Book Reviews

Writings on African Archives. John McIlwaine. London: Hans Zell Publishers for the Standing Conference on Library Materials on Africa (SCOLMA), 1996. 279p. ISBN 1–873836–66–X.

This is a bibliography of writings on archives and manuscript collections within Africa itself, and on Africa–related archives and manuscripts located elsewhere. Its compiler, John McIlwaine, used as his starting point the indexes he put together over thirty years to support his teaching at the School of Library, Archive and Information Studies at University College London. He edits African Research and Documentation, and his Africa: A Guide to Reference Material won the British Library Association’s Besterman Medal in 1993 for an outstanding bibliography.

The work contains over 2,300 items, of which some 70 to 80 percent have been seen by the compiler. They range from monographs to serial articles, government reports, conference papers, theses and dissertations. Some are “the greyest of grey literature,” and items as brief as a page are included where little else exists. The vast majority date from 1960. Items from Francophone Africa and local publications from South Africa proved the hardest to track down. McIlwaine points out that there is more documentation on the archives of South Africa than on any other country, and that he has been selective in what he includes. He reminds us that some of the articles in South African archival serials would not have been candidates for inclusion anyway as they are on general topics. The great majority of items are in western languages, but there are a number in Afrikaans, Arabic and Russian.

There is an outline of recent developments in providing better access to African–related materials. The Unesco/International Council on Archives “Guides to the sources of the history of nations” are evaluated, and McIlwaine reminds us of the need for revision and updating of guides in general. This is because of the constant addition of new material, because material already listed may be switched from old to new repositories—as has happened with the archives of some missionary societies in the U.K.—and because archivists improve the quality of their finding aids and bring to attention material not previously known to have relevance to Africa. The issue of “migrated archives” is also touched upon: sources on African countries stored in the repositories of their former colonial rulers. These can usually be microfilmed—but only if the money to do so can be found. The warning of the Nigerian historian, K.O. Dike, in his address to the First International Congress of Africanists, 1962, is quoted:

“The accumulation of source material does not mean merely the recovery of documents at present preserved overseas. It means also, and most important, the recovery and organisation of material at present lying disregarded and disorganised in Africa. This is a task of almost frightening intensity” (p. 178).

It is this task that Anne Thurston highlights in her contribution on “Recent Activities and Current Concerns in African Archives and Records Management.” She says that paper records are still fundamental to administration in most African countries, yet their management and preservation has tended to be overlooked. When filing cabinets in government and local government offices become full the overflow may well be stacked high against the walls and in the corridors. This damages the records as well as making retrieval difficult. Patients’ files in some government hospitals are so disorganized that it may be impossible to find them when patients return for treatment. Registry staff have low status and salaries, and “virtually no attention is given to the way information is created, structured and managed” (p.2). The School of Library, Archive and Information Studies now follows a life cycle approach in its records management and archives teaching program. The emphasis is on structuring the records at the time they are created so that they reflect the functions and day–to–day work of their agency, and on controlling them until the time comes for them to move to an archival repository or be discarded. According to Pino Akotia and Justus Wamukoya, a similar approach is followed in the programs at the University of Ghana and Moi University, Kenya.

Thurston makes a brief reference to something that not many outside the African archives and records management community will be aware of: rescue teams flying in to help clear up a problem. Under the auspices of the Association of Commonwealth Archivists and Records Managers, and after a try–out in Zanzibar in 1984, workshops were arranged in The Gambia, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Tanzania. Archivists from other African countries and elsewhere flew in to help local colleagues clear backlogs of files from government ministries. As well as clearing office space and preserving important records, these exercises provided training and a morale boost for local junior staff.

In his preface McIlwaine acknowledges the work of his tutor in the early 1960s, J.D. Pearson, former librarian of the School of Oriental and African Studies and Professor of the Bibliography of Asia and Africa in the University of London. John McIlwaine’s own work on the sources of information on Africa is a similar example of long–term commitment.

About the author

Anthony Olden is Senior Lecturer, the Centre for Information Management, Thames Valley University, London