My time at the African Studies Library

Victoria Falls, Zambia

My work at the African Library first began in late 2018 when I, along with a friend of mine, began volunteering at the library on a weekly basis. Jenni was quick to set us the task of organising the mammoth collection recently donated by Peter Sanders, a task that I was yet to realise would last me the next year and a half. Although fulfilling, the first years worth of work was limited in its success, due to the limited time we had available to visit the archive, however once I completed my A-levels I was incredibly fortunate to be invited back by Jenni to take on a position as a temporary Archive Assistant. This role has allowed me to not only complete the Sanders collection but also explore a far wider range of donated materials within the archive.

Mountain Village, Lesotho

Lesotho is a country that I had admittedly never heard of before starting my work on the Sanders collection. In this admission I am not alone as a great majority of those here in the UK know relatively little about this country’s complex history, British involvement, and its current standing. Therefore, the significant value of bringing this collection to light, which would promote future research into Lesotho, gave me an added sense of importance to my work as it would help future generations learn about the many wonders of the country. Through the process of sorting and organising Sanders’ library of books I found myself time and again engrossed by a mixture of captivating topics, from medicinal practices to mineralogy, which are a testament to the exciting history of Lesotho itself.

Personal documents of Meshack Matake


One piece in particular from Sanders’ collection stood out to me; the identity card of Meshack Matake. Upon opening the wallet I was met with “Died 12/2/56” hurriedly scribbled on the front page of the accompanying documentation. After further inspection I found a collection of small receipts and documents that mapped out Meshack’s day to day lifestyle in the years before his untimely death. Unfortunately, I struggled to find more information regarding Matake but hope to discuss this with Peter Sanders in the future to learn more about how he received this artefact and whether he knows anything more that could help us in understanding what happened to him. This was undoubtedly a more poignant part of the collection as it gave a deep insight into the lives of everyday Mosothos living in ‘Basutoland’ during its years as a British Crown colony.

Voting Disks, Lesotho

Another piece from the collection is a small bundle of voting disks that were once the centre stone of Lesotho democracy. This allowed for everyone, regardless of their ability to read or write, to participate in local elections as they could vote using the logos of political parties as a guide. It is insightful artefacts such as this that further allow us to relate to the way of life in Lesotho.

Harare, Zimbabwe

Although dealing with the Sanders collection made up a large part of my work, I also was fortunate to work on other donations within the library. Venturing through the various topics and locations covered by these collections was incredibly insightful for me. I would sometimes spend a day reading top secret government dossiers and then the next learning about the intricacies of university life in Uganda

Sanyu Babies’ Home Newsletter

Collections could be incredibly niche, such as the Hester Boron collection that focused mainly on the Sanyu Babies’ Home in Kampala to the far broader Winifred Brown donation that contained a variety of colourful travel brochures around Africa.

C-4 Argonaut, East African Airways

Since starting my work in November as an archive assistant I have managed to get through 46 of these boxes, leaving me with a far greater understanding of and appreciation for Africa’s rich and diverse history. Moreover I have learnt many invaluable skills in the process of documenting these collections, such as how to care for damaged documentation and how to categorise and organise files, which will serve me well in my future history studies.

I would like to thank Jenni for this amazing experience and hope to continue contributing to the library in the future.


– Harry Traherne


Archiving apartheid: the process of preserving images for future use

Throughout my time at the African Studies Library I have been working on a source created and distributed by the International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa (IDAF), published to detail aspects of life in Southern Africa during apartheid. In the specific publication which I worked on, there were many photographs detailing various aspects of African life from the 1960s onwards, looking into areas such as rural and urban life, mining, resettlement, the police, and the army.

One of the most striking images which I found within the collection, was one indexed within the images on resettlement. The image itself is a far-away picture depicting a pair of corrugated iron huts, created by families who were forcibly segregated by the South African government and dumped in a barren area, as their labour was considered to not be required by the apartheid government. For me, this image clearly represents the isolation created by the policy of segregation in the country, with the dark silhouettes of a family and their huts the only recognisable figures in an otherwise empty picture.

When working on this collection, I started out by labelling it with a name appropriate to its contents, in this case “Box IDAF/1”, with “IDAF” referring to the International Defence and Aid Fund who produced the material.  The next step of the archival process is to trawl through the items in the collection and remove any steel pins or paper clips and replace them with brass ones, to stop any form of corrosion from affecting the contents.  I then sorted the contents into different sections to make it more manageable for anyone who would like to use it. This collection was somewhat easier than others, as the images had already been indexed and included a contents page.  Therefore, all I had to do was separate these groups of images into individual acid-free pouches (so that they do not become spoilt).

Once this was finished, the physical process of archiving the images was complete, however, I still had to research and produce an information sheet on the content of the collection, as well as how they were sorted, and an introduction to this. The introduction was, besides being able to look at the images myself, the most interesting aspect of the process. To provide an appropriate introduction to the collection I spent time researching into IDAF, so as to provide any researchers who wish to consult the images a brief understanding of the contents, as well as its purpose.

Being able to see original images of life in South Africa during this period has undoubtedly been one of my highlights of doing work experience at the library, and I have greatly enjoyed the process of working through and archiving this collection. My time at the library has been an enjoyable experience and I look forward to working through further unsorted collections.

Todor, Y12, The Perse School – doing a research project into the Ethiopian Empire


Alex uncovers further collections @AfrStudiesLib!

During my time volunteering at the African Studies Library I have had the privilege of getting to work with a variety of collections of primary sources, ranging from the personal correspondences of colonial administrators, to Cold War era intelligence reports on communist influence in Africa. While varying greatly in their contents, all the sources I have seen are able to offer insights not only into the lives of the individuals they relate to, but to wider society during their time period.

The first collection I got to work with was a prime example of this, a catalogue of letters written by and to one of the last British colonial administrators in Nigeria, John H. Smith. Reading through Smith’s correspondences with his Nigerian friends Dafuwa Azare and Edward George, I began to discover their thoughts on events taking place in Nigeria and around the world during the 1950s and 60s, and from their letters I developed an understanding of the situation on the ground in Nigeria shortly before and after its independence.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of working with previously uncatalogued collections of primary sources is discovering that they often contain a far broader range of documents than first meets the eye. This was the case with a collection of writings which, ostensibly all related to the engineer Eric Welbourn’s involvement with the foundation of the universities of Lagos and Ibadan. In fact, these documents formed only one part of the collection, which also contained a large number of 1930s intelligence reports from Northern Nigeria, donated by the pioneering Africanist Margery Perham. I was intrigued by how Perham came to obtain these once classified documents, and discovered that she gained them whilst travelling Africa as part of a Rockefeller Foundation Travel Scholarship. I was also surprised to discover that the Welbourn collection closely related to the collections of the renowned Arabist R.B. Serjeant, and the scholar and founder of Clare Hall Eric Ashby, whose writings I had already catalogued. It was greatly fulfilling to see these seemingly disparate sources transform into a cohesive story about the foundation and development of two of Nigeria’s largest universities.

Written sources have not been the only resource I have worked with at the ASC Library, the papers of Margery Perham and the French historian Guy Nicolas contained several maps, which helped to illustrate their work, and to visualise the contents of their writings.

Of all the collections I have worked with, my favourite must be that of the colonial administrator Harold Ingrams. In Ingrams’ collection I found a treasure trove of documents relating to the Cold War and the First World War. These included detailed analyses of communist influence in East Africa, plans to distribute anti-communist propaganda in Nigeria, and policy papers outlining the Foreign Office’s position on Portugal’s actions in Angola. One source I found particularly interesting was a 1918 Foreign Office report containing testimony from native leaders in the former German colonies of Namibia and Togo, who, unsurprisingly, denounced German rule and asked that the former German territories be placed under British ‘protection’. Documents like this remain highly open to interpretation, and it is possible view the report as either the sincere testimony of native populations who viewed British rule as their best option, or the cynical justification for an imperialistic land grab.

It is the questions which sources such as this raise which have helped to make my time at the African Studies Library so interesting, and it has been a great pleasure getting to see first-hand documents from Africa’s past and trying to find the answers to the questions they ask.  I have thoroughly enjoyed every moment of my time at the African Studies Library, and look forward to returning soon.

Alex C Aug 18

Alex had a work experience placement with us during August this year.  We thank him wholeheartedly for all of the hard work and his free time, and look forward to having him back during his final year at The Perse School. 

CfP – SCOLMA 2018 Things come together?: literary archives from, in and for Africa


Things come together?: literary archives from, in and for Africa
Monday 10 September 2018, University of Birmingham


This conference will explore African literary archives, their creation, preservation, digitisation and use in research and teaching.

African literature is multi-faceted and multi-lingual. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958) not only signalled the first stages of a new outpouring of literary creativity in Africa, but also built upon long literary traditions, both oral and written. This conference will look at archives generated by novelists, poets and dramatists, whether in oral or written form and whether in modern or ‘traditional’ genres.

Papers are invited on archives in private ownership, and those held in institutions. What is being lost, and what is preserved? How are these resources made available, and how are they being used to engage with African publics? What is the role of literary heirs as guardians of these archives? How are these records managed in public and institutional archives? What are the problems and opportunities of preserving such recent material?
A further set of questions includes the role of these archives in helping to bring about change in the teaching of literature; the linguistic content and context of this material; and special considerations relating to oral archives.

Subjects might include, but are not limited to:

  • Availability/accessibility of literary archives
  • Literature in African languages
  • Translation
  • Oral archives
  • Street literature
  • The impact of new media on African literary archives
  • Engagement with communities
  • The archives of individual writers

Researchers, writers and their family members, archivists and librarians are invited to submit abstracts of up to 500 words for consideration for this conference to Sarah Rhodes ( by 31 March 2018. Please include your institutional affiliation and/or a short (one paragraph) biography.

This conference is held in association with the African Studies Association (UK).
The biennial conference of ASAUK will be held at the University of Birmingham 11–13 September 2018.

For more details see:




Document to Digital: how does digitisation aid African research?

 National Library of Scotland, Monday, 11 September 2017


9.00        Registration

9.20        Welcome

9.30        Keynote and Panel 1: Digitising Historical Sources


‘Saving Archives through Digitisation: Reflections on Endangered Archives Programme Projects in Africa’

Jody Butterworth (Endangered Archives Programme)

10.10     Panel 1

The Material Remains of the Church of Scotland Mission in Kenya: Reflections from an “Endangered Archives Project”

Tom Cunningham (University of Edinburgh)

‘From Zimbabwe to Stirling: Opening up the Peter Mackay Archive’

Karl Magee (University of Stirling)

10.50     Questions to keynote speaker and panellists

11.05     Coffee break

11.30     Panel 2: Using Digital Archives for Science and Social Science Research

‘Repeat Landscape Photography, Historical Ecology and the Wonder of Digital Archives’

Dr Rick Rohde (University of Edinburgh), Samantha Luise Venter and Professor M. Timm Hoffman (Plant Conservation Unit, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Cape Town). Paper to be delivered by Dr Rohde.

‘Free Access to Research Publications for Developing Countries: The Research Archive of the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD)’

Pier Luigi Rossi (Institut de recherche pour le développement (IRD), Bondy-France)

12.30     Lunch

13.15     SCOLMA AGM

13.45     Panel 3: Digital Archives in the Aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide

‘The Digitised Collection, Preservation and Use of Endangered Archival Materials: The Case of the Genocide Archive of Rwanda’

Jessica Achberger (Michigan State University) and Claver Irakoze (Genocide Archive of Rwanda)

‘Mass Digitisation in Rwanda and Sudan: Issues, Challenges and Opportunities’

Marilyn Deegan and Geoff Laycock (King’s College London and ScanDataExperts)

‘Digital Archives in a Changing Rwanda’

Hannah Grayson (University of St Andrews) and Paul Rukesha (Aegis Trust, Rwanda) to be delivered by Professor Nicki Hitchcott on the authors’ behalf

15.15     Tea break

15.45     Panel 4: Fresh Initiatives in Historical Digitisation

‘Reinventing the Trade in Cloth: Digitisation as a New Form of Cultural Exchange’

Julie Halls (The National Archives (UK))

‘Making African Academic Resources Accessible: The Story of the Kwabena Nketia Archives 65 Years On’

Judith Opoku-Boateng and Korklu Laryea (University of Ghana)

‘Digitising the First Francophone African Women’s Magazine’

Ruth Bush (University of Bristol)

‘Digital Documents: How to Stimulate Usage’

Jos Damen (African Studies Centre, University of Leiden)

17.45     Close


SCOLMA thanks the National Library of Scotland for support of the conference.

This programme is subject to change.

Conference fee £50 (£30 unwaged) to include tea/coffee and lunch.

To book a place contact Sarah Rhodes (