Managing and Promoting Special Collections in Africa: RBSC’s IFLA WLIC 2015 Preconference Satellite Meeting
Annual conferences are often bookended by preconferences and workshops at the start of them with tours of libraries, exhibits, and scenic side trips at their end, and the 2015 IFLA WLIC conference was no exception. But, what was exceptional was the theme and content of this year’s satellite meeting: Managing and Promoting Special Collections in Africa: the Bleek-Lloyd Collection and Beyond. Sponsored by IFLA’s Rare Books and Special Collections Section, organized by David Farneth (The Getty Institute), and hosted by Renate Meyer (Head, Special Collections Library, University of Cape Town), the preconference was a one day event that was attended by approximately 30 attendees and held at the Centre for African Studies Gallery, a center located on the spectacularly beautiful grounds of the University of Cape Town’s Upper Campus.
Prior to this preconference, I and several other attendees had been quite unaware of the Bleek-Lloyd Collection, a unique collection of South African cultural materials, and of its status as a true national treasure. In fact, the Bleek-Lloyd Collection is of such cultural significance that it is listed in UNESCO’S Memory of the World Register as an example of a documentary heritage of international importance. According to Tanya Barben, the former UCT rare books librarian, the Bleek-Lloyd Collection was “compiled by the [linguist], Dr. Wilhelm Bleek, and his sister-in-law, Lucy Lloyd, between 1870 and 1881. They worked with a series of Bushmen informants to record the language, stories, life-histories and way of life of the /Xam. An important part of the collection is the series of notebooks in which Bleek and Lloyd recorded this information, in the original language, most of which they then translated into English.” In addition to the original notebooks, the collection contains other documents such as drawings, photographs, maps, and ephemera either of, created by, or collected from the /Xam during the latter half of the nineteenth century.
In 1857, Bleek first started working with /Xam Bushmen who were then prisoners on Robben Island, learning their language and recording their oral histories and folklore. In 1870, he was joined in his anthropological and ethnographic studies of the /Xam by Lucy Lloyd, and they worked together until Bleek’s premature death in 1875. Based out of the South African Library, for the next five years, Lloyd continued to interview /Xam individuals, to collect their genealogies, stories, and folktales, and to submit her findings to the Cape Government. However, in 1880, her field work came to an abrupt halt when Lloyd lost her position at the library and was replaced by another scholar, Dr. Theophilus Hahn.
Shortly afterwards, Lloyd left South Africa to live in Germany with her sister, but Lloyd moved throughout Europe with an occasional visit back to South Africa, while publishing infrequent /Xam related reports. In 1912, Lloyd returned to South Africa where she remained until her death in 1914. In the years that followed, the carefully collected and curated materials that had become known as the Bleek-Lloyd Collection were eventually divided between three depositories: The University of Cape Town, The National Library of South Africa in Cape Town and the Iziko South African Museum, and where they remain housed today. (Although the collection is divided, it is the entity that has the UNESCO documentary heritage status.)
Against this historical backdrop, it’s perhaps fitting that the preconference was divided into three sessions with papers presented by rare book librarians, scientists, and archivists on the various aspects and research potential of the collection. The first session concentrated on the Bleek-Lloyd Collection and was moderated by Krister Ostlund (Uppsala University). The paper topics ranged from Jan Bos’s discussion of how to nominate a cultural collection to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register (with the Bleek-Lloyd Collection as a primary example; his paper can be read here) to the re-examination of terms in the collection, and how such terms took on radically different meanings over the last century to the use of Bleek-Lloyd primary materials in the Square Kilometre Array initiative.
The second session, moderated by Isabel Garcia-Monge (Spanish Bibliographical Heritage Union Catalogue) focused on the present day management of African Collections. Again, the session covered a variety of topics with papers on manuscript conservation in the National Library of the Kingdom of Morocco (paper here) to the photographic archives of the Arthur Elliott Collection (paper here) to the preservation and access work in the Cameroon Photo Press Archives by the African Photography Initiatives project (paper here). Papers presented at both sessions underscored the range of preservation and conservation work undertaken in Africa, the research possibilities still waiting to be explored in the collections in African libraries and repositories, and need for improved access to many of these institutions and their collections. Most of the preconference papers are now available online on the Section’s webpage.
After a lunch provided by the UCT, the third and final session of day was convened to discuss the topic: Providing access to African cultural heritage. This session was a moderated panel discussion which included all of the day’s presenters. The purpose of this last session was to discuss how African institutions provide access to their collections, and the cultural and political issues involved in providing such access. And what is access? It is a long list, but simplified, it could be the ability to have physical access to materials, it could be in the form of digitization to preserve and protect the items, or it could be the active cataloguing the materials in order to make a collection available to local, national, and internationals scholars. It was a robust discussion, and in general, the critical issues facing African institutions are similar to those faced by other libraries and archives elsewhere in the world: sufficient funding and support is necessary in order to provide the form (or forms) of needed access.
When the panel discussion ended, the preconference attendees were led to the Special Collections Library where the treasures of the library had been pulled and put on display for us by Tanya Barben. And, treasures of the rare book world they were indeed and the hands-on exhibit to everyone’s delight included items from the Bleek-Lloyd Collection, an incunabula or two plus an illuminated work which were alongside early South African imprints, modern South African children’s books, numerous first editions of literary classics including several from the Rudyard Kipling collection, and my all-time favorites: decorated fore-edge painted books. The exhibit was accompanied by an informal talk by Barben, and together, they served as an impressive conclusion to an impressive preconference.
Beth T. Kilmarx (Binghamton University, USA / IFLA RBSCS Standing Committee Member)