27 March 2006

Bad track record

I have just read the article in the Monday Paper, Audial snapshot of extinct San languages, (Vol25#05, March 18-26). I have been as delighted as anyone that these wax cylinders were located and are now, finally and hopefully, about to render some sound. Lesley Hart is to be congratulated for this initiative.

However, this is less an opportunity for celebration than for lamentation - their current very poor condition is a testament to UCT's really bad track record in looking after its object-collections.

It has only been through neglect, and a failure to recognise the value of the heritage we as an institution curate, that these wax recordings have been "lost" all these years, quietly, and in many cases, irrevocably deteriorating.

It is also inaccurate to say that apart from bits published by Bleek and Lloyd (a person in her own right and not just a sister-in-law), and recently by Lewis-Williams, "a great deal" of the Bleek and Lloyd collection remains unpublished. The entire collection of notebooks, drawings and water-colours (over 13 000 pages) as well as a 240 000 word index was published last year on the world wide web. (http://www.lloydbleekcollection.uct.ac.za or type "Lloyd Bleek" into Google). An interactive DVD and hard-copy publication introducing the collection is currently in press.

This project was undertaken, in part as an attempt to preserve the original artwork and notebooks and take them out of circulation - something that has not yet been done. Despite, in addition, the library having received high-resolution scans of every page of the notebooks and artwork collection, there still appears not to be any policy to limit and control access to them on grounds of conservation and they are still available to be fingered (un-gloved) and leafed-through (with ink pens in hand) by anyone who visits the library to see or use them. This is practice that would not be allowed in any institution in the world that values its rare collections.

We have an extraordinarily valuable resource in the Bleek and Lloyd archive and should be doing everything we can to protect it.

Pippa Skotnes
Professor of Fine Art

Joan Rapp, Executive Director: Libraries, replies

With regard to the condition of the wax cylinders from the Kirby Collection, I can comment only on their care since they were given to the Library four years ago, when they were already in a poor condition.

Since being in the Library's care they have been kept in the required climate-controlled conditions. It was because of an awareness of their research value and the need to retrieve the contents of this very fragile medium that we sought funding to digitise them.

I cannot comment about the curation of other object-collections at UCT, but the Library has always taken a very responsible attitude toward the care of its special collections. We house them in climate-controlled conditions; we have on our staff one of the most highly-skilled conservators in the country; and we try to ensure careful handling by both staff and users.

If the Library was included in Prof Skotnes's statement about a bad track-record in looking after object-collections, we consider this criticism unjustified. We commend Prof Skotnes for her vision and foresight in the ambitious project to digitise large parts of the Bleek and Lloyd Collections in the three institutions; indeed, the Library has given every co-operation to the project.

It is our intention to limit the handling of the notebooks and other items in the Bleek and Lloyd Collection and, once the website is more easily accessible, the demand from researchers to see the originals should decrease.

Clean energy-dream or action?

Please allow me to comment on Bekker and Gaunt's discussion of energy options (Vol25#05), lest we all get persuaded that all that clean energy needs is patience. The authors, like many energy strategists and planners, make a number of hidden assumptions in their analysis that, if unchallenged, reinforce the status quo in the energy industry. These are that: 1) energy is equated with electricity (of course, the authors are electrical engineers, let's forgive them); 2) renewable energy planning needs to start at the supply side. (Well, with that approach we're clearly going nowhere unless we get massive subsidies, or major technical breakthroughs); 3) there is only a small number of renewable energy options. (True, if one starts from the supply side.)

Rather, as we are showing in our research, the focus should be on sustainable energy, on the services and development spin-offs it can bring, and it does not need to have the Gigawatt-hour ambitions of base-load supply side planning. Once one accepts this planning paradigm, one can conceive of hundreds or even thousands of potential sustainable energy projects in a city like Cape Town, matching energy service needs back to renewable energy supply options. The real challenge is to systematically "discover" these projects, and to develop methods for short-listing the most promising ones.

Finally, please allow me to point out that the suggestion that Cape Town's brown haze problem is related to electricity supply is wrong. Neither Koeberg nor the coal-fired power stations in Mpumalanga contribute to our air pollution problem. Cars, home fires and industry do, mostly as they convert energy from one form to another.

Sustainable energy action needs critical and new thinking. Are we at UCT up to the challenge, or do we prefer to wait and dream?

Dr -Ing Harro von Blottnitz
Environmental & Process Systems Engineering Research Group
Chemical Engineering Department

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