Digital Collaborations in African History: New Methods and Sources

AHA Session 15
Friday, January 3, 2020: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Gramercy East (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Leigh A. Gardner, London School of Economics and Political Science
Ellen R. Feingold, National Museum of American History
Johan Fourie, Stellenbosch University
Gregg Mitman, University of Wisconsin–Madison
Rebecca Shumway, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee

Session Abstract

The use of innovative digital tools in the study of African history is providing new opportunities for the inclusion of neglected voices and perspectives in historical research. Moving beyond the initial digitization of primary sources, historians are creating multifaceted digital platforms that connect geographically disparate archival and photographic collections, merge historical data sets, and contextualize objects that have been long isolated from their communities of origin.

The aim of this roundtable is to highlight the value of collaboration between institutions and disciplines in the development of digital projects focused on the study of Africa and to discuss their role in facilitating new approaches to African history both on the continent and around the world. Digital collaborations have a particularly important role to play in the field of African history because of the significant role of western imperial powers in shaping the content and the often scattered geographic locations of existing records and object collections. In addition, the aims of much recent scholarship in the field to move away from or reinterpret textual sources often seen as Eurocentric has made it particularly important to bring together a different types of evidence, something digital history can facilitate. To make this argument, this roundtable highlights four distinct collaborative projects.

The first, presented by Ellen Feingold, involves a partnership between the Smithsonian and the London School of Economics to create a digital collection of open-access images of West African monetary objects which will be available to scholars and students in Sub-Saharan Africa where there is no comparative numismatic collection. Johan Fourie’s project is a collaboration between economics, history and computer science to create and analyze new databases of individual-level records of often under-represented populations in South African history. Gregg Mitman will present the creation of a public history website which repurposed the photographic and film record of a 1926 Harvard expedition to Liberia, undertaken on behalf of Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, to generate oral histories, along with an accompanying documentary film, which are being used to build a more inclusive history of Liberia. Finally, Rebecca Shumway will present a new initiative by the Transatlantic Slave Voyages Database entitled ‘People of the Atlantic Trade’ which will build on scholarship from a number of fields to produce biographical information on a range of individuals involved in the trade, from the enslaved to ship captains, to create a broader picture of those who participated.

These diverse examples of digital collaboration in African history will be of interest not only to Africanists, but also those seeking new and varied pathways to using digital history in research and teaching.

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