Volunteering at the CfAS Library: Adventures in the Archives

I have recently been lucky enough to have been able to volunteer at the Centre for African Studies Library, and honestly, it is difficult to know where to begin, or end in describing my experience!

My initial expectations were that I would be doing nothing more complicated than tidying and re-shelving books, perhaps fetching books upon request, which to be honest I was rather looking forward to- I have always loved libraries and books- but the reality was far more interesting and entertaining than I had expected…

I began by checking through materials donated to the library to check for potential duplicate items, using the Library Search system, which proved interesting as it provided me with the opportunity to learn more about the various libraries and the accessibility (or lack of!) of items, and more about cataloguing systems and procedures. Later that day, the library manager received an external request from an international academic, and I made my first visit to the archives. Working in the archives has by far been one of the most interesting and varied aspects of my time here, which really should be unsurprising, containing as it does an almost endlessly fascinating variety of items; governmental reports and commissions, both colonial and post colonial relating to land reforms, human rights, economic and agricultural policies; investigations and assessments of potential threats to the then status quo, such as communism or local unrests; personal notebooks and correspondences, which with time and patience could be found in their entirety, collated and ordered into a complete narrative; poetry, literature, local media items; photographs, slides, old tape cassettes and vinyl records of local music.

A photo album from the earliest days of photography (ca. 1878- 1882), and a collection of visual and audio materials from the archives

One particularly exciting find- on my first day- was a copy of a very old manuscript (written in 1819!) written in Arabic, which had been the subject of a request from an external academic, and one which was entirely due to luck, not judgement on my part! It is the opportunity to work with unique and beautiful items such as this that makes the archives such a rewarding aspect of my volunteer experience.

Examples from a copy of an Arabic manuscript entitled Kanzal-Awlād and authored by        Sambo Kulwa (Muḥammad Sambo b. Modibbo Aḥmad b. Mujayli), authored in 1818-19,        from our archives.

Once the box of requested materials were located, it was back upstairs to investigate the contents, and to create a descriptive record and finding aid; this required identifying the contents- not always straight forward if the cover was missing or the title compromised in some other way, or if published in a local script or language; often seeking out the date of publication- again, not always obvious without performing a little investigative research- sometimes even the author may not be clearly identified! Searching out and finding this information- or at least trying to provide as much information as possible from often disparate documents in various states of repair or completeness- was a fascinating and very satisfying experience in itself, but knowing that you have contributed in some small way to creating an academic resource that may be a useful future aid to students and researchers adds an extra feeling of a job worth doing.

Volunteering at the Centre for African Studies Library was not at all what I expected- it was even better- a wonderful and educational experience, and one I hope to repeat!

(John Hennessy, Library Volunteer)

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