UCT Libraries must embrace ‘hidden gems’ in curriculum design

11 March 2019 | Story Helen Swingler. Photo Je’nine May. Read time >10 min.

University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Libraries chief Ujala Satgoor talks to Helen Swingler about her wish list, books, a Peke called Fudge – and why the libraries’ collections are vital to curriculum transformation. Satgoor joined UCT from Rhodes University in January this year.

HS: What attracted you to the UCT post?

US: I saw it as a good professional move and felt it was the right time to be part of the new leadership of a very reputable, internationally recognised institution. Also, academic libraries are impacted as much by the issues in higher education, namely politics of access, transformation and redress, economics and staffing. We are responsive to meeting the diverse needs of our user communities through transformation of our physical spaces and collections, embracing innovation in our support of research, teaching and learning services. Exposure to and embracing international trends and practices elevate the position of an academic library within the academic endeavours of universities today. UCT Libraries has been bold in taking the lead in exploring novel ways in support of research and embracing innovation in open monograph publishing and digital library services. We now need to extend this to teaching and learning, and curriculum transformation.

HS: Describe your leadership style.

US: Strongly participative and authentic with a strong belief in open communication with staff and colleagues, and the inculcation of a values-driven team mindset. Giving due recognition to talents, competencies and achievements brings out the best in people and this motivation and enthusiasm begins to reflect in the way we conduct themselves.

HS: How big is this enterprise?

US: UCT Libraries has 124 staff (including myself), and seven branch libraries, which include Hiddingh Hall Library, WH Bell Music Library and Brandt van Zyl Law Library. We have 170 special collections, some 1.2 million physical books, access to over 72 000 ejournal titles and 28 500 print journals. The African Studies Library also has a unique collection of Africana – some 85 000 items. And we’re still building and growing our collections to embrace different formats, for example PressReader, an app you can download to access thousands of multilingual magazines and newspapers from around the world.


“I also want Special Collections and its hidden gems to be used for curriculum transformation, to embed and expose this material in teaching, learning and research.”

HS: Your wish list for UCT Libraries?

US: We’re in a privileged position. Whether at UCT, Rhodes or the University of Pretoria, the value of the library has never been in question. My wish is to position the library even deeper within the university community and within teaching and learning. I also want the Special Collections and its hidden gems to be used for curriculum transformation, embedding this material in teaching, learning and research. I went on a walkabout the other day and was amazed at what’s in this library! These collections are not just dusty archives. The challenge is how do you marry the old with the new so that students begin to see some sort of meaning in this transition? How do you position it and care for it so that it becomes meaningful to whoever engages with it?

Second is to showcase what the library is doing. We’re taking the lead in open access and open publishing, managing repositories and research data. Through these initiatives the academic library is becoming a partner to and collaborator with academics and students. We also need to address a few misconceptions around the role of the librarian. Our librarians are rethinking the way they train students and engage with academics and each other to design innovative services. For example, over the past weekend, our librarians and members of the Historical Studies department took part in a Wikimedia edit-a-thon.

Last is to position the libraries as a desired space for the UCT community – dynamic and invigorating, and to which academics and students can relate. Libraries are no longer quiet study areas but have emerged as dynamic spaces for social engagement and dialogue, and exhibition spaces where students can come to study, engage, collaborate and relax.

HS: Describe the academic library of the future.

US: It’s a hybrid; a highly connected place with room for both print materials and digital content as well as a wide-ranging suite of services, beyond traditional services. UCT Libraries has already embarked on embracing new services. There is still great significance and meaning to print material and it’s important for young people to engage with the tactile experience of print materials. As with international trends, we’ve migrated to the electronic and digital library services thereby ensuring ease of access on- and off-site. Digital library services enable us to showcase UCT’s research output via OpenUCT and facilitate research data management via ZivaHub. UCT Libraries has now embraced the new role of library-as-publisher. In 2019 there will be 14 high-quality, interactive etextbooks written in collaboration with highly respected academics and available on our open-access platform. Given the high cost of textbooks and limitations of access, this is definitely a move in the right direction.

HS: The role of libraries in decolonising education?

US: Academic libraries have always provided core and foundation materials that form the basis for critical thinking and dialogue. However, the wide-ranging multimedia resources the libraries offer today, which could form the basis of extraordinary teaching and learning experiences, are never factored into curriculum design. When the decolonising debates emerged, we were able to offer materials that were in our collections but never used. The irony is that academics contribute to building these collections. Going forward, it’s important for academics to engage with what’s within the library collections and how they contribute to broader curriculum development conversations.

Our collection development policies are driven by objectivity and free of censorship and personal bias when purchasing materials. But there remains a stark gap with collections being predominantly global north. I’m committed to filling the gaps with materials from the global south and invite academics to be a part of this process.


“When the decolonising debates emerged, suddenly we were able to offer materials that were in our collections but never used.”

HS: What should every first-year know about UCT Libraries?

US: Walking into a library of this stature is overwhelming and most undergraduates suffer from library anxiety. My advice to every first-year is, when you’ve settled in, make it your business to visit the library, familiarise yourself with the services and facilities and get to know the librarians and staff. The library, as your study partner, provides resources that expand your thinking beyond prescribed texts and recommended reading. Seize the opportunity to challenge your thinking and let your voice be heard as that of being informed and knowledgeable. This is your space! Own it. Don’t see it as a space of contestation but a place to befriend for critical thinking and debate.

HS: The best thing about coming to work?

US: Not knowing what’s going to happen, what’s going to come across my table. I’ve dubbed it a journey of discovery at UCT Libraries. Recently we received a deed of gift of the Dimitri Tsafendas psychiatric reports commissioned by his defence. We’ve also just repatriated some historical papers to a family residing in New Zealand. Since starting in January, I’ve met most staff for a one-on-one chat which gave me a keen insight into the calibre of people working here and the state of UCT Libraries.

HS: Your first experience of a library?

US: At home. I grew up in a family of teachers and school principals, so I was surrounded by books. I was enrolled at age five at the Lambert Wilson Children’s Library in Pietermaritzburg. My parents took us to the library every week. Being an avid reader, I’d travelled the world, been to the moon and back and to the Amazon by the time I was 10. A home without books is an empty place. Children learn from their environment and if we want to create a nation of readers we’ve got to make a concerted effort to ensure every child has access to reading materials.

HS: Favourite reading?

US: I have eclectic taste! I dip into all genres and don’t like to be limited. It also depends on my mood. I’m reading Michelle Obama’s Becoming – and listening to the audiobook as well [in Cape Town’s traffic]. I enjoy ebooks and my tablet has become my mobile entertainment device with over 500 books. Whenever I feel off-centre I dip into Kalil Gibran’s The Prophet and Rumi’s poetry. I’m a typical airport shopper and always walk away with an Exclusive Books bag in hand.

HS: Libraries you’d most like to visit?

US: The Bodleian Library at Oxford and the Library of Congress in Washington. When I visited the British Library I was fascinated to see one of the Hindu texts, written on a palm leaf, exhibited at the library. As a Hindu I was touched that something so old had been preserved and given its due place and respect.


“I have eclectic taste! I dip into all genres and don’t like to be limited. It also depends on my mood.”

HS: What would surprise your staff about you?

US: I have a tattoo and have always been intrigued by the practice of tattoos. The uncertainties of life and death force you to rethink preconceived notions around social practices. About 18 months ago, after my mother’s serious illness … I shared my design with my mother and asked how she felt about it. She unhesitatingly said, “Go for it! You only live once!”

HS: Are you a dog or a cat person?

US: I’ve a healthy respect for animals and keep my distance. I’m not a cat person, yet they will come to me! I gave my heart to a little Pekingese, Fudge, who joined our family a few years ago... this little one broke the barriers I had with dogs and allowed me to experience their unconditional love. So, I think I’m ready to welcome a dog, a little dog, into my home.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.