Three years on: UCT fire – update on restoration work

16 May 2024 | Emeritus Professor Daya Reddy

Dear colleagues and students

On 18 April 2024, we commemorated the third anniversary of the devastating Table Mountain fire that caused some significant damage on our campus. The fire affected a number of buildings on upper and middle campuses, most notably the Jagger Library.

With last month having marked three years since then, colleagues in the UCT Libraries have shared an update on the recovery processes and the completion of restoration projects.

In resharing this update from UCT Libraries with the university community, we continue to acknowledge and appreciate the invaluable efforts of the libraries team to rebuild what was lost in 2021. We also remain grateful to the various internal and external stakeholders for their continued outpouring of support throughout the three years of the recovery process.

Please see below the update, initially issued by UCT Libraries on the third anniversary of the Table Mountain fire on 18 April 2024.

A new recovery normal

In normalising recovery, the major outsourced recovery projects involving digitisation of paper and audio-visual materials were completed, the restoration of antiquarian books is almost completed, and the major collection of deep-frozen materials will be addressed in the coming year.

The Audiovisual Archive Digitisation project was completed by March 2024. This enabled the Special Collections AV archive materials and staff to move to new premises, Birkdale 3, at Maitland House.

Work continued around the recovery and digitisation of selected Special Collections Manuscripts and Archives and Africana. This included:

  • over 2 000 pre-1925 Africana pamphlets
  • office records and drawings by architectural firms Black and Fagg, Hawke and McKinlay, and prolific South African architects, Max Policansky and Roelof Uytenbogaart
  • selections from the papers of James Stewart, principal of Lovedale College, Professor Neville Alexander and Monica Wilson
  • the salvaged administrative archives recovered from the Jagger Archive Office.

The team has also completed stock taking and rehousing of more than half the manuscript collections / archives that were salvaged, approximately 120 collections, over 3 000 box files replaced and relabelled. These collections are now in stored in Special Collections Oppenheimer storeroom and available to researchers.

New map cabinets have been purchased for the rehousing of the architecture collections restored by the service provider supporting the process, Memorist, as well as the Libraries All Things UCT Collections.

Rebuilding the African Studies Collection, the kernel of the future African Library

The checking in of the African Studies Library books has been completed. This was accomplished through the involvement of contract staff. More than 1 000 rare books have been restored by DK Conservators. The implementation of reference services has also been put in place, including available books and archives.

The Conservation Unit: a new reality

The newly-established Conservation Unit is well on its way towards becoming embedded into Special Collections. The unit is also making it possible to provide teaching and learning opportunities towards the continued growth of conservation studies in South Africa. The acquisition of necessary conservation equipment has accelerated the work being done. Nearly 1 000 items have been stabilised or restored to date.

Reopening of the Government Publications reading room

The refurbished Government Publications reading room on level 5 of the Chancellor Oppenheimer library opened for use in March 2024. The Government Publications team has moved in and once again are offering a service to researchers. They are also able to begin the reconciliation of the materials that survived the fire. Operating hours for the first term are from 08:00 to 17:00, Monday to Friday. This will be reviewed at the start of the second term, depending on the demand for services.

Maintaining visibility of recovery efforts

The Special Collections team continue to share the recovery efforts undertaken by the Libraries and the lessons learnt. These include:

  • quarterly reports to the Library Working Group, publications, presentations at national and international professional conferences such as LIASA, and IASA
  • the blog, Memory@UCT continues to showcase the restoration of the different types of material salvaged from the basements
  • an article, What we lost in the Jagger library fire, has been published by Cambridge University Press
  • the Jagger Recovery webpage continues to be a site for all information. UCT Libraries is working on a dashboard that will detail future collection developments and recovery progress.

What’s next?

The priorities for the year ahead are:

  • finalising the commercial solution for the vacuum freeze drying of the 10 000 items in cold storage
  • relocating the affected Special Collections to a new location as the current premises are proving to be increasingly challenging for our purpose
  • commencing the first phase of the Libraries Master Plan, namely a comprehensive spatial audit of all sites in the Libraries network, including the Jagger. This will then inform the purpose, requirements and design of the Jagger as a separate project.

As can be seen from the above update, our UCT Libraries colleagues have made substantial progress in the recovery and restoration process. Work continues in earnest, and we remain upbeat that even more progress will have been made by the time we arrive at the fourth anniversary in April 2025.


Emer Prof Daya Reddy
Vice-Chancellor interim

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