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


Maps: Who’d have known they could be so interesting?

Michael Korda once said that “the whole attraction of writing history” is that it allows you to explore the unknown and therefore should be treated as “a journey without maps”. However, having worked closely with maps over the past few weeks, I would contend that they are in fact key to this historical journey, revealing much about the nature and challenges faced by the societies in which they were produced.

The Centre of African Studies Library is lucky enough to possess around 250 maps, all of which have now been documented and archived. Having access to such an extensive map collection is rare and affords us the opportunity to gain a unique insight into African societies and their history. Maps allow for a variety of issues to be examined, whether economic, social, cultural, political, climatic or geological in nature, and at different scales. Similarly, understanding the agendas and methods of the cartographers and publishing agencies who produce these maps can also reveal much about the attitudes and development of the wider society to which they belong. As such, the importance of maps to historical, political and sociological study cannot be underestimated.

In fact, many modern-day political issues are intrinsically linked to maps and boundaries. Ongoing border and identity disputes throughout Africa, for example the Anglophone Crisis in Cameroon, often stem back to the infamous Berlin Conference of 1884-85, when African lands were arbitrarily divided along rivers and mountain ranges (or even just by straight-lines) without a consideration of tribal, ethnic or cultural boundaries.

As you would expect, there is a distinctly colonial focus to many of the maps and as such, they often express haughty attitudes towards Africa. This is epitomised by the attempts of renowned cartographer Herman Moll to depict Africa “according to ye newest and most exact observations” (this map is a 1745 reprint of his original map published in 1710). Not only does he use archaic terms such as ‘Negroland’ (to describe West Africa) but also, through textual commentary, emphasises the superiority of white settlers around Guinea who “wear Cloths, and have ye use of Letters, make Silk, &  … keep the Christian Sabbath” and who are “a different kind of People from the Blacks”. He also marks out potential commercial interests such as gold, ivory and slave coasts, believing the British to possess natural rights over this property.

Moll map

“Ethnic” and “tribal migration” maps from British Somaliland (as with the map below) and the Ivory Coast also exemplify the implications of colonialism for the indigenous peoples. Settler colonisation often meant that local peoples were displaced, either by a process of violent depopulation, or cultural assimilation. Through using these maps, we can examine such migration patterns and in doing so ascertain both the scale and nature of this displacement.

Tribal migration map

However, the maps also enlighten us as to other social customs and challenges affecting Africa which exist autonomously from colonial narratives and issues. The map below highlights the issue of tsetse fly infestation in the Bechuanaland Protectorate. These flies, which reside predominantly in South-East Africa, are vectors of African trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness), a disease, which left untreated, is often fatal. It has been responsible for many tragedies throughout history, for example the 1901 epidemic in Uganda, whereby 250,000 people (approximately 2/3 of the population of the affected lakeshore area) died. In the absence of available and effective medicine, the map (dated 1960) reveals alternative ways in which the issue was managed by the authorities, marking out areas for woodland to either be felled or ring-barked, so as to destroy the natural habitat of the fly and therefore attempt to cull its population.

Tsetse fly map

The territorial ownership and land dispute map of an unidentified Nigerian village (below), dating back to 1929, gives an interesting insight into comparatively local challenges and how they were managed. Hand drawn by one R.M. Prempeh, whose surname suggests West African heritage, the map marks out the names of people who “alone enjoy [each] portion” of land and also communal areas, in doing so settling issues regarding disputed possession. Not only is the hand-drawn style of the map unique and endearing, but it shows a firm sense of order and a clear moral code being administered in local villages without any need for colonial intervention or enforcement, refuting the notions of Europeans such as Moll (above) that Africans were in any way ‘uncivilised’.

Land dispute map

Completing this project has been both rewarding and extremely interesting. As someone who is hoping to study history in the future, examining these maps has given me a new way to engage with the past, using cues and nuances from them to generate interest in and instigate research into the wider historical context. Having studied maps from colonies such as the Ivory Coast and Senegal, I have even managed to learn some French! As such, I would recommend anyone with an interest in African history to come to the Centre and explore this fascinating collection.

Sam Hughes is entering his final year at Perse School, and volunteered with us here at the Centre for 2 weeks


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. 

Garret uncovers the map collection

Maps are an incredible tool in understanding the world. Vast swathes of land can be digested in a matter of minutes. Imagine how long it would take to describe every twist and turn of a border, every wind of a road, every village, town and city in the detail a map conveys. Their use stretches from education to governance, warfare to commerce. Hence for archives, maps provide a precious source by which we can investigate the past. Where were people making maps of? Who was making them and when? What type of map was it? All of these questions and more arise when studying maps.

The Cambridge African Studies Centre Library is lucky enough to possess a collection of around 250 such maps, which we are in the process of documenting and archiving. They range widely, including as diverse topics as tourist and military maps. Whilst a new gem in our collection, it certainly is a challenging one for a Centre more used to books and papers to deal with!


As with most of our collection, there is a distinct colonial slant to the maps we possess. Whilst we don’t have records of who donated the maps, they almost all originate in various colonial offices, or as educational tools. Maps far more prevalent  in the late 19th and early 20th century. The many exploratory expeditions across the ‘undiscovered’ world – as with David Livingstone for instance – uncovered discoveries that demanded proper documentation. And those colonial officers who followed these first explorers documented the lands that they ruled. As such, there are many fascinating maps of Africa in our collection, of which we’ve picked out some our highlights of our archiving so far.

The first is a beautiful map produced by the government of Rhodesia, modern day Zambia, in 1964 which, claiming to be comprehensive, details all the journeys of Europeans in Rhodesia prior to 1890. What’s more, on the reverse is a full list of those Europeans who visited the area in that same timeframe, beginning as early as the 16th century with the first Portuguese explorers. It’s just a shame that this list would be obscured during the display of the map itself! The maps clear purpose is educational, but the focus on Europeans, to the exclusion of any mention of the natives, does add an additional layer of interest to the map. Having been printed in 1964, it seems plausible that it could have been used to legitimise the European presence in Rhodesia in the face of strong anti-colonial feeling, by emphasising the long European presence in the country. Whilst just conjecture, it is amongst the many interesting questions raised by these maps.

WP_20170801_04_21_32_Rich  WP_20170801_04_21_48_Rich  WP_20170801_04_22_02_Rich

Our collection has also been left various French maps made by the Institut Geographique National, including a set concerning Algeria made around 1962. Again, these maps are gorgeous (though that might just be me…), detailing the vast expanse of the Sahara, which is less empty than you might think! Their compilation during, and publication at the end of, the Algerian war, in which France reluctantly retreated, suggests that they did not plan well their withdrawal, with at least some government departments expecting to continue their presence in the country.

WP_20170801_03_18_50_Rich - Copy

Finally, we discovered several fascinating hand-drawn maps which detailed various land-disputes in the Gold Coast, modern day Ghana. These maps are mostly drawn up by a certain Ernest S. S. Woods of the 2nd Surveyors Brigade – an individual touch not often found in cartography. For colonial historians these documents provide an interesting perspective on Ghanaian compliance with, and possible use of, the British legal system. Furthermore, it gives an unflattering view of British justice, which is so often touted – however spuriously – as one of the greatest benefits of British rule. The document, which was signed off by Woods, the surveyor, in 1922, was then signed off by the court in 1928 – 6 years later! But the maps we have in our collection gives a sense of the scale of the task the British authorities faced – incredibly detailed and accurate maps had to be drawn up to resolve complex conflicts amongst their new subjects across vast areas.


Maps were an important tool for the coloniser. They demarcated international boundaries – however arbitrary – surveyed lands for for governments based far away in Europe, and detailed natural resources to utilise – to give just a taster of all the flavours of maps we’ve found. With several large wads to go, be sure to check our Twitter feed for any other gems we uncover!


Garret Shannon has kindly given his time to the African Studies Library before starting his degree at Durham in October

The Adventure Doesn’t Stop Now.

I have been volunteering in the Centre of African Studies Library since November 2016. Today, this incredible experience comes to an end and I wanted to share with you what it felt like to be part of this great journey.

When I first started, last November, everything seemed brilliant. Today, I still have the same feeling and, while I am trying to do my retrospection, I am looking all around me, trying to remember all the details that have kept me happy for months. It can be a chair scraping the floor, the sound of a keyboard, or a book being moved. It’s raining and we can hear the wind – and I will miss all of that. I was happy to volunteer a few hours every week ; it was not a lot, it was not a huge amount of time, but it felt like home every time I went into the Library, and it will still feel like home even after I leave.

During these few months, I met Dr. Audrey Richards whilst I went through her pamphlet donations, and her own research papers. I met her a second time when Dr. Ray Abrahams came to talk about her, as a friend. And this experience was revealing about what you can learn, the two very different ways to get to know someone ; with her written works, I felt close to the professional, the anthropologist who will never be forgotten. By talking with Dr. Abrahams, I felt I was discovering the human being behind these interesting thoughts.

I am currently working on documents about race relations in South Africa, and I had to organise the documents into different boxes by subject area to find my way back to some kind of understanding. In this case, I found out a lot about politics, struggling people fighting for their rights, and social balance.  The feeling you get when you deal with political statements and documents such as these is powerful ; you know that these documents went through other hands. Fighting hands, revolutionary hands, and idealist hands. Sadly, I will not be able to finish my work – but I hope these feelings will be shared by the one who will complete this collection.

Even if leaving the Centre of African Studies Library makes me deeply melancholic, I am raring to start my Internship in Schlumberger Center of Research, because I am sure to earn useful skills that will lead me where I want, and need, to be.

I am so grateful for everything I know, everything I’ve learnt and discovered, and for the brilliant people I had the pleasure to meet. I am lucky to have been guided by someone exceptional, who gave me the taste of a profession and who, in many ways and with a fine honesty, made me stronger and ready to build my career path. Also, I believe that volunteering has been the most beautiful experience I’ve ever had : so go outside, give a helping hand because you might discover many attributes about yourself you didn’t even know were there in the first place.

This experience is over, but the adventure doesn’t stop now.

What about you ?

Ophélia Labardacq

Ophelia B&W july 2017

The Dr Audrey Richards’ pamphlet collection – as detailed by Ophelia, volunteer @AfrStudiesLib

From the start, the huge amount of knowledge contained in the Audrey Richards’ donation boxes was obvious. As a new volunteer at the Centre of African Studies Library, I felt impressed (and a little bit nervous) when I first saw these papers, results of long years of research, and many different collaborations. In other words, it was a truly honorary pleasure to get to touch what I had in front of me and to discover Audrey Richards’ centres of interests.

The papers had to be listed and, if it was tricky at the beginning, I have to say I had the time of my life with these five boxes (Patrick Swayze was sadly elsewhere). Little by little, I felt I started to discover Dr. Audrey Richards, not only as the scientist we know within her books and research, but the person too : a person, with her very own interests and passions who kept for years papers and books which were sent to her. Going over her donation boxes made me feel special in a particular way, it was a chance to get to know someone who did so much in her life without even talking to her. It was like a big puzzle, and I wanted to gradually add its pieces. So yes, I was twitchy when I first started to open these boxes ; I was twitchy because I didn’t want to make any mistakes ; I was twitchy because eh, I was (and still am) a newbie so it was likely I would do something wrong. It took me some time, it took me some books, it took me some papers, to really understand what was going on and what I had in my hands. I was not meant to be an archives factory ; I was meant to see, to touch, to read and – most important – to enjoy that.

The first box I needed to catalogue was called MS RICH 2 (MS RICH 1 was fortuitously found soon after that). This box, along with the previous one, was an anthology of everything that didn’t really fit in the other boxes. From a chapter about Marriage in Northern Rhodesia to an article around Witchcraft and Sorcery, I think I had little stars in my eyes by the end of the day. What was brilliant was the diversity contained in one simple cardboard box; some papers were with annotations, some not, some were written in English, some were written in French… Two other boxes, South Africa and East Africa, were more structured in their composition as they were consolidated around specific parts of Africa. But fear not, they were as diversified as the first ones, touching a lot of different subjects (political, social, cultural). Another box, the last one, was called General ; although there were not any specific locations, all the articles and papers found inside were about customs and social systems.

Then, I had to write a short biography about Dr. Audrey Richards and had the opportunity to meet Dr. Ray Abrahams who knew her personally. I had the opportunity to go through his own boxes of donated materials and my very first “impressed-feeling” came back quickly. Meeting such a great Anthropological figure gave me goosebumps (and my cheeks were certainly blushing a bit).

Being a Volunteer at the Centre for African Studies Library is honestly the best professional experience I’ve ever had. It has given me the feeling of being part of something bigger, to help students and researchers by providing them with more resources.  Volunteering has given me more focus in my career path, and I think that everybody should have at least a taste of this great experience.


Ophélia Labardacq is a volunteer at the African Studies Library, she will start an internship at the Schlumberger Institute in August, alongside starting her Masters in Library & Information Management at Sheffield.

For more information on this archive collection, visit the “Featured Archive Collection” box on our LibGuide.


Super-Impressive! My first Cambridge Libraries Conference

This is an extremely belated account of the fantastic day I had at the Cambridge Libraries 2017 Conference, the theme of which was “Are you a Library Superhero?”. As a newcomer to the world of library work and information science, this was an excellent opportunity to learn more about a field in which I plan to forge a career in.



With all of the nervous excitement of a newbie, I met with Jenni, Victoria and David from CfAS in the crowded meeting hall (and availed myself of some of the freebies on display) before settling down for a worthy introduction to the conference and the first keynote address, presented by Dr. Jeremy Knox. This was an interesting and informative presentation into emerging digital technologies and the challenges and opportunities they might present in higher education (and the provision thereof). Concepts of “openness” and automation were explored via the advantages and pitfalls of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and “teacherbots”, and the session culminated in an amusing Q & A when somebody respectfully pointed out that the nature of Dr. Knox’ topic meant that he didn’t really need to have physically attended the conference!

My first chosen parallel session was the “Tracker Project”, a very lively presentation given by members of the FutureLib Innovation Programme. This was definitely one of my favourite presentations, partly for a very entertaining delivery but also because this provided me with my first moment of clarity into the sheer breadth of things library staff have to consider when delivering their services to students, and was a fascinating insight into the search behaviours of students, and their perception of class marks, library layouts and also of their own confidence in their ability to navigate the library successfully. The simple but always brilliant solutions proposed to assist students in their navigation also provided food for thought.

My second parallel session was presented by Bridget Warrington, the Managing Conservator of the Cambridge Colleges’ Conservation Consortium. I had signed up for this session as I wanted to learn more about this area; the specialised and scientific approaches to conservation and preservation were most impressive, ranging from environmental monitoring to conservation and storage assessment surveys, not to mention the fascinating work of the repairs of the items themselves.

Bridget presented some standout projects they had handled, including the blindfold and an eye-glass that had belonged to Terry Waite during his captivity in Beirut, but the highlight for me as a biologist was the letters from Charles Darwin, complete with minute and beautifully drawn sketches of insects scattered around the text- was there anything that man couldn’t do?

The final keynote speech was delivered by Emma Coonan, who will almost certainly need no introduction to anybody likely to be reading this. What to say, at this late stage of writing that has not already been said? Judging by the enthusiastically positive reactions of seasoned conference attendees, future keynote speakers will have a lot to live up to- or perhaps they could just get Emma to speak every year…

The day closed with several lightning speeches. In some respects this was the most interesting part of the day for me, and not just because I was due to get onstage! Presented by Jenni Skinner, Victoria and I spoke a little about our volunteering at the African Studies library, a rather nervous two minutes for yours truly!


Not nervous at all, honest! Source: 

The other lightning talks gave a swift but broad outline of the realities of modern library life. We saw how some people end up- through accident or design- specialising in particular areas, such as Moodle; or the sterling efforts of library staff to continue to provide quality service under a range of difficult conditions- and in the case of the Medical Library’s “Vanishing training room” to innovate their methods and actually increase their output. The sheer scale of skills required by some library staff was memorably summed up by the following slide:



The real value for me of these talks and others was the insight they gave into working in library environments- the challenges, the setbacks, the rewards and the great humour and intelligence of staff from all of these different libraries. It was also, as a newcomer to the field, reassuring to hear that so many people did not necessarily consider themselves experts in their respective fields, and that they were very often teaching themselves entirely new concepts and practices in order to provide the best possible services; and to hear that people I would consider to be settled and confident in their roles, often have moments of self-doubt and reflection- I heard the words “imposter syndrome” more than once- perhaps the spirit of earlier presentations about success and failure facilitated such honest, enjoyable and encouraging discussions.

On every level, this conference was a fantastic introduction to Cambridge Libraries and the amazing people within them; I hope to attend next year with more knowledge and experience under my belt. Well done everybody!

John Hennessy – volunteer at African Studies Library, part-time library assistant at SPS Library


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: 

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.)