Source: Deutsche Welle

After the fire: How the Jagger library is being re-created

After the fire in the Jagger Library in Cape Town, restorers try to save what can be saved. DW spoke to two of them.

Rubble and ashes: The fire in the Jagger library destroyed many books

It was early morning when Tina Löhr landed at Cape Town Airport at the end of April. Five days earlier, the qualified restorer had not the faintest idea that she would be traveling to South Africa that day.

Tina Löhr lives and works in Cologne, she specializes in saving paper: antique books, old documents, historical plans. Among other things, she was involved in the recovery of the treasures of the Cologne city archive  , which collapsed in 2009 as a result of construction work. 

On April 20, she learned from the news that – around 10,000 kilometers from Cologne – one of the most famous and precious libraries on the African continent was in flames: the Jagger Library at  the University of Cape Town. The moment she saw Brandes’ pictures in the media, she knew she had to help.

The horror was great: in April 2021, the Jagger library in Cape Town was on fire

Few professionals in restoration

Tina Löhr contacted a colleague. Twenty years ago she did an internship with Dale Peters, a restorer, in the city of Durban in South Africa. She asked if she was needed. Peters’ answer was: Yes, absolutely. “You know how few restorers we have.”

Five days later, Tina Löhr was in Cape Town  . Two hours after her arrival, she was picked up by a colleague, Mary Minicka. She is also a restorer and also specializes in paper. Tina Löhr and Mary Minicka were now the only two paper restorers in the Jagger library – or whatever was left of it. 

“I helped out. Nothing was discussed in detail, no site plan was made. I arrived, was introduced and looked for work,” said Tina Löhr in a telephone interview with DW. Experts and volunteers in Cape Town had already been busy with the salvage work for a few days and the processes were well organized.

Nothing could be saved in the reading room

There was a good atmosphere on site, says Tina Löhr. “Everyone was totally committed, everyone showed commitment. Not everyone ran around in shock. Everyone just tried to help everywhere.” 

This is also emphasized by Mary Minicka, who works as a restorer in the Cape Archives in Cape Town. “It was a wonderful experience: there was this gigantic wave of support. Scientists, cultural workers, church communities, cadets … It was amazing to see how many different people were ready to help.”

The University of Cape Town is at the foot of Table Mountain, where the bush fire began to rage on April 18, 2021

The fire broke out on April 20 in the attic of the reading room of the Jagger Library at the University of Cape Town. The trigger was a bush fire that had raged since April 18. The library reading room and everything in it fell victim to the flames. “There is nothing left except a few charred books. They can then no longer be saved,” reports Tina Löhr. 

First aid measure in case of water damage: freeze

It looked different in the cellar, which is below the reading room. The restorers were in demand there. “We had to get what was still there out of the water as quickly as possible,” explained Tina Löhr. “The extinguishing water ran from the reading room on the first floor into the basement, where all the stocks were stored in normal archive shelves or cupboards and there was now water. Within a few days it starts to go moldy, so you have to get the books there so quickly get out as possible. “

Teams of volunteers took on this task. Tina Löhr stood at the top and helped to decide: What will happen to this object? How soaked is it? Can it air dry? Does it need to be frozen?

“This is the first aid in case of water damage. It buys time,” said Löhr. The university had already set up shipping containers that functioned as cold storage. “Knowing where to freeze things is part of every emergency plan in an archive.”

What can you save?

For Tina Löhr, the first historical development plans for Cape Town were particularly valuable pieces. She was also holding an entire suitcase, completely soaked, in which an artist’s sketches and drawings had been kept.

Graduated paper restorer Tina Löhr at work

She brought the most important pieces to the restoration tent, where Mary Minicka set about saving the papers. Colleagues from the United States and the Netherlands provided advice in an online group. Mary Minicka was particularly impressed by a book she received: “The university asked me not to save the book, but to maintain it as an object, as an exhibit. In the future they want an exhibition of the event and the Support all walks of life. ” 

After a week, Tina Löhr had to leave again. “I drove with a good feeling,” she reports, because the recovery was completed just a few days after her departure. Now it’s a matter of planning further: How can the collection be rebuilt?

Cause for optimism

“It will take three to four years,” says Löhr. “Of course, it also depends on the capacities. If there is only one restorer, that can take six or seven years. If you invite a few students from Europe to do an internship in Cape Town, it can go faster.”

Extinguishing water has attacked many books – they now have to dry out and be restored piece by piece

Mary Minicka confirmed in a video conversation with DW from her home in Cape Town that, to her knowledge, the reconstruction of the archive should be used to train more restorers in South Africa. “We want our profession to grow. So something useful can grow out of this terrible catastrophe.”

Some things are lost forever

And yet parts of the library’s holdings are also lost forever. “This collection was one of the oldest, if not the oldest, in South Africa. It can therefore be assumed that an access to the past has been lost here that cannot be replaced by any other place,” says Mary Minicka. 

And the paper? “All things that are wet and that were in the cellar can be saved”, assures Tina Löhr, who would like to return to South Africa soon to help there again. “There’s nothing here where I would say: You can’t do that anymore.”