Digital Archives, Helsinki 2006

Helsinki 7- 8 June 2006

The Documentation projects collaborates with partners in Namibia, Angola, Tanzania and Finland and the thought of sharing experiences, discussing joint practises and learn more about digital formats emerged. Therefore, it was decided to host a workshop together with the Finnish Archives of the Anti-Colonial Resistance and The Liberation Struggle in Namibia (AACRLS) in Helsinki on:

Sharing experiences with other ongoing projects, technical solutions for digitalising documents, standardised formats, databases and extent of digitalisation.

This was an opportunity to get together in order to discuss where we are today, what remains to be done, and how to come together in joint practices and presentations. It is important to make archives and material available and to put it into context in the history writing that is taking place yoday in many countries in southern Africa.

The workshop was divided into two parts with the first day discussing existing initiatives and material. The second day was dedicated to a more technical discussion. Participants came from the Nordic Africa Institute, the National Archives of Finland, the Namibia National Archives, Aluka, Africa Groups of Sweden, Swapo Party and Archive Research Centre (SPARC), AACRLS Finland and the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Mission.

The workshop came naturally to focus on material related to Namibia, given the country’s longstanding relations with Finland. The National Archives of Namibia (NAA) established its first country committee in Germany in 2000 in order to localise and repatriate material. Since then committees have been established in Russia and Finland as well. There is a rich flora of material from former missionaries and from the solidarity movements in Finland that in particular deals with Namibia, including oral testimonies. This material is now being catalogued and will eventually be digitalised and shared with NAA. Apart from the National Archives, there are also the archives of Swapo (SPARC) and of the University. Swapo retrieved three containers some time back containing millions of documents. Some were in fairly good condition others had been exposed to the elements for years and were in various stages of decay. SPARC has no possibility to organise and catalogue the documents first, as tends to be the normal procedure, but digitalises them immediately in order to save them, giving each document an identification number. They are working with organising a database and website to make the material available for future students and researchers.

Aluka is an initiative funded by the Mellon Foundation. They strive to use technology for higher education and have accessibility as a first priority. They also work on a country committee basis working currently with the DISA project in South Africa and having started up committees in several other countries. Their aim is to have all documents available in full text in the database. This service would be free of charge for institutions in Africa but have a prescription cost for others.

The technical discussion was on best practices and joint procedures. Key issues that were addressed were the purpose of archives. Why are the particular documents to be preserved and for whom? Who makes the selection? Where do the property rights lie (important when it comes to making letters and documents publicly available)? How do we scan them? Here, the discussion on level of resolution in dpi and format comes in as it is linked to the question of resources. Should all documents be formatted with OCR into searchable pdf files or is it enough to decide on keywords in the metadata? And what kind of metadata standard should be used? What kind of databases and search engines are best for this kind of work? How should it be presented? How do we make the various initiatives interoperable? How should it be sustained?

The workshop did not decide on a complete set of rules that should be followed but tried rather to create awareness of these questions and the importance of thinking through each step of the way in creating accessible archives. They were two intensive days with much food for thought and will be followed up with a regional workshop in Namibia in the autumn of 2006.

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Updated 25 February 2010, 12:38