IFLA Conference Session Explores African Cultural Heritage Collaboration

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At the IFLA Annual World Congress this year in Cape Town, the Rare Books and Special Collections Section sponsored a session devoted to “fostering collaboration to build and preserve African cultural heritage.” The section’s members devised the program to call broader attention to some of the impressive collaborative work that has been undertaken over the years as well as to get an update on the current state of the Timbuktu manuscripts. Four of the five papers can be found in the IFLA Library. Daryl Green (University of St Andrews, United Kingdom) moderated the session attended by ca. 200 people in one of the conference center’s cavernous exhibition halls.

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In the first paper Musa Wakhungu Olaka (University of Kansas, USA) spoke about collaborating to preserve and disseminate testimonies of child survivors of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in which he described a project to digitize these unique and moving documents at very low cost using basic scanners and laptop computers. IBUKA, the umbrella organization of associations of survivors of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, was one of the few institutions to collect close to 1,000 handwritten testimonies of children from Gitarama Prefecture — one of the major killing fields. But these testimonies remained inaccessible until a collaborative project between IBUKA and the University of Florida worked to transcribe, translate, digitize and disseminate them. Olaka highlighted the importance of IBUKA retaining ownership of the testimonies even though the University of Florida serves as the host institution. He also made an appeal for Africans to consider using inexpensive technology to digitize more of their hidden collections. Read the paper here: http://library.ifla.org/1161/  See the project here: http://genocide.lib.usf.edu/rwandanchildrenstestimonies

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The second paper, presented by Araba Dawson-Andoh (Ohio University, USA) and Esmeralda Kale (Northwestern University, USA), was entitled “Cooperate, Preserve, Share: Improving Access to Primary Source Materials from Africa.” It presented a case study of the Cooperative Africana Materials Project (CAMP), (formerly the Cooperative Africana Microfilm Project) a cooperative collection development and preservation initiative of higher education institutions based in North America, Europe and Africa founded in 1963 by the Africana Librarians Council (ALC), a coordinate organization of the African Studies Association (ASA) and the Center for Research Libraries (CRL) a library consortia based in Chicago. There are currently 50 members and two African affiliate members. CRL serves as the administrator of CAMP, and there are now over 10,000 bibliographic entries in CRL’s catalog. This paper provides a brief history of CAMP, describes current and recent CAMP projects in Uganda, Liberia and Senegal, and surveys selected collections; including manuscripts, newspapers in English and African languages, government documents, political ephemeral from South Africa and personal papers like the Tubman papers from Liberia. Read the paper here: http://library.ifla.org/1109/  Learn more about CAMP on the CRL website: http://www.crl.edu/programs/camp

The final three papers of the session were devoted to the Timbuktu manuscripts and included a report on their current location and analysis of risk, a detailed description of some earlier conservation treatments, and a rumination on the proper ways of moving forward while honoring Africa’s strong archival traditions.

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Maria Luisa Russo delivered a paper co-written by her and Dmitry Bondarev (both of the University of Hamburg, Germany) entitled “The Project ‘Safeguarding the manuscripts of Timbuktu’: a synergic approach to the preservation of written cultural heritage.” The project is coordinated by the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC), University of Hamburg, and was set up following the dramatic events of 2012 that led to the evacuation of many manuscript collections from Timbuktu to Bamako, where the manuscripts have since suffered from environmental hazards and inappropriate storage. The paper discusses the project’s aims and methods, challenges and solutions, with a focus on the issues of preservation and accessibility for research. The collaborative approach that was adopted at different stages of the project is addressed by highlighting the importance of synergy between “operating” measures and educational initiatives both from Malian and international institutions. 300,000 manuscripts were transported to Bamako, and they represent a variety of topics and languages, from the 12th to early 20th centuries, and witness complex written culture and multilingual literacy in Africa. A great deal of research is required to determine what constitutes a single manuscript, and there remain problematic preservation conditions due to climate and contact with acidic materials. The project has two more years of funding and several research projects are being developed. Read the paper here: http://library.ifla.org/1168/  Learn more at the project website: http://www.manuscript-cultures.uni-hamburg.de/timbuktu/index_e.html

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Mary Minicka (Western Cape Archives and Records Service, South Africa) presented a highly illustrated discussion of lessons learned in the understanding and conservation of Timbuktu’s manuscripts, derived from her experiences in conserving some of the manuscripts under South African sponsorship in the early 2000s. Minicka gave a geographic orientation of Timbuktu and an overview of the significant challenges to preserving the manuscripts such as dealing with brittle paper, water damage, ink corrosion, and termite damage, to name just a few.

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In his paper entitled “The Timbuktu manuscripts: a model for preservation in Africa,” Francis Garaba (University of Fort Hare and University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa) provided some historical context to the manuscripts, which have been described as “the most important cultural treasures in Africa.” Garaba talked about how the manuscripts had survived for centuries in the basements of individual households and for the need to de-politicize the archive. He argued against unsustainable Western methods of preservation and for Africans to take control of the digitization of their own intellectual heritage to counter cultural pillaging. Read the paper here: http://library.ifla.org/1162/

Unfortunately there was no time remaining for a question-and-answer session with the speakers.  A couple of questions in my mind include:

  • How long did the South African Timbuktu manuscript preservation effort last, how many manuscripts were preserved, and where are they now located?
  • What would be some effective strategies for de-politicizing the Timbuktu manuscripts?
  • What would be the best mechanisms for training African librarians in building sustainable digitized collections?


David Farneth (Getty Research Institute, USA / IFLA RBSCS Standing Committee Member)

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