A wildfire that started on Sunday on the slopes of South Africa’s Table Mountain has destroyed, among others, the University of Cape Town (UCT) campus, ravaging its historic library that housed a priceless African Studies collection described as “unique in the world.”
For years, local and foreign academics, students, and researchers have flocked to the university’s Jagger Reading Room to gain valuable insights and knowledge through its astounding collection of works pertaining to the African continent.
“If you see inside, everything is gone. There’s nothing left, all the books, the history, all gone. It’s going to take a long time to rebuild it. I think the main thing is the history,” Shurud Jacobs, a caretaker who has worked at the university for more than 10 years, told DW.
Loss beyond imagination
Previously known as the J.W. Jagger Library, it was constructed in the 1930s and named after John William Jagger, an English-born businessman who served as Minister of Railways and Harbor in the cabinet of former prime minister, Jan Smuts.
The library’s African Studies collection consists of around 65,000 volumes, 26,000 pamphlets, 3,000 African films, and 20,000 other audiovisual items. Some of these are very rare.
Some works were published from as far back as the 1500s to the present. Written in multiple European or African languages, they include newspapers, maps, anti-apartheid works, activist pamphlets, graduate theses, film and audio. The specialist book collections include a Kipling and an Antarctic collection.
Notably, even documents of transitions to independence of some of the other African countries form part of this collection.
“An African continent, which has suffered several series of conquests, has been struggling to reconstruct its own history and particularly that which is documented,” historian and political analyst Somadoda Fikeni told TV news broadcaster Newzroom Afrika. “Therefore, any special collection that is frail, no longer available, or no longer printed very often tends to be priceless in terms of its heritage value and in terms of the knowledge project.”
Could be the ‘genesis of something new’
The library has yet to determine the scale of the devastation, according to the UCT Libraries executive director, Ujala Satgoor.
The institution’s fire detection system did trigger fire doors, which presumably saved many of the most precious records stored at the library’s lower levels. The floor razed by the flames however also held vast collections of literature and records that are now presumably lost.
She also told Newzroom Afrika that some of the materials were already being digitised, adding that the library had been purchasing duplicates of some documents over the past 10 years that were housed in its General Section.
“We do have the basis of rebuilding this African Studies collection. But the materials that are salvaged (from the fire) will have to go on a proactive digitisation initiative,” Satgoor said, however adding that “the magic, the beauty, of working with a tangible hard copy for researchers is invaluable.”
Describing the fire as “a quirk of fate,” she says that it now forces a serious rethink of how to rebuild the collection and develop it further in different areas within the context of new politics that’s emerging across the continent.
“And so, in all of this sadness and horror, there is the opportunity, the genesis of something new to look forward to,” she said.
Losing voices from the past
For many academics and researchers, the African Collection offers a window into the continent’s colonial past.
In an interview with The Conversation, UCT academic Shannon Morreira described the fire as “a terrible thing because you lose voices from the past which may carry alternative histories.”
She explained how archives are significant for countries like South Africa that have had “fraught and contested histories, or countries whose histories have, for centuries, been told from a particular vantage point.”
While underscoring that not all of the UCT’s African Collection has an “anti-colonial” stance, historian Somadoda Fikeni explained that it’s a mix that gives students insight into the mind of the colonialists.
“It gives us an opportunity to understand the life then, and interpret it within the new lenses of decoloniality,” he explained.
De-romanticising special collections
Fikeni, however, raised a pertinent point about romanticising special collections or archives that are often tucked away in safe spaces, and inaccessible to the general public. Drawing parallels with widely available ancient works by for example, Greek philosophers or the works of Shakespeare, he said that this event raises the question of what constitutes a “special collection.”
“And how does it relate to a knowledge system that gives access to someone in a village with a smartphone or who is in Asia or in the wider diaspora? For, as long as this material is jailed in some basement with signs that say ‘Do not touch,’ then it says that it is both vulnerable to water and fire as well as ignorance.”
Featured image credit: A firemen walks through the burnt out remains of Jagger Library at the University of Cape Town in Cape Town, South Africa, April 20, 2021. Photo: Reuters