18th April 2021 is etched indelibly in our minds and professional psyches as the day when the well reputed Jagger Reading Room housing a unique African Studies collection, which included books, films and gov pubs was destroyed by fire. Today marks the 1st anniversary of the destruction of the Jagger Library to fire and us waking up to the stark reality of pain and loss of a library that meant different things to each one of us.
As the immediate unknown became known over the following days, we were able to embark on a process of the salvage of materials towards eventual recovery. Critical to this process was the sifting of the debris for material that could be retrieved for possible restoration however the intensity of the fire destroyed everything in its wake. And what was retrieved could be used as symbols of what was and could be incorporated in the aesthetic of the new building.
The African proverb, "when an elder dies, a library burns to the ground". It alludes to the breadth of personal, generational and community knowledge, life choices and experiences, and wisdom that comes with age. But when a library burns, you are left with a lot of smoke and ash. The Jagger Reading Room was a fire’s delight as the wood and paper based materials therein became fuel for this raging fire.
And so when I consider this exhibition, the ash is truly representative of the materials held in this space – collections painstakingly developed and managed since the early 1950s representing the evolution of an academic and research African Studies collection at a time when libraries and access to libraries were political spaces; it also represents the bravery and tenacity of the people or professionals behind the scenes who were tasked with sourcing materials from the continent, of the continent and for the continent.
While fire may destroy, it also gives birth to new life. And so let us not be blinded by smoke and boldly embrace this crucible moment to re-think special collections and archives, the re-creation of the physical space and place for greater meaning and relevance within our context.
I wish to acknowledge Jade Nair and Dr Duane Jethro for presenting this proposal for commemorating the Jagger Fire and the subsequent collaboration that developed between the Centre for Curating the Archive and UCT Libraries. Your depiction and representation of the theme is an amazing tribute to the humble crate and hard hat, as well as the human spirit of those past and present. Let this moment of reflection be the start of future conversations.Ujala Satgoor: ED UCT Libraries