone images of documents to help recover some of the lost records.
“UCT is a member of the Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC): distress for one of our members is distress for all of us. Therefore the DPC, a global community focused on preservation, offers unconditional support to staff, students and friends of the university as they face this trauma. We stand with them as they assess the damage and losses to the library, archives and special collections, and our members around the world are ready with help and assistance to aid recovery,” said Atal.
IOL with additional reporting by AFP