Archives In Africa: Aggregation for Global Research

By: Rosalie Lack, Project Manager, UCLA Library
Rosalie has worked as a Digital Librarian for over 15 years at the University for California and at EIFL (Electronic Information for Libraries). Currently Project Manager at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), for the International Digital Ephemera Project (IDEP) collaborating with partners in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Middle East to digitize at-risk content. Previously Product Manager for Online Archive of California (OAC), an aggregation of finding aids (catalogs) from archives across California.

In June this year, Dr. Geoff Browell, Head of Archives Services and Dr. Vincent Hiribarren, Lecturer in Modern African History, King’s College London hosted a meeting of researchers, archivists and librarians to explore the feasibility of embarking on an extremely ambitious project – creating an online aggregation of catalogs (finding aids) from archives across the African continent.

Dr. Hiribarren spearheaded a successful proof of concept project that aggregates catalogs (finding aids) from institutions across Madagascar, seen here.

Given the usefulness of this collection, the value of expanding the project seems self-evident. For example, with increased global visibility of collections, one can imagine researchers making connections across continents related to topically areas.

For example, peace and reconciliation in Rwanda, South Africa, Eastern Europe, and Cambodia (as was suggested by Marion Wallace during the meeting).

Or African researchers can connect with materials in neighboring countries of which they were unaware. Or African and European researchers collaborating on a research project that unites colonial archives in Europe with those in Africa.

In addition, from the point of view of digitization, providing online access to archival descriptions is an excellent first step toward digitization of collections. Once the descriptions are available, and end users start to use them, institutions learn what are the most used items and that can help to define digitization priorities.

We recognized that as impressive and exciting as the project sounds, there are countless issues that must be considered in order to ensure success, (putting aside of course the feasibility and sheer enormity of such a project).

Here are some issues that were raised:

  • If this project is in fact coordinated by Kings College, then the first and most self-evident issue is the inclusion of African researchers, librarians and archivists on the project team.
  • It is essential that the content is accessible in the original language, in addition to as many official African languages as is feasible. This resource will be an excellent opportunity to connect researchers across Africa as well as make connections with researchers outside of Africa.
  • The control of records must remain in the hands of the contributing institution so that they can edit, add or remove collections. The sensitive nature of archives can require the removal and/or embargo of materials for a certain time period.
  • An inclusive and flexible definition of an archive is essential because there are rich materials that are not housed in official archives that remain hidden.
  • With regards to technology, it is important that any online access solution takes into consideration varying levels of bandwidth and infrastructure to provide broadest possible access.
  • There are existing regional and international archival and library networks, it is important to tap into these organizations and structures to ensure broad buy-in and support.

At the end of the meeting, we all left energized and tasked with tapping in our own networks and researching funding opportunities.

Please contact me at rlack@library.ucla.edu if you want to stay informed or get involved with this project.