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Article

Reading the Archives as Sources  

David M. Gordon

Archives used in Africanist historical research include those of the colonial state, postcolonial national archives, missionary archives, personal papers, political party archives, and the archives of corporations and international agencies involved in African affairs. Africanists historians generally accept that these archives are not transparent renditions of the past; they represent and even reproduce power relations related to colonialism and its legacies. Nonetheless, careful readings have enabled Africanist historians to understand the structural order and logic these archives (the archival grain), and thus demonstrate colonial (or other) power relations implicated in the collections. Reading archives against the grain can also reveal alternative voices and agents, however. Even as discussions of archival methodologies have been limited, archives have remained crucial sources for key trends in Africanist historical writing, including the representation of colonial hegemonies as well as African voice and agency. To advance such readings, Africanist historians develop post-positivist readings of archives that appreciate silences, dissonances, and conflicts within archives and documentation. Through a process of archival fieldwork, including a careful combing of archives, reading of files, and transcribing of select documents, historians have become adept at appreciating the grain of archives and reading the archive against this grain. The digitization of archives and digital research methods, including electronic search engines, full-text searches, online archives, and digital photography, challenge aspects of traditional archival fieldwork, holding benefits and potential setbacks for the critical appreciation of archival documentation. These challenges have sharpened with the changing role of physical documentation along with an increase in smaller archives that enable serendipitous and hodgepodge archival investigations.

Article

History and Politics of the Kenya Archives  

Riley Linebaugh

Heavily reliant on the use of documents in its style of rule, the British Colonial Government (BCG) in the colony of Kenya had surprisingly poor recordkeepers. The history of Kenya’s archives during the colonial period reveals a disregard for efficient record preservation despite the perceived correlation between administrative and archival efficiency, indicating the gap between the fantasy of a well-ordered empire and the reality on the ground. However, the emergency period (1952–1960) ushered in significant archival changes, wherein the control over its archives greatly concerned the colonial government as a matter of its counter-insurgency efforts. In fact, the colonial administration issued its first draft rules and regulations concerning its archives in 1955, suggesting that it did not foresee its relatively imminent expulsion. However, shortly after appointing its first government archivist, the BCG began disassembling its archives through the strategic destruction and removal of sensitive documents in the early 1960s. The independent Kenyan government pursued the establishment of a national archives as a priority, and the Kenya National Archives was codified by law in 1965. The creation of a national archives was viewed as a way to relegate the colonial administration into a fixed past through the physical removal of colonial-era documents from political offices into storage. In so doing, independent Kenya’s inaugural class of archivists saw themselves as making room for both an independent government and a new national school of history for the first time, archival documents stored in Nairobi were available to members of the public. In contrast to the colonial administration, which maintained its archives with a strict policy of inaccessibility, archival documents stored in Nairobi were available, at least nominally, to members of the public for the first time under an independent government and the terms of the Public Archives Act. However, dynamics other than the law have limited and/or offered archival access incidentally or intentionally. While the relationship between archival and political control has not disappeared, the widening of archival access in Kenya has also nurtured critical scholarship and activism.

Article

The Internet and Social Media as Sources  

Aubrey Bloomfield and Sean Jacobs

The Internet and social media increasingly are becoming sources about the African past and present in ways that will influence to some extent how history will be learnt and the form that methods of historical research will take. Social media have increasingly dislodged print journalism as “the first rough draft of history” and tended to democratize and hasten information sharing and communication. Historians are working through difficult debates about the Internet as a source archive, the usability of websites, and related matters. The debate over online resources and their use in historical and other studies on one level remains unresolved. Nevertheless, online sources add another rich layer to narratives, stories, and perspectives that are already being recorded or told, and in this regard they will add to the storehouse of empirical data to be crunched by future historians.

Article

The Preservation of African Websites as Historical Sources  

Marion Frank-Wilson

The advent of the World Wide Web has changed traditional ways of communicating research and has increased opportunities for authors from the global South to disseminate knowledge, thus bypassing the “gate-keeping” system in the traditional peer-reviewed journal literature of the global North. Increasingly, content from and about Africa is produced and disseminated on the web. Content is all-encompassing and ranges from cultural and artistic creations to political as well as economic information and government publications and statistics. The web makes it possible not only to produce knowledge but also to provide public access to and increase interaction with information and historical sources. While the potential of the web to democratize knowledge production was recognized by librarians, archivists, and researchers on Africa early on, there is also an awareness that the web as medium for historical research may in fact deepen the digital divide and perpetuate longstanding inequalities, linking it to debates about the politics of archiving and related questions of cultural imperialism. With the average age of a website estimated at seventy-five days, there is agreement among researchers and archivists that important web content is disappearing every day, and that future historical research depends on efforts to preserve and archive websites now. Nevertheless, while analyses and discussions about the importance of preserving African web content have emerged in the literature since the early 2000s, actual efforts to preserve and archive African web contents as historical resources have been relatively few and sporadic. Rather than relying on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, which automatically preserves websites through a web crawler but that cannot be depended on to archive every hyperlink or even every subpage or new version of existing pages, libraries and archives use the Internet Archive’s subscription-based tool Archive-It as a way to capture web content at a selective, deep, subpage level. Creating such curated, archived digital collections, however, connects web archiving with concerns and issues raised in the scholarly literature about the politics of archiving and who ultimately has the right to decide which websites will be preserved as part of a country’s digital history. Moreover, specific characteristics of the web as a medium pose additional, more practical challenges for its use in historical research. Issues related to funding, scalability, availability of metadata, and archival documentation, which would include information about functionality, website versions, dead links, provenance, as well as contextual information, are all factors that have yet to be addressed when creating web archives. The need to develop practices, policies, and documentation to guide web archiving has therefore been stressed by both archivists and historians. Ultimately, the preservation of African websites for historical research can best be accomplished collaboratively, with the involvement of both archivists and historians as well as library and professional associations and, most importantly, strong partnerships with stakeholders from the African continent.

Article

Digital Sources in Europe for African History  

Marion Wallace

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.

Article

The Politics of Archives in Uganda  

Derek R. Peterson

Since the beginning of the 21st century, archivists in Uganda have been pursuing a number of projects to make previously inaccessible archival collections available for research. All of this work of archival rehabilitation makes it hard to see the longer history of control and curatorship in the management of Uganda’s public record. Uganda’s archives have, over the course of decades, been rearranged and pruned in response to changing political and intellectual demands. In the 1950s and 1960s British and Ugandan officials sought to shield the paper record from examination. This regime of access control deprived campaigners of inspiration and evidence. During the 1970s, with the ascendancy of Idi Amin’s government, archives were rendered into a national patrimony. Civil servants hastened to ensure that the record of their accomplishments was stored in safe custody. Since the late 1980s the government of Yoweri Museveni has disinvested the state from the legacies of the past. For the Museveni government the slow decay of the public record has allowed the foreclosing of divisive debates about history. Uganda’s political history has been episodic and interrupted, and every new regime has had to struggle anew to author a narrative about national self-becoming. That is why Uganda’s governments have taken such dramatically different positions on the management of historical knowledge. Opening or withholding archival materials is a way of editing the public record. It makes some kinds of information state secrets and renders other aspects of the past into a legacy, a source of inspiration and orientation.

Article

Archives and History in The Gambia  

Bala Saho

The Gambian archives, established in the 1960s, have rich and valuable resources for deeper study and teaching of the history of The Gambia and the subregion. The collections are representative of a substantial amount of The Gambia’s precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial history on a range of subjects, including settlement patterns, migration, family histories, folktales, myths, legends, proverbs, songs, religion, early colonial trading in The Gambia, histories of the ethnic groups and their cultural ceremonies, history of individuals, nationalists politicians, postcolonial political parties, and World War II. Although these sources can be valuable to students, international researchers, and specialists, there is a great need for their care and maintenance.

Article

Sources for the History of the Copperbelt  

Duncan Money

The Central African Copperbelt is among the most closely studied regions on the African continent and has been of enduring interest to successive generations of scholars. This mining region stretched out across the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) and Zambia and was transformed by the onset of industrial mining in the early 20th century, which brought about rapid urbanization and wide-ranging social change. The type and location of some of the major available sources on the Copperbelt’s modern history vary widely and include those produced by the state, companies, international organizations, missionaries, and scholars, along with newspapers and photographs. Knowledge production about the region has been shaped by the mining industry and the state and this has consequences for the kinds of sources available about the past, which are primarily state and company archives.

Article

Newspapers as Sources for African History  

Emma Hunter

Newspapers have become increasingly important as a source for African history, and the range of historical questions newspapers have been employed to address has expanded dramatically. Newspapers are not only sources for political history, they also have much to teach us about the social, cultural, and intellectual history of Africa. They were spaces of literary and textual experimentation. They also played an important role in the creation of new identities. It is essential, however, that we approach newspapers critically as sources and think carefully about their limitations, as well as the opportunities they present to the historian.

Article

Documents on South-Central and Southeast Africa to 1890  

Matthew Hannaford

Much research on the history of south-central and southeast African societies prior to colonial rule has made use of historical documents to a greater or lesser degree. Here, the contents and coverage of available written sources are examined over a near-millennial period from the end of the 1st millennium ce to 1890. While the argument that follows is that documents over this period provide valuable historical material beyond the activities of colonial societies, it is inescapable that they are generally “external” narratives written for external purposes, foremost among which was the exploitation of the land and people. This imbues documentation with a multitude of biases but does not preclude careful and critical use of documentary records for the study of African societies and environments. This is especially true when documents are used alongside other source types from other disciplines such as archaeology, oral history, linguistics, paleoecology, and paleoclimatology. Many pre-19th-century documents are housed in European archives, which poses challenges around accessibility. However, endeavors to produce source databases and develop digital archives are beginning to change this picture, providing scope for renewed scholarship on aspects of the history of Africa from the early 16th century through to the end of the 19th century.

Article

West African Manuscripts in Arabic and African Languages and Digital Preservation  

Fallou Ngom

West African manuscripts are numerous and varied in forms and contents. There are thousands of them across West Africa. A significant portion of them are documents written in Arabic and Ajami (African languages written in Arabic script). They deal with both religious and nonreligious subjects. The development of these manuscript traditions dates back to the early days of Islam in West Africa, in the 11th century. In addition to these Arabic and Ajami manuscripts, there have been others written in indigenous scripts. These include those in the Vai script invented in Liberia; Tifinagh, the traditional writing system of the Amazigh (Berber) people; and the N’KO script invented in Guinea for Mande languages. While the writings in indigenous scripts are rare less numerous and widespread, they nonetheless constitute an important component of West Africa’s written heritage. Though the efforts devoted to the preservation of West African manuscripts are limited compared to other world regions, interest in preserving them has increased. Some of the initial preservation efforts of West African manuscripts are the collections of colonial officers. Academics later supplemented these collections. These efforts resulted in important print and digital repositories of West African manuscripts in Africa, Europe, and America. Until recently, most of the cataloguing and digital preservation efforts of West African manuscripts have focused on those written in Arabic. However, there has been an increasing interest in West African manuscripts written in Ajami and indigenous scripts. Important West African manuscripts in Arabic, Ajami, and indigenous scripts have now been digitized and preserved, though the bulk remain uncatalogued and unknown beyond the communities of their owners.

Article

Archives and Historical Sources for Tanzania  

Paul Bjerk

Although Tanzania’s traditions of bureaucratic government, from the Omani sultanate of Zanzibar to the postcolonial government of Julius Nyerere, produced voluminous documentation, Tanzania’s state archives face the challenges of those in many African countries. Despite efforts to preserve documents in dedicated archives, maintaining high quality conditions for these holdings has been a low priority for the government until recently, and anxieties about the release of sensitive governmental material have left much of the postcolonial archive lingering in ministries and party offices under uncertain conditions. For the historian this means that research in Tanzanian history must consider a notional “grand archive” that consists of material spread across dozens of archival collections in Tanzania and around the world. The constitutive parts of this archive provide complementary collections and perspectives and remind the researcher of the need to consider not only an archive’s contents but the archive as an institution.