People's Post

Capetonians unite to save priceless library materials

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Volunteers assist with the salvage operation at the Jagger Reading Room at the University of Cape Town. The material was damaged in the fire which broke out on Sunday 18 April.
Volunteers assist with the salvage operation at the Jagger Reading Room at the University of Cape Town. The material was damaged in the fire which broke out on Sunday 18 April.

Volunteers from across Cape Town put on their (sanitised) hard hats the past two weeks to assist with the recovery of the archival materials housed within the Jagger Reading Room at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

Caught in the path of the Table Mountain fire which broke out and quickly spread on Sunday 18 April, the Reading Room was consumed by flames, gutting its roof and destroying the galleries, adjacent stores and offices.

Archival and published print collections damaged include the vast majority of the African Studies Published Print Collection (approximately 70 000 items), the entire African Studies Film Collection on DVD (approximately 3 500), all the UCT university calendars, some of the heavily used Government Publications documents from South Africa and across the continent, and manuscripts and archives kept in the Reading Room for processing or digitisation or awaiting transfer after being digitised.

Answering the university’s call for help about a week after the fire ravaged the building, volunteers began reporting for duty to help salvage the precious material. Asked to wear sturdy closed shoes for safety, volunteers were each handed a hard hat on their arrival. These hats were sanitised after each shift with all other Covid-19 protocols observed during the salvage operation.

When People’s Post checked in on the progress last week, Thursday 6 May, UCT said 50% of the archival materials housed within the Reading Room had been recovered. With two more sessions planned for Friday 7 May and Saturday 8 May, the university expressed their hope that they would be able to salvage what remained of the collection.

They had until yesterday (10 May) to empty the basement of all materials before the building becomes a designated construction site.

Photos posted on the UCT Libraries Facebook page showed volunteers collecting the precious material in crates, used to store the materials, carefully in a single layer as they cannot be stacked.

The items packaged in the crates were sent for cold storage, after which an intensive and scientific process of restoration will commence.

A total of 8 000 crates were donated to help the critical work being done. The first 2 000 crates, supplied by CHEP, were delivered by Pick n Pay early on Friday 23 April. The retailer sourced an additional 6 000 crates, delivered from as far as Johannesburg, over the weekend of Saturday 24 to Sunday 25 April.

“We were contacted by the UCT executive team who were in urgent need of crates to help store books, documents, maps and manuscripts from the Jagger Library. Over the weekend, they contacted us, saying they were in dire need of more pallets and we sent our trucks to collect crates, offered by the Paul Cluver Wine Farm in Elgin, as well as from our Longmeadow Distribution Centre in Johannesburg,” says Suzanne Ackerman-Berman, transformation director at Pick n Pay.

At the delivery of the first 2 000 crates on Friday, Ujala Satgoor, UCT Libraries: executive director, said: “It’s indeed a sad time for us at UCT and for our history as we mourn the loss of a great institutional asset. We are comforted by the outpouring of help from all corners to salvage some part of this significant collection so that future generations may continue benefitting through the expansion of knowledge and consciousness from others that came before them.

“Today we want to thank Pick n Pay and CHEP for their rapid response and generosity that added to the conservation and restoration process.”

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