Last week I attended a pre-proposal workshop, hosted by Digital Innovations South Africa (DISA) and the South Africa Netherlands research Programme on Alternatives in Development (SANPAD). The purpose of the workshop was to develop a proposal for a three-year long project looking at digital archives and heritage in South Africa. Participants came from the Vrije Universiteit (VU) in Amsterdam, the University of Cape Town (UCT) and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).  The first day consisted of presentations with the second day dedicated to formulating a research question.

The Participants

Alexandra de Maesschalk and Brigette den Oudsten, librarians at the VU, presented a session on their university’s digitisation programme.  The library started digitising material in 2003 and they have now digitised a number of regularly used books, VU dissertations, journals and even archeological artifacts. Their selection process was based on firstly conservation, then frequency of use and lastly output from VU.  The library has a policy of open access for most digitised collections and actively encourages Google indexing of works. This has resulted in a substantial increase in use of collections. Copyright, as always, was an issue in the digitisation process but they stuck by the rule that all works authored before 1925 were out of copyright and that most works produced by VU researchers could be legitimately digitised for use by students and staff. The digitisation process was overseeen by the Dutch National Library and funded by the government, with output forming part of the Memory of the Netherlands.  It was very interesting to see how a well-resourced digitisation project was run and highlighted the shortfalls in South Africa.

Next followed a discussion on the digitisation of liberation struggle archives in Southern Africa. Chris Saunders, from the History Department at UCT, bemoaned the lack of coherence of previous digitisation projects resulting in separate databases, often times of half-digitised collections, that didn’t ’speak’ to each other. Francis Garaba, Phd candidate at UKZN, gave an overview of his research which focused on the national liberation struggle archives in east and southern Africa and their digitisation, which often lacked standardisation across the region due to a lack of national policies and legislation. Mwelela Cele, from the Campbell Collection at UKZN, highlighted a different type of liberation archive, that of the oral history collection held by UKZN, which consists of interviews conducted in the 1970s and 1980s on the political histories of Durban and KwaZulu-Natal. This collection is currently being digitised by DISA but will not be made freely available online due to the sensitive natureof some of the materials. Cele also raised an important point - that official struggle archives only hold one hisotrical perspective and that other histories can be found in the archival materials held by family members of struggle heroes. This idea would feed directly into the next day’s proposal development.

Paul Weinberg, photographer and archivist from the Centre for Curating the Archive at UCT, described his work as photographer and founding member of the Afrapix photography agency in the 1980s, and how this led to his interest and current work with digitizing South African photography collections. The aims of his archival work at the Centre was to identify and build the collection, generate research and share skills.  A large part of his work also involved developing and running projects, such as the Then and Now anthology and the Underexposed documentary (more on these on the Centre’s website).

I gave a presentation on Web 2.0 and community archiving, and in particular the eThekwini Municipality’s Ulwazi Programme, an online archival initiative has been set up by the eThekwini (Durban) Municipal Library to provide opportunities for communities actively to record and share their contemporary history and culture. The programme uses the existing library infrastructure and Web 2.0 technologies to create a collaborative online indigenous knowledge resource in the form of a Wiki.

Pat Liebetrau from DISA presented a session on e-research, highlighting how DISA’s past work facilitates this in South Africa but also acknowledging that much needs to be done in terms of improved interfaces and the utilisation of new technologies such as Web 2.0. She also noted that best practices needed to be standardised throughout the country, a point brought up by other particiapants and probably needing a national policy to guide this.  Lastly, she stated that while it was apparent that e-research was vital to the future of research in this country it was still difficult to quantify usage and that research needed to be done in this regard.

Kees and Harry then gave an overview of the SANPAD programme and the history of VU’s relationship with South Africa. They both felt that the development and use of digital resources was a vital exercise and that this production of knowledge could be further used for curriculum development and to facilitate a community of learners, based in both countries.

Janine Dunlop, from the UCT Archives, gave a presentation on copyright, ethics and digitisation - sensitive issues that are compounded by the accessibility and reproducibility offered by the online environment, and which itself could form the basis of an entire workshop, I’m sure.

The second day consisted of using all the information gleamed from the previous days proceedings to formulate a proposal that would involved both Dutch and South African researchers and could be attractive to a number of higher degree students. After much deliberation, the over-aching theme for the proposal was ‘Democratisation of “memory” with respect to South African digital collections’ (which could take under its wings many more projects), with a specific focus on family archives and non-violence resistance in South Africa, from Gandhi to Tutu.

All in all, a very interesting workshop and here’s hoping the proposal is as successful.

More photographs from the workshop up at Flickr.

One Response to “The Digital Archive and South African Heritage”

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