Peter R. Schmidt and Kathryn Weedman Arthur
Several trends in the historical scholarship of Africa require recognition and remediation. The first is a quickly shrinking interest in African history of the past two millennia, with a shift in emphasis to early hominins and to the modern period. The precolonial history of Africa, once a subject of considerable excitement for historians, historical linguists, and archaeologists, is fading from interest. The high cost of interdisciplinary research is one reason, but a deeper, more alarming cause is the rapid erasure of oral traditions by globalization, disease, and demographic changes. Archaeologists and heritage experts are faced with a need to find innovative means to investigate and recover historical information. One proven path is partnerships with communities that want to initiate research to document, recuperate, and preserve their histories. Community approaches in other world regions have shown important research results. Adapting some of the philosophy and methods of other experiments as well as innovating their own approaches, archaeologists and heritage managers in Africa are increasingly involved in community projects that hold out significant hope that the quickly disappearing oral and material history of Africa can be preserved and studied into the future. Two case studies—one from the Haya people of Tanzania and the other from the Boreda Gamo of Ethiopia—illustrate that long-term and trusting partnerships with local groups lead to important historical observations and interpretations. Such collaborations also lead to thorough documentation and preservation of historical sites and information that otherwise would be lost to posterity. Moreover, they account for the ability of local groups to initiate and to conduct their own research while recognizing local control over heritage and history.
The Horn of Africa has an exceptional cultural heritage, starting with its manuscript sources, which are among the most important on the continent. It is a heritage that is rich but scattered throughout the region and not always easily accessible, prompting researchers to rely on cutting-edge technology. Since the 1970s, photography and microfilm have been key for preserving this especially valuable heritage. In the Horn of Africa, the “digital turn” has been the latest development in the close relationship between technology and research. For Ethiopian manuscript studies, the advent of digitization has meant more than simply improving old techniques. A new generation of projects is experimenting with innovative methods of research made possible by digital technology. The purpose is no longer just to provide digital copies of manuscripts but to explore the possibilities that computerization offers to study documents and other historical sources.
Increasingly competitive prices and low operating costs have made the digital revolution attractive even for African institutions, which, in recent years, have sought answers to the pressing needs of preserving and enhancing their historical sources. These technological developments have significantly broadened the range of sources investigated. While important, manuscripts represent only a part of the documentary heritage of the Horn of Africa. Numerous archives and a long-overlooked print culture offer equally interesting access points for studying the region.
The experience gained, though temporally circumscribed, has highlighted a number of more or less predictable problems. The projects to date, although they have often yielded only partial results, have highlighted the wealth of sources still present in the Horn of Africa and the way in which digital technology is making a valuable contribution to their preservation. Access remains perhaps the most critical issue. In the Horn of Africa, as in other African regions, digitization does not necessarily lead to Internet access.
There are copious resources for the study of African history on the internet. They include manuscripts and documentary archives, maps, museum collections, newspapers, printed books, picture collections, and sound and moving images. The websites of European institutions provide a good proportion of this content, reflecting the long, entangled, and troubled histories that connect Europe and Africa, as well as new partnerships with African institutions.
This plethora of digital resources enables both specialized researchers and the public to access information about Africa more quickly and easily, and on a larger scale than ever before. Digitization comes with a strong democratic impulse, and the new technology has been instrumental in making libraries, archives, museums, and art galleries much more open. But all is not smooth sailing, and there are two particular aspects of which researchers should be aware.
The first is that there are still huge collections, or parts of collections, that have not been digitized, and that resources have been—on the whole—most focused on items with visual appeal. The twin brakes of cost and copyright restrain the process, and researchers need to understand how what they can get online relates to what still exists only in hard copy.
The second consideration is that digitized resources can be difficult to find. Information about the riches of the web in this area is very fragmented, and exclusive use of one search engine, however dominant, is clearly not enough. As a counter to this fragmentation, a listing of the major websites for African history in Europe is given in a handy guide for researchers, which covers these resources by format and by region of Africa. The listing also provides websites in two particular areas of interest to historians and to the public: the transatlantic slave trade, and the liberation struggles in southern Africa.
Writing Africa’s history before the 10th century almost always means relying on sources other than written documents, which increase in number especially from the 16th century onward. Archaeology (including the study of art objects), the comparative study of historically related languages, paleo-environmental studies, and oral traditions provide the bulk of information. Writing Africa’s early history ideally involves collaboration among experts in using each kind of source, an increasingly common practice. Despite the challenges of analysis and interpretation posed by this base of sources, early African history has a depth and breadth akin to the histories made from the written sources in archives. Even so, whereas written documents provide details about individuals and precise dates, the sources for writing early African histories more often provide detail about conceptualization, for example, of time, hospitality, and individualism and about larger, environmental contexts shaping those concepts and shaped by the actions of the people who held them. Translating such concepts and scales of action into accounts accessible to those—including many historians—not steeped in the methodological conventions underlying the analysis of each source is a major challenge facing historians of Africa’s earlier past.