Cape Town (DPA) – When a major catastrophic fire destroyed the renowned Cape Town University Library (UCT) and thousands of historical books in April, Cologne paper curator Tina Löhr was clear that I wanted to go help. So the 46-year-old man spontaneously boarded a plane. In early May, it landed in the tourist metropolis that houses South Africa’s oldest university, with historic buildings, ivy-covered facades and the famous Table Mountain as a backdrop.
Built in the 1930s and destroyed by fire on April 18, the UCT’s Jagger Library is anything but an ordinary college library. It is considered a milestone in African history and the intellect of the continent. It housed more than 85,000 valuable and rare books on African studies and other topics, as well as 3,000 audiovisual materials, including unique collections of African books and representative bindings.
What the flames did not destroy was largely damaged by firefighting efforts by firefighters, especially the archives located in the basement. Many books have since been recovered, but now they need to be thoroughly restored. According to UCT, the collection is one of the largest in the world. Many works had not yet been digitized.
The fire catastrophe caused consternation all over the world. This was followed by a flood of offers of help from around the world, including one from Tina Löhr of Germany. He had already gained valuable experience in March 2009 when the Cologne Historical Archive collapsed. “Then we had to get things back from the mud. As a result, I now knew what was important, especially in the case of water ingress and wet documents.” Sometimes deciding whether to let a book dry in the air or freeze it can determine if a work survives, Löhr says.
For a week, Löhr helped remove thousands of book boxes from the flooded archive and assess the extent of the damage. Many works were soaked, some had already begun to be modeled. “It was hard work,” Löhr says, but his reward came when he discovered historic architectural plans in a charred pipe. He was also able to train other on-site assistants in Cape Town, who are continuing the work now that he has left, Löhr explains.
Much remains to be done. “The full extent of the damage cannot yet be assessed. It will be many months before we know how high the losses are,” Ujala Satgoor, executive director of the UCT libraries, told the German news agency. .