How Will an Important Archive Ever Recover?

By Peter Monaghan

Image: Lerato Maduna/UCT

On 18 April 2021, a wildfire destroyed or severely damaged vast amounts of library holdings at the University of Cape Town, in South Africa. The losses included much of one of the largest collections anywhere of books, films, photographs, and other primary sources relating to African history.

Now librarians and archivists — not just from UCT, but also from around the world — are joining in an effort to recuperate the losses, to whatever extent is possible.

One approach will be to see whether duplicates or copies of lost holdings can be gathered from other institutions and individual researchers.

The University of Cape Town is welcoming the support, but is also expressing gratitude that helpers have been working with them to optimize the effectiveness of the help.

University officials are also cautioning, however, that unfortunately many items seem highly unlikely ever to be recouped, including thousands of audiovisual items relating to South Africa and its region.

The fire started on the slopes of Devil’s Peak in the Table Mountain National Park. It quickly spread to the adjacent UCT campus in Rondebosch, and several buildings, most severely its central Jagger Library and archive.

Inside, the Reading Room, which is part of Libraries’ Special Collections, along with parts of the foyer, were severely burned, while basement vaults and their contents were waterlogged when firefighters fought the blaze.

The Reading Room was “completely gutted,” Ujala Satgoor, the executive director of UCT Libraries, told Moving Image Archive News. She said the damage would have been worse if not for a detection system that triggered fire shutters to close. That prevented the fire spreading to other parts of the library.

She said the blaze was so intense that at first glance it seemed the fire damage would surely extend to the basement, where many sub-collections were held.

Then came hope: “When we first heard that the basements were not breached by fire, we were very happy,” said Satgoor.

The hope was shortlived. When officials gained access to the basement, they found that “a huge disaster awaited us,” she said. It was flooded.

The emotional shock for her and her staff has been severe, she said, as fire and water have confronted them with “two disasters, not just one.”

She called the devastation “the worst nightmare of a library director, librarians, and all people associated with libraries.”

The Jagger Reading Room was home to the African Studies collection, started in 1953, as well as portions of many other collections: journals, ephemera, manuscripts, film and video, and maps and rare antiquarian books. The facility was built in the 1930s and served as the main library for a time. From 2000 to 2011 it was the reading room of the African Studies Library. In 2011 it was significantly restored.

Gone are South African historical documents, as well as documents of significance for the region, going back hundreds of years. Losses include trade union documents from the Apartheid era, colonial documents from the 1800s, historic personal letters… “There’s an extraordinary range of documents,” Satgoor said.

With regards to the Reading Room’s holdings, she said: “We recognize that we will have to rebuild those collections completely.”

Film Collection Severely Affected

The fire severely affected the vast majority of more than 70,000 books and other items in the African studies collection. Satgoor said those diverse materials date back to the 1700s: maps, drawings, architects’ plans, rare 19th century dictionaries from around the African continent, antiquarian books, glass slides, and many kind of ephemera. They provided rich sources for the study of, for example, colonial history, local and community news, church records, and university records including the history of UCT libraries. “So you have a very eclectic collection in terms of type, and also content,” she said.

Particularly hard hit was the library’s film collection, which was really two audiovisual collections.

One was the African film collection, one of the largest in the world with about 3,500 films made in Africa or relating to the continent. Those were held on VHS or DVD and will be restored or replaced, as far as possible.

But the second collection seems irretrievable and irreplaceable, Satgoor said. It related to South African history, including the history of the African National Congress. It consisted largely of videotapes in a variety of formats that journalists had recorded while covering the politics of South African and its region — including Namibia, Zimbabwe, Angola, and other countries — particularly during the turbulent 1970s and 1980s, and had then entrusted to the university.

The diverse perspectives and views represented in the material, including many community media projects and over all a visual history of that time, are “of great importance for the political history of the region,” Satgoor said. While the copyright remained with the individuals’ who created the materials, “we’ll see what we can do; that’s an institutional responsibility we’re willing to take on,” Satgoor said.

Rallying for the Library

The University of Cape Town is not, of course, the first institution to suffer a library fire or natural disaster. History has shown that nothing rallies a campus, or users and supporters, like damage to a library.

In 1986, a massive fire at the Los Angeles Public Library destroyed 400,000 books and damaged 700,000 others. The damaged ones, all waterlogged, were rapidly transported to freezers in the city’s frozen-food sector, and preserved there until restoration could be completed. That took six years, but it eventually got done.

In 2018, flooding of an adjacent creek left the lower level of the Australian National University’s J.B. Chifley Library under water. More than 100,000 monographs were lost; ancient, rare texts were damaged.

Again, much was remediated, and the repairs were of a kind contemplated by library officials at the University of Cape Town.

The ANU set about buying many titles that were lost, and received others through donations from around the world, even from individual units of the university.

About one third of lost titles have been replaced, so far.

As occurred at the Los Angeles Central Library, part of the recovery at the ANU involved rapidly freezing books immediately after they were waterlogged. Librarians rapidly selected extremely rare books for that treatment, knowing that those would be difficult to replace.

They not only restored and then rehoused those more safely — which is to say, not on the library’s lowest floor — but also digitized them.

The ANU library has also provided access to some 1,000 lost titles through the HathiTrust Digital Library, a global partnership of academic and research institutions that offers a collection of millions of digitized titles.

In similar ways, some collections at the University of Cape Town may be recuperated, to some degree, although the ANC- and national-history-related film collection seems certain not to be prominent among those.

As at other disaster-struck libraries, the community is responding. Conservators have come out of retirement or taken leave from their full-time jobs to assist UCT. Those include Dale Peters, former director of technical services at the UCT library, who is advising it on the basis of a Library Disaster Mitigation plan she earlier drafted.

After library workers and volunteers salvaged as much material as possible from the fire scene, a team of conservators, including colleagues from the University of Pretoria and as far away as Cologne, Germany, worked through it in a humidified triage tent. Technicians installed two cold-storage containers to assist with the freeze drying of materials that would benefit from that treatment.

Also providing assistance, from afar, have been conservation experts at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC and the U.S. Library of Congress Preservation Unit.

University officials are cautioning that it is too early to know for sure what is salvageable, or not. In a statement to the campus, Mamokgethi Phakeng, the university’s vice-chancellor, noted that after “any event as traumatic as the [UCT fire], it is common for people to speculate and even unwittingly spread false reports about the extent of the damage, the cause of the crisis, and the long-term outlook for recovery.”

Although much material has indeed been lost, much was not, including at least half the holdings of the Jagger Library archives, and the bulk of the university’s archival holdings that had been held in other facilities. That, she said, provided “a huge relief for us.”

Support from Around the World

Offers of help to UCT archivists have come from around the world. SPARC, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, as well as IFLA, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, have both pledged their support.

One scholar, Maha Rafi Atal, a postdoctoral research fellow at Copenhagen Business School, is working with UCT library officials to gather copies of lost items that may be sourced from academics around the world.

The principle is simple, she said: “When researchers visit a library or archive anywhere in the world to work, we may only have a few days to work in that location before we need to return to our home universities. So it is common to take photographs, or photocopies, or scans of all the pages we might need for our work, that we can then consult more slowly back home.” She observed that as soon as news of the fire got out on social media, farflung researchers were posting that they had copies of various items in the Jagger Library’s collections. “So,” said Atal, “I thought to gather up a list of which researchers had copies of which items in case these matched the items lost. I wound up heading this initiative to collect these copies simply because I had time to spare on the day of the fire to set up the form and I was willing to take time to compile the results.“

She created a submission form. Donors can also upload their copies to the online site. Once UCT librarians have assessed their needs, Atal will see which lost items can be retrieved from her database. “While I am myself compiling the results, it is an effort conducted with input and support from UCT,” she said.

Atal said her connection to the library is that “one of the topics on which I do research is South African political economy, and I have spent time on research-related visits to South Africa several times over the past decade.

“Most recently, I was a visiting fellow at the Centre for Competition, Regulation and Development at the University of Johannesburg in 2019. My research is carried out primarily elsewhere in South Africa, but I have relied on resources from UCT, and it is an important and historic library for scholars of African politics and history all around the world.”

At UCT, library chief Ujala Satgoor said consultation will ensure that the recuperation efforts run as smoothly as possible.

UCT Presses On

While research and teaching at UCT is proceeding in alternative venues — in some case, at researchers’ homes — university officials said they will use the damage to buildings and grounds as an opportunity to plan for a greener, less fire-vulnerable campus, within the constraints of regulations relating to heritage, fire safety, and the like.

Of course, noted Vice-Chancellor Phakeng, the challenge of reestablishing the lost library facilities and holdings is made all the more difficult by the ongoing viral pandemic. She signaled that the recovery work would take years.

Satgoor has been heartened by the community response, so far: “We’ve been amazed and very bolstered actually by the sheer groundswell of support and offers of assistance. Just this outpouring has been so encouraging. Several foundations have reached out to us.”

She added: “Also, and maybe this links to the reputation and standing of UCT, people have been very respectful in terms of not wanting to impose themselves. All the letters and messages of support are saying: ‘Do let us know when you are ready,’ and not ‘This is what you need to do.’”

One thing is already clear, she said: “We need specialists.

“We need specialists to work on particular aspects of the collection.” That will ensure that materials that have, for example, been preserved in cold storage or wrapped in ether, alcohol, or other appropriate substances can be optimally restored.

While emphasizing that the Jagger archives held only some 300 of the university’s thousands of sub-collections, placed around or off the campus, “a lot of the materials held at the Jagger site were the most valuable materials, because you don’t want that to be housed offsite.”

What’s ahead, she said, will be “a massive salvage job.”

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