73,500 valuable items lost from African Studies collection in UCT library fire

The devastating fire consumed the historic Jagger Reading Room - home to the significant African Studies Collection, which was started in 1953 - including its roof galleries, adjacent stores and offices.

Inside UCT's Jagger Reading Room that was gutted by a fire on 18 April 2021. Picture: Shamiela Fisher/Eyewitness News.

JOHANNESBURG - Tens of thousands of valuable items from the University of Cape Town's (UCT) vast and rich African Studies Collection were tragically lost in the fires that spread across the city over the weekend.

This is according to the university's latest estimate as it counts its losses from the devastating fire that consumed its historic Jagger Reading Room - home to the significant African Studies Collection, which was started in 1953 - including its roof galleries, adjacent stores and offices.

ANALYSIS: Why do the archives damaged in Cape Town’s fire matter so much?

Some of the precious materials destroyed by the blaze include:

  • The vast majority of the African Studies Published Print Collection (approximately 70,000 items);

  • The entire African Studies Film Collection on DVD (about 3,500 items);

  • All the UCT university calendars;

  • Some of the heavily used Government Publications documents from South Africa and across the continent;

  • Manuscripts and archives kept in the Reading Room for processing or digitisation or awaiting transfer after being digitised;

  • The original card catalogues for the Manuscripts and Archives repositories;

  • The history of UCT Libraries; and

  • Special Collections Archive Office and administrative records.

UCT anticipates residual damage may affect other areas, including two basement stores.

Academics and alumni have detailed how precious and costly the loss of these materials are.

“This was a sad day for UCT and UCT Libraries. This loss will be felt deeply across our community as the libraries are so critical to all of us. We cannot replace the treasures of scholarship we have lost, but we can create new treasures out of our own scholarship," said UCT Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng.

"In the same way, each of us can rebuild our own sense of purpose out of this tragedy. Our colleagues in the libraries have a long road ahead of them and many of us feel the devastation of the loss of this significant institutional asset, but we will walk this road to rebuild our facilities together.”

A full assessment of the destruction can only happen once the building is declared safe and staff are permitted on site and only then will a complete list of destroyed materials be compiled.

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