Samantha Stevens-Hall- Graduate Fellow at the Sherman Centre on building a Digital History of Africa

I am a 4th year PhD candidate (ABD) in the History Department and new Graduate Fellow at the Sherman Centre. I study the Intellectual History of Africa and have spent the last two years digging around in archives on 3 continents, from the glossy organization of the British National Archives at Kew in London to uncatalogued private family archives in rural Uganda, to find materials for my dissertation. Needless to say I like a challenge! Below is a little more about my research interests and the project I’ll be working on during my next year at the Sherman Centre.

My Research Interests:

My dissertation project deals with networks of knowledge and knowledge transfer during the period of transition from oral to written culture in East Africa, which coincided with the transition to British colonial rule. I am interested in what happens to knowledge and sources when they are transferred between mediums, from oral to written, typescript to microfilm, catalogued in physical archives to uploaded to the web as digital sources. In the case of the sources used in my dissertation, from oral to hand written in the vernacular, and from written to typescript translated into English, and finally partially digitized in the contemporary period. The digitization of archives in Africa is passion of mine and I am keen to engage with the parameters and policies around making primary sources available on public access avenues, with an interest to bringing potentially deteriorating and difficult to access archives of African history to a broader public.

My Sherman Centre Project:

I hope to produce a public access online database of primary source and supplementary materials in African intellectual history using OMEKA software. (www.omeka.net) The materials I plan to include come from my archival work for my dissertation these include biographies of a few key Ugandan intellectuals who are the focus of my dissertation, with appended excerpts from their works. As part of my dissertation research I have collected published and unpublished manuscripts of a few key intellectuals from this period from archives across Uganda, the UK and North America. This OMEKA site would bring together these scattered sources into one easily accessible online resource. My intention is to build upon this small-scale project if it proves to be viable, and to eventually grow it into a database of important thinkers from across the continent that can be used as a teaching and research tool in a variety of courses, including African and intellectual history.

The database will have several portfolios of Uganda intellectuals from the period of transition to British colonial rule in Uganda in East Africa at the turn of the 20th century. These portfolios will be comprised of short biographies accompanied by a few excerpts from their written works in the form of OCR’d, searchable PDFs. The excerpts will show the dynamic character and variety of these intellectuals’ works, casting them as multidimensional figures engaged in a vibrant culture of knowledge exchange and debate over representations of the past.

One of the biggest obstacle for this project will be acquiring copyright for all the excerpts I wish to include; the process of obtaining copyright will be the subject of one of my future blog posts. This will likely be a complicated and time-consuming task as the documents are the property of a mix of private and public owners, but also an opportunity to make connections with librarians at McMaster to learn more about copyright and how to navigate its treacherous waters on way to producing an open access database of primary source materials.

Challenges for a Digital Archive of African History:

Digitizing some of these pieces of intellectual history offers the opportunity for discussion about what happens to sources when they are transferred from one medium to another. As much of my thesis deals with themes of translation and the transition from oral to written culture, I am also interested in what happens to the colonial archive and the dissemination of colonial knowledge when sources are made available online. There are few resources of this kind currently available for Africa, in part due to the challenges with collecting the materials and making them public access. In many ways this project is first and foremost a pedagogical one, as the main intended purpose for this database is as a teaching and learning tool. I envision the completed prototype as offering a resource to teaching assistants and professors to teach Uganda’s history or African intellectual history in their classrooms, but also as an example through which to teach the merits of digital humanities to their students.

In the past few years I have had the pleasure of working as a TA in a course on the history of the Caribbean in which there was a whole week’s seminar dedicated to exploring available databases and discussing the uses and possible future directions of digital scholarship in the study of history. The database I am proposing would use some of those available to historians of the Caribbean, who have been much quicker to take up the use of digital tools than those who study Africa, as models. A few examples include the Digital Library of the Caribbean (http://www.dloc.com); Obeah Histories (www.obeahhistories.org); and Caribbean History Archives (www.caribbeanhistoryarchives.blogspot.ca). These resources allow students, especially undergraduates, to access and primary sources more easily and engaged with them in a way that is more interactive. Further, the supplementary materials available with the primary sources situate them within their historical context. These digital learning tools allow undergraduate and graduate students alike to engage with materials that hitherto had been impossible to access without undertaking expensive research travel.

Finally, these thinkers are all well known in Uganda, not just among historians and other academics but also as famous political and intellectual figures, but most of their written materials are not easily accessible outside of the archives or university library. The archives that house some of these sources and in poor condition and if not catalogued and digitized soon risk complete destruction. Beyond my dissertation work I am deeply interested in the tenuous relationship between history and politics in contemporary Uganda. History if often a “dirty” word and no national histories are taught in primary or secondary school. The study of history is overshadowed by disciplines with more applicable career skills at the nation’s universities. That being said, there is an interest among some academics and politicians in preserving the region’s history and are willing to undertake the massive project of preserving the archives and turning the tides of public opinion back towards valuing history. The issue of community engagement at the local level to build partnerships for the development of digital resources on Uganda’s history is a key component of my project (and something I will discuss in a later blog post).

First step, constructing a historiography for Digital History in the study of Africa. If you’re a anything like me I know you love a good literature review!

I’ll update you here on the progress of my project so stay tuned!

Samantha

 

 

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