Decolonising African Studies and collections: Visiting SCOLMA and ELIAS in Edinburgh, June 2019

'Decolonising African Studies: questions and dilemmas for libraries, archives and collections' was the theme of this year’s conference of the UK Libraries and Archives Group on Africa (SCOLMA). Organized in Edinburgh immediately before the Annual Meeting of European Librarians in African Studies (ELIAS) and the European Conference on African Studies (ECAS), the 10th of June turned out to be a day full of inspiring talks. Participants came from both within and outside of the UK – e.g. from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Sudan, the US, France and the Netherlands (ASCL). Most talks concentrated on issues of decolonising archives in African and in western countries. Archives’ historical trajectories were sketched, possibilities and problems of repatriation of (parts of) archives were discussed, and alternative ways of dealing with archival material were presented.

Bringing back photos to Malawi
Chimwemwe Phiri from the University of Oxford shared with the audience her project of bringing back medical photographs from the Stannus collection to the Malawian villages where they were taken around a century ago. She discussed the pictures (which have names and villages written on the back) with the villagers in an effort to bring back dignity to the depicted persons and to open up the archive to those most immediately concerned.

Decolonising collections
Decolonising library collections was another main topic of the conference. Diversifying a library’s collection is but one aspect of the decolonising effort. Finding ways of obtaining African documents through local vendors, changing ways of making material accessible and sharing it with the public are part of it as well, as is the building of African-authored and African-published ‘context collections’ around themes relevant to African societies.

To start with the latter, Gerard van de Bruinhorst of the ASCL explored what decolonising a western African Studies library collection would imply in terms of helping readers to better understand African novels that were never intended for a western audience. As a case study he chose The red heifer, by popular Ghanaian writer Peggy Oppong (1957-2014). A highly readable detective and romantic novel in one, the text at the same time raised questions for him in the sphere of religious and moral interpretation. Reading it through a western lens was clearly not the key to understanding this novel. Other books by the same author, reviews and discussions of her work in local and social media, as well as African studies on theology and concepts of ethics and family values provided helpful context. Decolonising a library collection, therefore, does not stop at purchasing African-authored titles. Effort should be also put into building coherent collections of African-published material so as to contextualise single items.

Cartonera books in Mozambique
Clara Panozzo (Cambridge University Library) focused on cartonera books, books printed on pieces of cardboard picked up from the streets when paper had become unaffordable in Argentina in the early 2000s, a period of deep economic crisis in that country. The use of cheap materials, the involvement of cardboard pickers (cartoneros) in the production, the letting-go of formal spelling rules, and the artistic creativity unleashed: all of these factors contributed to these books – by new and established authors –  finding new local audiences. The concept of the cardboard book spread to other South American countries, as well as to Mozambique, but copies – physically vulnerable and never in large quantities – were only locally distributed. In an attempt to approach something of their local usage, the Cambridge University Library does not stack them away in acid-free boxes to be touched only by a chosen few, but organises workshops for a wider public during which the books can be handled and read. Moreover, the Library decided to stop buying cartonera books. They have by now become so rare and expensive that ethical issues have arisen around shipping them off to foreign libraries. Decolonising can also mean not buying items (any longer).

Reading religious collections against the grain
One day later (on 11 June) 25 librarians and archivists gathered in Edinburgh to discuss Religious collections on Africa – Reading archival & library collections against the grain. This 13th annual meeting of European Librarians in African Studies comprised several talks. Araba Dawson-Andoh, Esmeralda Kale and Emilie Songolo from the Cooperative Africana Materials Project (CAMP) showed the importance and possibilities of this digitization project. CAMP member libraries fund projects and the acquisition of research materials for the study of Africa, and make African newspapers available.
One of the other talks was by Emma Wild-Wood. Wild-Wood is senior lecturer African Christianity and African Indigenous Religions at the University of Edinburgh. In her paper, The writings of a Ugandan Anglican priest, she showed how to go about when using archival material as a researcher – in this case working on material of Apolo Kivebulaya, missionary to north-east Congo.

The ELIAS meeting was concluded by two viewings. The Centre for Research Collections of the University of Edinburgh had exhibited some very interesting (and very colonial!) gems from their African collections, ranging from letters, music and photographs to cloth. The National Library of Scotland had arranged a viewing of an exquisite choice from its African collection, with very old photographs, diaries and manuscripts.

Heleen Smits & Jos Damen