Volunteers aid recovery operation at UCT library

Brits van Zyl moves a crate along a human chain of volunteers helping with salvage work at UCT’s Jagger Library.

Volunteers and library staff clearing UCT’s fire-damaged Jagger Library have until the end of the week to empty the building before it becomes a construction site.

The Jagger Library reading room was destroyed by the Rhodes Memorial fire on Sunday April 18. Salvage operations started on Thursday April 22, once the site was declared safe for people to enter.

More than 2000 people volunteered in the first week to help remove books and other library materials, including valuable collections, from the site.

UCT spokeswoman Nombuso Shabalala said: “The library team and volunteers have until the end of the week to completely empty the basements of all materials before the building could become a fully designated construction site. Materials have been removed in order of urgency and priority.”

Ms Shabalala said the materials brought out by the volunteers were assessed to see how badly damaged they were.

The retrieved materials are being stored off-site in crates until restoration work can begin.

The Jagger Library reading room housed the African Studies collections, which, according to UCT’s website, include approximately 65 000 volumes, along with up-to-date materials as well as works on Africa and South Africa printed before 1925, and many hard-to-find volumes in a wide range of European and African languages.

There was also an important collection on southern African languages. Some of the titles in these collections, published in the 19th and early 20th centuries were extremely rare.

It’s not yet clear what has been saved.

Kusile Kewana, who is part of the World Mission Society Church of God, volunteered at the library.

“UCT officials in charge of the salvage operation would first conduct an induction/briefing and then explains the procedure of removing books from the library. We were provided with N95 masks, gloves and hard helmets. Social distancing regulations were also enforced. Teams formed a human chain from the basement of the library to the ground floor,” she said.

Ms Kewana said books that were stored in archival shelves were packed into crates, with badly damaged books being packed into crates marked as “triage” and then it was moved out by volunteers in a human chain.

“The books that were badly damaged were moved to a tent where volunteers and professional conservators did their best to restore the damaged papers. They wrapped wet books with cling wrap and these were to be taken to the cold room.

“Damp books and articles were kept dry with hairdryers and kitchen paper towels were used to absorb the moisture on some of the books.”

Other volunteers cleaned the dirty crates.

Undamaged library materials that still require categorisation were stored in the staff tea room in crates. Once categorised, a note is added to each item saying: “Survived the Jagger Library fire, 18 April 2021.”