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Post Devastating Fire at University of Cape Town
Created by John Eipper on 04/20/21 3:14 AM

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Devastating Fire at University of Cape Town (Jose Manuel de Prada, -Spain, 04/20/21 3:14 am)

WAISer probably have heard the news of the violent fire at Table Mountain (probably unleashed by an "unattended vagrant fire" as the Daily Maverick reported) that reached the University of Cape Town Rondebosch campus and has completely destroyed several buildings, among them the historic Jagger Library, home to one of the more substantial African Studies libraries in the world. I have spent many hours in that building, examining original documents and scholarly publications in its beautiful reading room.

Priceless and irreplaceable documents may have been completely lost, among them the unique Bleek-Lloyd Collection of /xam ethnography, part of the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.

I have devoted decades of my life to the study of this archive, and am completely shaken by the possibility of the loss of the original documents, although mercifully most of them had been digitized and are available on-line:


The mastermind of that digitization project, Professor Pippa Skotnes, said today in a radio interview that the Bleek-Lloyd records and many of the most important historical and literary documents may have been saved after all, thanks to fire doors that were installed some time ago and that it seems helped contained the worst part of the fire. I hope she is right.


Although the destruction of these priceless manuscripts has not yet been confirmed, I am totally shaken by these events. The loss of the Collection would deprive me of something intimate and essential.

Even if the Collection has been spared, the damage caused to the university (to which I am attached as Research Associate) is enormous. A catastrophe of this kind at a major US institution would be followed by swift and efficient reconstruction. I fear in South Africa it may take a long, long time.

The fire has been contained in and around the University, but as I write it is threatening the neighbourhood of Vredehoek, in which my wife and I resided for two years, and where we have many friends.



JE comments:   What a horrific loss.  The images of Jagger Library in flames (two links immediately above) are especially sickening.  Just a couple of days ago we discussed the "death" of research libraries (see Ed Jajko on the passing of the NYPL's Vartan Gregorian), but we were speaking metaphorically about underfunding and cultural shifts.  In Cape Town the loss is literal and far more devastating.

José Manuel, please keep us apprised.  How is the University planning to cope with its primary mission, holding classes?

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  • University of Cape Town Fire: Some Priceless Archives Were Spared (Jose Manuel de Prada, -Spain 04/21/21 3:32 AM)
    According to an email I received earlier today from the Centre for Curating the Archive, at University of Cape Town (UCT), the Bleek-Lloyd Collection has been spared from total destruction. Only a few photographs that were in the reading room have perished, as have all the materials in the reading room itself, including a major collection of African films.  The fire doors worked, but there has been lots of damage caused by water, so other collections may have suffered badly.

    The campus has suffered great damage. A collection of priceless botanical specimens gathered by Prof. Timm Hoffman was lost when the fire destroyed the Pearson building. It seems that the historical Bollus Library and herbarium have been saved, although probably damaged by water. From what I know, the archaeology department, as well as the materials from diggings stored there and at a nearby building, have been spared.

    The campus is now closed until further notice, I don't know when classes will resume but I imagine it will take some time. As far as I know the fire in Table Mountain has not yet been fully controlled. According to some reports it was caused deliberately, and at least one arrest has been made.

    JE comments:  The preservation of these archives is a silver lining amidst tragedy.  The task of bringing back UCT will be monumental (and monumentally expensive), especially in the middle of a pandemic.  José Manuel, in your earlier post you mentioned an "unattended vagrant fire."  Does this mean a fire started by vagrants, possibly for warmth or cooking, or was the fire itself the "vagrant"--as in, deliberately set with nefarious intentions?

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    • University of Cape Town Fire: The Latest on the Archives (Jose Manuel de Prada, -Spain 04/22/21 8:44 AM)
      We still don't know the extent of the damage at the University of Cape Town archives. The damage was mostly caused by water, and other collections may have suffered.

      Among these archives, for example, is that of the great anthropologist Monica Wilson, a disciple of Bronislaw Malinowski. UCT's African Studies libraries also had important materials about the struggle against Apartheid, full collections of historical newspapers in African languages among many other things. Who knows how much of this has survived. The retrieval of water-damaged material is scheduled to start today.

      Table Mountain is part of a national park, but in the areas closer to the city centre you find homeless people living there, and it seems that the first fire was indeed caused by a cooking fire that can be attributed to one of these "informal" inhabitants. There is, however, talk now of a second fire that apparently was caused deliberately, and at least one arrest has been made:



      JE comments:  The link just above mentions three fires, which means foul play, not mere negligence.  The word "senseless" is used for seemingly every bad event these days, but here it absolutely applies.

      To shift gears, who can fill us in on how to rescue waterlogged documents?  Ed Jajko, can you chime in?

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      • Rescuing Waterlogged Books and Documents (Edward Jajko, USA 04/24/21 3:15 AM)
        John E asked about the technologies available to rescue water-damaged books and documents.

        Some individual documents may be salvaged by being sandwiched as often as needed between sheets of absorbent paper--paper towels. Fans are used to blow air over the material. Care must be taken not to destroy the wet material, to save ink, handwriting, affixed materials such as seals and bullae, photos, etc., and infixed things like impressed seals. Books and other MSS must be freeze-dried ASAP to inhibit mold and mildew, then carefully defrosted and refrozen as needed. Absorbent paper may be needed. Disaster preservation and restoration is an exacting science.

        Events like this show the virtues of fire suppression systems that don't use water. They have to be used with care. When I worked at Yale forty to fifty (!) years ago, and was granted access to the work spaces of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, I was warned to heed any fire alarm and get out quickly. Beinecke had a halon system that automatically shut and locked doors, closing off the rare book stacks and work and storage areas and then flooding those areas with anaerobic gas. That put an end to any fire and to anyone caught inside. People have died in such anaerobic environments (though not st Yale, as far as I know).

        Not long after I began at the Hoover Institution Library in January 1983, the fire chief of Santa Clara County decreed that both the library and archives had to install overhead sprinklers. In the Tower, this involved many aggravating months of diamond drilling to cut holes in the almost foot-thick walls and floors of the 300' tall Tower so that a complex network of rather ugly pipes could be inserted, soldered or welded together and connected with the water system and a pump outside the building. To the best of my knowledge, this system has never been tested by fire, but 20 or so years ago one of the sprinklers in the Archives reading room failed, fortunately during working hours. Patrons, staff, and materials were doused with filthy water, which got into the archives stacks below. I don't know how it was all resolved.

        Stanford's main library, the Cecil Green Library, was designed with a side entrance with a glass door in a wall of glass, that door at the bottom of a slanting, sort of slot in the earth. It was very pretty, but soon after the opening of Green Library it seems to have been decided that that side door was insecure and would not be used. The scoop in the earth remained. Then there came exceptional rains, utter downpours. The scoop seems to have filled up in the night and the waters came crashing through the door, flooding the entire lowest level of the stacks, with water rising high enough to submerge all bottom shelves of books. Industrial pumps had to be called in, to remove the rainwater, and commercial dehumidifiers and fans had to be brought in. As for those soaked books, they were removed by many volunteer staff members and sent to a freeze drying plant on the Peninsula. It was months before they returned. In some cases, it was probably cheaper to buy new copies.

        The ground floor of the Hoover Tower also flooded that same night, because of an outside stairway built into the ground. But the results were less drastic than those in Green.

        Ah, the placid world of libraries and archives.

        JE comments:  Fire and water--the librarian's worst nightmare!  Much obliged for the insight, Ed.  It would seem that few tools are available beyond the obvious:  towels and blowing air.  And a little common sense when building your library:  keep your collections above the ground.  Yet every research library I know has one or more basement levels.  Inevitable perhaps when storage is at a premium, but not the smartest approach.  Floods and plumbing catastrophes inevitably happen.

        I never knew about halon fire-suppression systems.  The chemical agent causes ozone depletion and hasn't been produced in the US since the 1990s.  Yet it continues to be used in some places.

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        • Rescuing the U Cape Town Library, Archives (Jose Manuel de Prada, -Spain 04/25/21 8:51 AM)
          I thank Edward Jajko (April 24th) for his most informative post about the rescuing and restoration of water-damaged books and documents.

          In the case of of the Jagger Reading Room materials at the University of Cape Town, I have been told that some of them have been put in a freezer.

          A whole team of volunteers are reportedly involved in the rescue operations.

          It is true, a JE says, that keeping the collections above ground is wise planning decision, even if storage space is problem. Yet at UCT, space in general is quite an issue. The university Rondebosch campus is literally built on the side of Table Mountain, on land that was bequeathed in the late 19th century by the infamous tycoon Cecil Rhodes, who actually owned most of the mountain. You have to climb lots of stairs when you walk around that campus.

          I have always admired how planners and architects managed to make the most of such a complex, nay impossible, building space.

          Curiously enough, in this case, it was the materials stored at the upper levels which suffered the most damage, in part because of an iron anti-fire door that prevented the fire going there. I think it was other doors of this kind which stopped the fire from getting into the open-stacks library, which would have carried it into the heart of the campus. Another asset was that many of the archival collections were stored in another building, precisely because of the general space shortage at UCT.

          This photo essay gives an idea of the damaged caused by fire and water to the Jagger Reading Room at UCT:


          In a statement issued by the Vice-Chancellor of UCT, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, it is said that most of the 70,000 items in the African Studies Collection have perished. These included "monographs spanned the whole of sub-Saharan Africa and included national imprints from the entire continent as well as works published in Europe and North America. The collections were especially strong in gender studies, media studies, HIV/AIDS issues, and debates around the character of African studies as a discipline. There was an important collection on Southern African languages, donated to the university in the 1950s, which included religious texts and school textbooks as well as dictionaries and grammars. Some of the titles in these collections, published in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, were extremely rare."

          See recent images of the rescue here:


          I have worked with those collections for many, many years, and it is unbearable to think that those early edition of the classic travel books of Thompson and Burchell are now just ashes, as are the maps, missionary accounts and linguistic and anthropological publications or typewritten research papers I have been using during the past 15 years. Still, rare as they were, many of those items can gradually be replaced, while the archival materials that have mostly been spared cannot be replaced in any way.

          JE comments:  Appreciate the updates, José Manuel.  If we dive deep in search of a silver lining, I guess we've found one--the destruction could have been far worse.  Are you aware of any "crowd funding" initiative to help with the rescue?  If so, send along the info and I'll put it on WAIS.

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