Cross Purposes: Archives in London and Archives in Africa

Many African archives remain invisible to the research community. This project, and follow-up initiatives, seeks to bring these valuable research materials to the wider attention of scholars, worldwide.

Archives Africa forms part of the broader ‘Finding Africa’ pilot, funded by King’s College London to explore new ways of connecting and making cross-searchable descriptions of archives held in African repositories, and to link archivists and scholars in the UK and Europe who are African specialists, with their counterparts in Africa.

Archives Africa is building local capacity among archivists in Madagascar, exploring lightweight methods of capturing catalogue information in the field, and in so doing understand better local cataloguing requirements. These insights are informing the writing of new or the enhancement of old, paper, collection level catalogues and their subsequent multilingual publication online using open source Access to Memory (ATOM) software. New training materials are being created to help archivists there with their ongoing work once the pilot phase has ended.

Building on the successful UNESCO archival thesaurus, the project is also exploring ways of creating local, specific, African subject, place name, corporate name and personal name indexes, for the purposes of consistency, accuracy and local currency.

The project owes its origins to the successful AIM25 initiative (Archives in London and the M25), a consortium of universities and learned society archives in the London area, led by King’s College London Archives. As originally conceived, peripatetic archivists would tour partner institutions in the Greater London area to appraise, catalogue and publish online collection level descriptions relating to their holdings. A major enhancement to the UK Archival Thesaurus (UKAT) and the creation of people, places and corporate name indexes, allowed users to carry out rich thematic searching across repositories.

The AIM25 project has grown since go-live in 2000 to become a service used by some 150 partner cultural organisations in London, including higher education, local government, museum and scientific and medical organisation archives, providing researchers with the ability to speedily search for key terms or to browse collections.

For many partner archive institutions, AIM25 has provided first time access online to their catalogues, including direct access via Google searching, the ability to share data with partners such as the UK Archives Hub, and greater visibility to researchers and for institutional advocacy or fundraising campaigns.

AIM25 also serves as a professional community of archivists, sharing best practice and working on collaborative technology and community projects, most recently using Linked Open Data. With such professional partnership in mind, AIM25 became an educational charity in 2016.

Archives Africa seeks to emulate the success of AIM25 as a sustainable and useful finding aid. It is…

  • a simple to navigate and intuitive front end catalogue
  • a lightweight backend web based editor for new and existing descriptions, or their import or export across multiple platforms as required, reflecting local conditions such as the intermittent availability of power and internet access and the use of mobile over desktop computing
  • an indexing tool that conforms to international standards
  • search engine visibility of data, an acknowledgment of the reality that most research searches anywhere begin and end with Google

Lastly, the model offers extensibility – a system to which new institutions (in London) or new countries (in Africa) can join as and when they are ready.