WATCH | Cape fires: Volunteers come together to save valuable materials at UCT

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  • An emergency salvaging operation is under way at the University of Cape Town to save valuable academic resources.
  • Last month a runaway veld fire burnt down the Jagger Reading Room, which houses part of the UCT Libraries' Special Collections.
  • Volunteers, academics, conservators and students have come together on campus to do what they can to save the water-damaged materials.

A group of volunteers from across the city joined forces at the University of Cape Town to restore academic resources damaged in flooding that was caused during efforts to extinguish a fire last month.

On Sunday 18 April, the flames raged through the Jagger Reading Room, which houses part of the UCT Libraries' Special Collections.

Several items from the rare African Studies collections, which started in 1953, were lost in the fire as well as other valuable journals, ephemera, manuscripts, film collections and rare antique books.

Restoration efforts begin

Soon after the fire was extinguished, a technical team discovered flooding in the basement of the building.

The flooding was caused by the large quantity of water that was used to douse the fire. A semi-permanent triage tent was then set up on the campus to begin recovery efforts to save the waterlogged materials quickly.

Mary Minicka, head of preservation at the Western Cape Archives & Records Service, told News24 the documents were either wrapped for freezing or air dried.  

"One of the big tools that we use in disaster response is to freeze documents. That stops the progression of the damage that water causes to documents which buys us valuable time to then think about how we're going to process these documents," she said.

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Isabelle McGinn, who lectures at the University of Pretoria, said although it was a tragedy, it also allowed for collaboration between conservators from across the country who usually work in isolation. 

"Even though it is a tragedy and there's a lot of material that is probably lost or unaccounted for at this point, there's a lot of good that can come from it in caring for our cultural material in a more general sense," she added.

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