Collecting material culture, traditional manufacturing, or other material data for the preservation and tradition of knowledge is a fundamental practice in European societies. Since the Renaissance, building up collections is practised in the complete scientific spectrum by preserving artefacts of knowledge from humanities to natural science, and of culture itself in fine arts (Museum of the Vatikan, Louvre, Eremitage, British Museum, Musée de l’Homme). Though artefacts from Africa are desired objects and well represented in ethnographic collections throughout the western world, the situation in Africa is much different. Collections are most exceptionally found on the continent for several reasons.
Historically, collections in Africa appeared mostly in the context of Koranic schools and scholars orthodox monasteries. Secular collections are only exceptional. There were until present only few African collectors, who engaged in the preservation of tradition and culture by building up archives. Consequently, the collection at NCAC/RDD of The Gambia is to be seen as an exceptional case. In laying a focus on oral traditions this archive documents recordings of West African history, the collection contains approximately 6000 audio recordings of spoken art and oral traditions, but as well 500 written documents on the history of Senegambia, Guinee and Mali.
There are several dangers, threatening the preservation of this extraordinary collection. The destruction of manuscript collections and historical buildings in Timbuktu (Mali) are example that archives and collections are threatened latently by unforeseen political events. Furthermore, harsh storing conditions and lack of financial support by foundations threaten the preservation of materials. Legal conditions and ownership conflicts add to these too.
Digital archives allow us today to solve at least some of the mentioned problems. Moreover, digital documents are widely accessible while artefacts, text and audio documents remain at their local repositories. This enables researchers but as well local scholars and further generations to preserve knowledge resources . Digital documents ease the access to collections and enlarge the number of potential users, including teachers who have educational purposes.
The purpose of this project funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation (see also the project description at NCAC) shall be a comprehensive digital archiving and documentation of the NCAC/RDD collection by the implementation of a multi modally annotated Archive implemented and mirrored at the FDM of Hamburg Universit providing digitized documents to a wider academic and regional public under regulated legal conditions. For that purpose large portions of the collection have been catalogued and digitized during the first phase. The project is running now the second phase.