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)

New @AfrStudiesLib resource: Extracts 1876-1901 concerning Uganda

The Centre of African Studies Library is pleased to announce that a ‘Description’ and detailed ‘Finding Aid’ are now available for the following archived resource via the library’s Libguide:  http://libguides.cam.ac.uk/africanstudies/archives 

The ‘Intelligencer’ was an annual publication pertaining mostly to missionaries and their activities published in London by the Church Missionary Society. As a source of reprinted private letters or extracts of official public statements, newspaper articles and parliamentary debates, their value to historians of religion or perhaps to the historiography of imperialism are significant.

A.M. MacKay_and_Stanley.png

Letter from Alexander Murdoch Mackay inspired by the legendary exploits of Dr. David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley; reprinted in the Church Missionary Intelligencer (May 1890, p.318).  The section is entitled ‘Alexander Mackay in Memoriam’ and was written soon after his passing away on February 4th, 1890, near the southern shores of Lake Victoria.  He had died from a malarial fever.

What has recently been named ‘Extracts concerning Uganda’ were originally compiled by the late Professor D. A. LowThey were selected by him for their connection to the region that would become the British Uganda Protectorate in 1894 and are distinguished by their unique collection of material from historical sources spanning a significant period in the history of Uganda. This resource consists mostly of reprinted correspondence (often with introductions and commentaries by the various editors) and begins with a proposal for one of the earliest of the organized missions to the area around Lake Victoria.

Professor D.A. Low was the Emeritus Smuts Professor of History of the British Commonwealth at the University of Cambridge.  During his academic career, he published many works on imperialism (and the nationalist struggles that followed) including the following:

Low, D.A. (2009) Fabrication of Empire: the British and the Uganda Kingdoms, 1890-1902 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

His collection of extracts is thus valued and have been preserved in the Centre of African Studies Library archives.  They are an extremely useful resource available to students and researchers upon request.  Indeed, I was recently required to delve into this wonderful collection myself when researching and compiling the associated ‘description and finding aid’ for library users.  The roller-coaster ride of events contained within certainly proved enlightening:  a steady stream of observations and proposals rapidly appeared to gain momentum, building quickly to an ominous river in my mind as I followed the turbulence of Ugandan history; through those Western eyes at least.  Although they only form part of the story, some of the letters are written with a certain passion and wit that excites the imagination or perhaps the latent adventurer that may lurk within us all: and it was interesting to note that the words of those first courageous men – that had accepted the fateful recommendation of Henry Morton Stanley to save the Kingdom of Buganda, ‘Pearl of Africa’ – are later joined by a trickle of female voices, clamouring to be heard.

Guest Blogger: David Radcliffe

(David currently works for the Centre of South Asian Studies Library via Cambridge University’s Temporary Employment Service.  He is also currently a volunteer at the Centre of African Studies Library.)

“There’s just something hypnotic about maps” (Ken Jennings, Jeopardy contestant) – David’s labour of love @AfrStudiesLib

Here’s a bit of trivia for you…Did you know that the international boundary separating Botswana and Zimbabwe is one of only a handful that includes an arc?

It’s known as the “Tuli Circle” and it encloses what is now a protected safari area administered by The Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.  (Incidentally, one could also straddle the elliptic edge of St. Peter’s Square in Rome, thus placing one foot in the Vatican City and the other in the territory of Italy.)

Deciding to consult a map of the area, you would then probably question why the Tuli Circle marks such a curious deviation from the natural frontier offered by the Shashe river. Well, its origin dates back to the colonial period and a land grant from a Botswanan King to the British South Africa Company.  There are even accounts alledging that Cecil Rhodes may have made a rather unusual contribution to the history of cartography – by drawing around the side of his compass to delineate what would become a cattle free zone (probably designed to protect his herds beyond the river from a local outbreak of a viral disease known as “rinderpest”.)

How do I know all this?  Well, it was mentioned to me in passing by a colleague archivist here in Cambridge whilst I was consulting a map of Rhodesia at the Centre of African Studies.  One of my various ongoing tasks has been to gradually compile a detailed list of the maps the library holds (only a small part of a much wider scheme to increase accessibility to the vast range of resources preserved in the basement stores).

As the photograph below testifies, I rapidly became submerged in a sea of maps: lands were sorted; topography identified; those mountainous stacks of paper soared ever upward, forming chains across the floor as the Head Librarian surveyed the scene through her office window!

map 4

Yet it’s partly a labour of love.  Everyone gets excited about maps…don’t they?  As an occasional amateur historian dealing in facts, I may have to finally concede that pirates probably didn’t hide their treasure hordes and mark the spot on a parchment or scroll.  Nevertheless, throughout recorded time a whole range of dedicated people have marked all sorts of features on fascinating (and sometimes beautiful) documents.

The University Library actually has a dedicated “Map Room”.  But whilst the collection at African Studies is certainly more modest, it also includes its fair share of unusual specimens: maps by African city planning authorities; maps that document land use, land distribution or expected annual rainfall; others provide a snapshot of population levels, record internal immigration patterns and even the forced resettlement of tribal communities.  One of my personal favourites is an aeronautical chart for pilots needing to navigate their way over East Africa that dates back to WWII.

Anyway, this is very much a work in progress…so watch this space for future updates!

Guest Blogger: David Radcliffe

(David currently works for the Centre of South Asian Studies Library via Cambridge University’s Temporary Employment Service.  He is also currently a volunteer at the Centre of African Studies Library.)