Endangered Archives

EAP506: A pilot project to survey the Buea Archives and other potentially endangered archives in western Cameroon

Dr Jeffrey Good, University at Buffalo
2011 award - Pilot project
£10,348 for 3 months

Project Overview

This project has two main components.The first part will be based at the Buea Archives, South-West Region of Cameroon, and aims to survey and assess the documents held there. A training course in digital archiving techniques will be offered to the Archives personnel and a limited number of Cameroonian librarians and university students. Some of the most historically significant and/or damaged documents will be digitised. The second part of the project will be a twenty-day survey intended to locate and assess other potentially endangered archives in the North-West and South-West Regions of Cameroon. The work will be managed in Cameroon by the Project Coordinator and coapplicant Dr Pierpaolo Di Carlo.

Founded in the 1960s by British scholars (Edwin and Shirley Ardener), the Buea Archives store all of the British documents concerned with the history of today’s South-West and North-West Regions of Cameroon dating back to 1916, when most of Cameroon was still fully in pre-industrial times. Unlike the few earlier sources (German reports, travellers’ diaries), the British colonial documents cover the whole region and include maps, drawings, pictures, genealogies, etc., often dealing with little studied areas of Cameroon.

In spite of their historical relevance, the Buea Archives have not been supported by public sources. The lack of indoor humidity control systems and of funds to provide effective prevention of insect infestation have resulted in significant decay of many important historical documents in recent years. These conditions are perhaps not rare in Cameroon’s document repositories. However, the unparalleled historical value of the Buea Archives makes them a strong candidate for concerted preservation efforts.

This part of the project has been designed to assess the feasibility of - and priorities for - an extensive preservation effort at the Buea Archives and, at the same time, will provide the Archives staff with the training and equipment required to engage in archival digitisation. Activities connected to the latter goal will include an in-house four-day workshop led by an established professional in digital archiving and curation techniques. A set of surrogate copies will be bound and will remain in the Archives as reading copies so that visitors will not have to handle original documents. Digitisation and storage will be performed according to the EAP Copying Guidelines and a standard framework for descriptive and technical metadata will be designed and implemented in accordance with EAP Listing Guidelines.

In addition to the main project, there are a number of endangered archives in nearby areas, for instance, in the library of the St. Thomas Aquinas Major Seminary in Bambui and the Bishop’s House in several cities, such as Bamenda, Buea, and Soppo. It is planned to also visit Nkambe, Bafut, Wum, Mamfe, Kumba, and Victoria in search of other minor repositories, though this list may be adjusted as new discoveries are made. The production of a report and a map of the distribution of endangered archives will crucially inform the agenda for any future work in the area.

A significant aspect of the first part of the project involves capacity building at the Buea Archives. Since the Buea Archives are well-placed to serve as a general centre for archiving-related projects in the region, the intention is that the second part of the project will lay the groundwork through which the staff of the Buea Archives can prioritise preservation efforts, using the tools and skills provided in the context of the first subproject, to support preservation efforts beyond the Archives themselves.

The project has the support of the Buea Archivist, Mr. Primus Forgwe, and his intimate knowledge of the Archive's collections and of other archival institutions at the national level will be crucial to the successful realisation of the project. The project also has the support of the Association of Friends of Archives and Antiquities Cameroon (AFAAC), a local NGO based in Yaounde and recognised by the government.

Project Outcome

The project succeeded in digitising and describing 74 folders (7,948 archival digital images) mostly containing British colonial records and containing the oldest materials in Cameroon’s archives. The contents and conditions of 31 repositories in the Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon were assessed as part of a supraregional survey.

The project was successful in training 24 junior documentalists in basic techniques of digitisation of archival items (eg. principles of metadata encoding according to ISAD-G and ISAAR (CPF) norms and archival-quality digital imaging). 11 of these documentalists were engaged in a training practicum over a period of six weeks involving the digitisation of materials at the Buea National Archives - they achieved a significant degree of skill allowing them to engage in the entire digitisation process independently, including the selection of materials, metadata encoding, digital imaging and post-processing, checksum creation and verification, and backup and storage of digital items.

During the planned survey, three documentalists were trained in techniques of archival survey, including the creation of questionnaires, survey photography, basic methods of interviewing in the social sciences, and the planning of a multi-site survey.

Thus the project achieved more than anticipated in terms of training, and the knowledge transfer promoted by the project has contributed significantly to the professional development of a number of local documentalists. Most of those who benefited were junior civil servants working at the Yaounde National Archives while others worked for institutions of higher education (eg University of Buea) or private archival institutions (eg the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon’s central Archives).

Thanks to the creation of a strongly collaborative working environment, key representatives of the Ministry of Culture also benefited and the Director of the National Archives participated in the planning of major aspects of the project. Thus, a formal dialogue has been initiated aimed at outlining a comprehensive long-term plan to preserve Cameroon’s archives.

Visit the project website for an interactive map to access the survey reports and photographs.

The records copied by this project have been catalogued as:

  • EAP506/1 Buea National Archives: Bamenda Divisional Office Records [1916-1967]

The catalogue is available here.