A “tragedy of unspeakable proportions” is how current and past staff of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Jagger Reading Room described the fire that left their beloved library – a safe, beautiful space, and home away from home – in utter ruins.
The Jagger Reading Room (formerly the JW Jagger Library), where part of UCT’s Special Collections is housed, was completely gutted by a runaway wildfire on Sunday, 18 April. All that remains of this revered space – referred to as a sanctuary by many – is a pile of rubble and soot, visible from the outside through the destroyed sash windows on the top floor.
On Thursday, 22 April, UCT Libraries staff joined their executive director, Ujala Satgoor, outside the Jagger Reading Room for a moment of reflection.
“It’s been a very, very difficult time. This is something that we least expected. It’s the worst nightmare of a library director, librarians and all people associated with libraries. We are now sitting on a very strong legacy that we have to build upon. And each one of us will play a role in rebuilding this new library – with a new vision and a new direction,” Satgoor said.
UCT News asked a few Jagger Reading Room staff members for their reflections.
Overcome with emotion
Hajiera Davids, a librarian in the published collections section, said walking onto campus that morning [Thursday] and seeing the charred remains of the Jagger Reading Room was devastating. She was overcome with emotion as she looked up towards her burned office window and the area where her desk once was.
“If I think of the collection that we lost … the priceless, treasured collection … the African Studies material, government publications – all of them were behind these doors and windows.”
“It’s actually very difficult to talk about it. If I think of the collection that we lost … the priceless, treasured collection … African Studies material, government publications – all of them were behind these doors and windows. My heart just sinks thinking about it,” she said.
An ‘unbelievable’ occurrence
Images of the reading room engulfed in flames have been too much to bear for Isaac Ntabankulu. The primary collections archivist, who has been working at UCT Libraries for the past 21 years, said losing the myriad material was “unbelievable” and that it “pains me”.
“I look at everything now and I can’t believe that it’s no more. I don’t know how we will do our work now. It’s a sad loss,” he said.
Deep sense of sadness
For Tanya Barben, a retired rare books librarian at the Jagger Reading Room, walking onto campus and seeing the burned vegetation and the library was heartbreaking.
“Many of those books and documents are irreplaceable. They represent years and years and years of material, combined with the work of dedicated staff members – not only librarians and archivists, but the stack attendants, the people who clean, the library assistants. It was a big project, and this is a tragedy that it’s now gone,” she said.
She said that she feels like she lost part of her soul in the fire. The Jagger Reading Room, she explained, contained a piece of her family history too. The letters and photos she and her siblings exchanged with their parents while they (her parents) were in exile during apartheid had all been donated to the Special Collections.
“I’m deeply saddened. So much of my history is related to that building and the university campus in general. All of it is there and I’m hoping that [some of] it has survived,” she said.
Seeing is believing
Similarly, for Busi Khangala, a librarian in the published collections section, seeing the building was a sobering moment.
“Just walking onto campus and seeing what the building looks like now was devastating.”
“Just walking onto campus and seeing what the building looks like now was devastating; it was heartbreaking. I can’t believe it,” Khangala said.
She referred to the Jagger Reading Room as her sanctuary – an opportunity to step away from the hustle and bustle of campus. She spoke of her love for the “valuable” African Studies collection and the amount of joy it brought her to help academics and students find what they were looking for.
Deidre Goslett, an archival assistant in the primary collections section, said she was in “disbelief” when she picked up her mobile phone on Sunday afternoon and saw pictures, videos and news reports of the library going up in flames. What followed for her was a rollercoaster of emotions.
“Coming here and seeing it all has been very emotional. This is a place we love and a place where we spend most of our time. It’s so sad to see it now,” she said.
She is hopeful that some of the material will be salvaged and that the library will be restored – with the help of all its staff – to its former glory again soon.
Satgoor said she has been “amazed and overwhelmed” by the groundswell of love and support the library has received from across the country, the continent and the world.
“When you look [at] and read about the impact this library has had, [you realise] this is truly a historic moment. And we need to realise that we are part and parcel of this history, and so what is our responsibility to it? [It’s] not just about reconstructing [the library, it’s about] rebuilding it so that it surpasses that which it once was.”
She told her colleagues that while they continue to mourn the destruction of the library, they should also use this time as an opportunity to ponder and reflect on the legacy it leaves behind and what comes next.
“We now start a process of reclamation, of reconstruction that the world is watching. We’re planning the strategy; we’re putting together the recovery plan and we are going to need your assistance. It is our duty, not just to UCT, not just to South Africa and to the continent, but to the world,” she said.
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In an email to UCT students, Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng said:
“Thank you for your patience as we seek ways to return to full academic activity at the University of Cape Town under COVID-19 regulations. Our first priority is to ensure the health and safety of everyone who needs to return to campus buildings.”
UCT is deeply grateful to all the donors who supplied food and other essential items for our students, and to everyone who has so generously offered other forms of support and assistance.
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