Finding Africa Workshop: King’s College London: 22nd June 2018

Finding Africa held a workshop in June at King’s College London that brought together the project team of Drs Vincent Hiribarren and Geoff Browell from King’s and Pete Vox from the web development company, IMAGIZ, and a cross section of UK archivists with prominent Africa related collections, such as SOAS, digital humanities scholars with an African focus, notably from King’s, and historians of Africa.

The purpose of the workshop was to review the types of record held locally in the UK and to explore ways of better connecting existing digital outputs such as catalogues of collections held in Africa and the rest of the world and surrogates created for initiatives including the Endangered Archives Programme.

The experience for researchers and the task of linking researchers and archivists in Africa with their counterparts elsewhere was explored in depth along with key challenges and next steps including fundraising.

Attendees:

  • Sheila Anderson (KCL)
  • Geoff Browell (KCL/AIM25)
  • Jody Butterworth (EAP)
  • Claire Frankland (LSHTM)
  • Mark Hedges (KCL)
  • Vincent Hiribarren (KCL)
  • Stephanie Kitchen (SOAS)
  • Rosalie Lack (University of California – via Skype)
  • John Langdon (SOAS)
  • Lucy McCann (Bodleian/SCOLMA)
  • Nayanka Perdigao (KCL African Leadership Centre)
  • Helen Porter (SOAS)
  • Marie Rodet (SOAS)
  • Richard Temple (Senate House)
  • Pete Vox (IMAGIZ)
  • Marion Wallace (BL)

Apologies were received from a number of supporters with an interest in the project, including:

  • James Lowry of the ICA
  • Nason Bimbe, an expert on open access and scholarly digital publishing in Africa
  • Katie Sambrook, Special Collections Librarian at King’s

Points of note:

  • Not clear what is/isn’t an archive: traditional definitions break down when considering diverse types of material which may include published articles, library books, and museum objects, big data repositories, born digital and traditional paper archives. We need to be inclusive and non-prescriptive (Sheila Anderson).
  • The point was made that many interesting or useful archives sit outside the national archives systems of many African countries, and that these ought not to be left out of cross-searching capabilities (Marie Rodet).
  • The use of lightweight software/data entry that reflects variable and challenging local conditions is probably the right one – this means simple spreadsheets and PDFs, and often just Word documents. The project needs to be multi-speed: some countries will come on board more quickly than others.
  • Published catalogues will have multiple applications including conflict resolution/lessons learned; healthcare best practice; economic development and the protection of cultural heritage. It was agreed that a focus on four or five use cases was probably the right approach.
  • African researchers urgently need a way to raise their profile and a platform to publish their research. Any initiative should demonstrably improve access for local researchers, not just Western ones, and this project can help (Sheila Anderson).
  • It may be useful to work with local researchers at the African Leadership Centre at King’s and similar centres in UK universities, and to target African universities for support and dissemination (Nayanka Perdigao).
  • Would be useful to connect with African archival/library schools to roll-out the professional training aspect of the project and secure adoption, notably in Makerere, Dakar, Yaoundé, Ghana (Richard Temple).
  • The aggregation software that might be used could be based on AtoM (Access to Memory Open Source Archival Description Software), which is scheduled to be redeveloped and which was originally created with the help of the International Council on Archives (Geoff Browell). As well as AIM25 in London, the European Archives Portal Europe and the Online Archive of California (OAC) were held up as possible technical models (Rosalie Lack).
  • A common metadata schema/vocabularies/name authorities is essential to allow for cross-searching of data across different digitisation projects, existing or proposed, and maximise re-use including place names, corporate names and personal names. Ideally these should have unique identifiers that are used internationally, and are multi-lingual. Open licenses should be deployed to enable sharing of data.
  • Funding be sought for a pan-African catalogue for one theme, as a demonstrator to secure further funding (Pete Vox). Health/public health was identified as a likely theme which would secure buy-in from a majority of African countries. Security and peace building was another suggestion, to enable cross-searching of the theme across different countries that have experienced war and conflict resolution such as Sudan, South Africa, Rwanda and Zimbabwe.
  • Other contributors argued that support for a pan-African project would be more forthcoming if countries can choose their own themes, as has happened in the Endangered Archives Programme (Marion Wallace and Rosalie Lack).
  • A useful first step is to scope the extent and variety of African archives. The ICA’s help should also be sought in this endeavour (Geoff Browell).
  • The importance of linking existing initiatives/centres of excellence was highlighted, such as the International Institute in Africa (Amsterdam), the Suarez Institute (Lisbon), SCOLMA and European Libraries in African Studies, The International African Institute, Michigan State University, and Development Studies Libraries in Europe, notable the IDS in Sussex. These should be approached to win support and improve the platform (Lucy McCann, Richard Temple, Rosalie Lack and others).
  • We should take inspiration from existing successful network/co-ordination/aggregation initiatives such as the DPLA and Europeana to overcome the dispersed nature of online digitised content (Marion Wallace and others).
  • The project could benefit from the creation of an app and a twitter account (Lucy McCann and Marie Rodet).
  • Long term sustainability must be addressed. A simple architecture with bolt-on applications is the best approach – start small and be useful to different constituencies of users (Helen Porter and Richard Temple).
  • Vocabularies ought to be lightweight, high level and ideally build on existing examples such as LCSH and metadata at the EAP (Jody Butterworth and others).
  • Funding could be sought from the Commonwealth, British Academy, ECOWAS, and African Union (Richard Temple, Stephanie Kitchen, Marie Rodet and others).

Finding Africa would like to thank all those who took part for their time and expertise.

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