Tribute to the Human Spirit

The Salvage and Recovery of the Jagger Library and its Special Collections

The exhibition tells the story of salvage and recovery, what happened after the fire and how countless priceless shards of memory were rescued - curated by UCT Libraries.

About the Exhibition

On the morning of Sunday 18 April 2021, a Table Mountain wildfire, fuelled by high winds and dry conditions, spread to the Upper Campus of the University of Cape Town. By afternoon, the Jagger Library was ignited when the wind carried flames onto its roof, which eventually collapsed into the historic Reading Room, home to the Special Collections of the University. The ‘inferno’ that ravaged the building took almost two days to douse completely.

All were believed to be lost, and the world responded with horror.

Once the site was deemed safe to enter, the Libraries team made a remarkable discovery - the fire had not reached the two basement levels, which served as storage. While areas were flooded (from the water used to put out the fire), collections were intact. With renewed hope, the Libraries’ Salvage and Recovery Project was initiated with two phases:

Phase One: Salvage

The Salvage was organised along disaster management protocols to get materials out the basement. It relied on hundreds of volunteers to clear the holdings housed in the basements using thousands of crates, as well as the on-site emergency and remedial conservation measures The Salvage was run from an open-air office managed by a dedicated project team. Triage tents were set up for emergency conservation for thousands of items damaged by water, fire, or mould. Materials were then re-directed to 10 different holding sites across Upper Campus. Four mobile storage containers – two for cold storage, and two for drying wet books - were set up on the Plaza. In less than a month, over 2000 volunteers removed nearly 13 000 crates of all types of materials.

Phase Two: Recovery

Since then, the Libraries has been fully engaged in its commitment to restore, rebuild, and reconstitute Special Collections, which is an acknowledged multi-year project.

This exhibition tells the story of salvage and recovery. It is the story of what happened after the fire and how countless priceless shards of memory were rescued.


Location Outside Jagger Building, University Avenue
Opening date 19 April 2022