Preserving for whom? Discussions on the conservation of archives

The survival of print culture has been in the newspapers recently. Usually restricted to a readership of academics, ways to preserve and make various forms of print culture accessible to the public has become a topic of interest of a wider group. Recently, Timbuktu’s Ahmed Baba Institute – that houses the famous Timbuktu manuscripts – was set on fire by members of the Al Quaeda. Cries of desperation over the tragedy flooded newspapers, blogs, twitters and facebook walls (including mine), demanding better investments for preservation, not only of the manuscripts but of many other archives. The manuscripts, it was later found out, were actually saved from the fire; at least, most of them. When the turmoil in Mali started, preservationists organised an operation to transfer the manuscripts to secret locations, most of them in family houses. Only a few were destroyed in the arson attack on the Institute.

timbuktu manuscriptI don’t know Timbuktu. Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to go to Djenne. And this is not my area of expertise either. But I have done research in many Nigerian and Beninese archives and libraries and I know that the concern for the preservation of archives is either new or restricted to the Timbuktu manuscripts. Timbuktu has a symbolic meaning, though. It was important for historians of the post-independence era to find an intellectual past for Africa. They were driven by the idea that revealing an intellectual production before the European occupation would show they had culture, values, identity and history. Their work was thus to rescue the culture that existed before colonization in order to rebuild better nations according to their own ways.

In this context, Timbuktu was the torchbearer of written records before colonization; proof that Africa had history – and a written one. In 1970, with help from UNESCO, the CEDRAB (Centre de Documentation et de Recherches Ahmed Baba) was founded and the manuscripts transferred from families’ houses to the new building; a big and centralising archive where all history of the nation – and pre-colonial Africa – was to be kept. This structure of preservation based in big buildings, storing all archives from a whole area, is also common in many other countries.

biblioteca nacional rj

Biblioteca Nacional in Rio de Janeiro

In Brazil, for instance, when the king of Portugal ran away from Napoleon’s army in Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro, he took with him a huge collection of documents and publications from the National Library of Lisbon. And this is how the Bliblioteca Nacional (National Library) in Brazil was founded. When he went back to Lisbon, he took a big part of the collection back with him. But the frame stayed. Currently this library holds an amazing collection of documents, maps, newspapers and books (very important for those who study Brazilian history, for instance). But more than that, it decides which documents should be preserved or not. As with any big archive, the staff of Biblioteca Nacional have to refuse to house collections that are discovered here and there. Who gets to make these decisions? What are the criteria behind them?

Discussions regarding conservation always question the best way to preserve an archive. Digitalisation is the solution for many. The Endangered Archives Programme from the British Library, for instance, provides financial support for researches and institutions to conserve collections that can preserved for fruitful use. As their webpage explains: “The original archives and the master digital copies will be transferred to a safe archival home in their country of origin, while copies will be deposited at the British Library for use by scholars worldwide.” As a historian and researcher, I have no doubts that digitalisation is a fantastic tool of conservation. I am a big fan of digitalised sources and I love an online archive. All the material I gathered during my research is in digital format.  However, there are other issues related to preservation that go beyond the question of how to conserve: “for whom” is also an important question, one that comes before “who decides?” and “what are the criteria?”

The case of Timbuktu brought some of these questions to the wider public and back to scholars’ tables. Ciraj Rassool in her article in Chimurenga Chronic about Timbuktu explained that when the manuscripts were moved from the main building back to families’ houses “a unique model of preservation and partnerships emerged, creating an institution of the state, driven by energies and understandings inside an NGO, but founded on the capacities and commitment of citizens.” The problem was discussed – and solved! – by the many parts that were interested in the preservation of the manuscripts; including Mali citizens. The discussion regarding preservation should shift from technical problems to social concerns, in an understanding that the meaning of conservation is deeply related to social questions. “Who is going to use the archive?” and “what for?” should also be part of the debate. The meanings of an archive should not be restricted to only one segment, especially if in a state worried about preserving, mainly, ‘national history’.

Patrick Ngulube in his paper about preservation in African Institutions explains that the major dilemma regarding preservation may lie in the appropriate method. For him microfilming is the best choice since the necessary material is largely available on the continent and is not as expensive as digitalisation. Although I am a supporter of digitalisation (and I will say it over and over!), I understand his concerns for prioritising local technical demands. But I think this discussion has to go further. The criteria behind the technical choice should be centred in the social needs of those who will deal with the archive. It is necessary to understand the meanings of preserving documents; not only for humanity in general – and more specifically academics from other parts of the world – but also for the local scholars and citizens who will make use of them.

J.F.A. Ajayi's personal library, that I have the privilege to visit.

J.F.A. Ajayi’s personal library, that I have had the privilege of visiting.

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