Primary Resources about Africa: Research Strategies

This guide provides an introduction to libraries, archives and primary resources. It highlights some useful methods, as well as the challenges, of finding primary resources.  It also provides information on the evaluation and proper citation of these materials.

Definitions of Primary Resources

Research: You know what this means, but think of the word a different way: RE-search. Explore many paths; try many approaches.

Libraries, Archives, and Records Centers

Libraries and archives and records centers are similar in some aspects, and may co-exist in the same building, but are different in purpose, operation and use.

  • A library is a collection of informational resources that have been selected and acquired to fill the needs of a library’s clientele. The materials are arranged for maximum public access.
  • An archive is a collection of administrative, organizational, institutional, or personal papers and records that have been used as part of the operation or business of the organization or person who generated them. Organizations may also have records centers, which house documents during their active life. Those records are usually stored for possible use according to a retention policy which may be dictated by law (for instance, the number of years a bank is required to maintain records of the activities of accounts), or by prudence (for instance, keeping records as long as they might reasonably be expected to be useful). Materials are usually placed in archives for long-term or permanent storage when they are no longer in active use. They are arranged for maximum utility to the organization that created them, and access for outside researchers is usually only a secondary consideration.

Both libraries and archives are important in ethnographic and historical research. The archives of national and local governments, of missions and churches, of corporations, of non-governmental organizations, and of individual scholars, statesmen, and other figures provide the primary documentation of human activity. Archives are frequently used for research which can be quite different from their original purpose. Because archives have not generally been created for use by researchers, unlocking the information they may contain is not as easy as logging on to a library’s catalog.

Primary Resources

Primary resources are the foundation – the building blocks – of research. Before we explore primary resources available on the Web, and investigate the special circumstances and issues involved in using primary resources in electronic format, we should define and understand primary resources in conventional formats.

A primary resource is most easily defined by what it is NOT:

  • not analysis or interpretation
  • not a synthesis of known or assumed facts
  • not reformatting or popularization

Primary resources in conventional formats (paper or microfilm) can be found in libraries, archives, and private collections – as well as storage areas of businesses and organizations, or in someone’s attic. The location depends largely on the format. Published primary resources may be in library collections. Government documents may be in those same collections, or in a documents library or archive. Letters and diaries are likely to be preserved in special collections or archives. Primary resources may be privately owned, either by collectors or by the persons who produced the documents or the descendant of those persons.

Some primary resources are now on the Web. Many governments, corporations, and organizations are choosing to record and disseminate their records, reports and other documents electronically, and may not make and/or keep paper documents. Is this good for researchers? Maybe. “Publishing” on the Web usually means greater access, if a researcher can find the site, and if the site is unrestricted. Finding a source once does not guarantee that the same material will be there on a second visit, or will be available for reference and verification by readers of your research papers.

Some other sites defining and explaining the use of primary sources:

Research Strategies: Finding Resources

Define Your Topic by Using Secondary Sources

It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to go straight to a collection of primary sources and use them to develop a topic. Secondary sources – books, articles, etc. – will not only help you develop and refine the questions which you hope primary resources will answer, but good authors will supply you with references and locations of the primary sources they used.

Start by Finding Out What’s in the Collections of Boston University Libraries

Two guides are available for print texts that can be found in the Boston University Libraries:

Strategies for Finding Primary Sources in the Library Catalog:

Government Publications and Reports

If you have a citation, try a title search, or a word search using the ocuntry name and one or two key words in the title. If you don’t have a full title, try usingthe ocuntry name as author, then skim through the results. Most – but not all – government publications use the country name as part of the corporate author, e.g., Nigeria. Cocoa Marketing Board.

For government documents published prior to 1982, check the card catalog in ASL for older “J” documents. The cards are arranged by country, then call number, which groups material by the issuing agency. There is also a subject catalog. Ask at the ASL desk for guidance.


The African Studies Library has a web page on newspapers:Newspapers in Print and Online

It lists current African newspapers as well as those on microfilm, and shows holdings for each title. The microfilm is stored in ASL. Readers and printers are in the Microform Library in the Basement of Mugar. You may leave an ID with ASL staff for short use of the film, or make arrangements to keep the film in the Microform Library for more extended use. There are no indexes to African newspapers.

Magazines from the Period

If you have a title, just do a title search in the OPAC. Bear in mind that you maight want to check variations on the title. Citations often leave out crucial details, and acronyms can be misleading.

If you are casting a net for magazines from a specific country for a certain time period, it’s a good bit harder. You can try a subject search under Africa – periodicals, or [country name] – periodicals, then limit by year (“year of publication before—-“). Finding titles cited or mentioned in secondary sources usually works better.

Diaries, Letters, Accounts, etc.

Often travellers, missionaries, and government employees write about their experiences, and some of these are published as books. To tap into this kind of material, try doing a subject search on Africa (or country name) — description and travel, then limit by year. Another way is to find a subject heading for your topic and add a subdivision word, such as “correspondence”, “diaries”, “personal narratives”, etc.

Archival Collections and Guides on the Web

Digital Missionary Archives

Searching Other Collections:

Library Catalogs

Discussion Lists

The scholarly electronic discussion list H-Africa and its related lists:

These are all good sites to explore for discussions relevant to your research, and to send queries about specific topics. H-AfResearch is particularly relevant, since it specifically focuses on discussion of issues surrounding the use of primary sources in African humanities and social sciences research. Many of the messages are cross-posted in H-Africa.

Links to Governmental Archival Sites

  • African Governments on the WWW This is a division of Governments on the WWW, a “comprehensive database of governmental institutions on the World Wide Web: parliaments, ministries, offices, law courts, embassies, city councils, public broadcasting corporations, central banks, multi-governmental institutions etc. Includes also political parties. Online since June 1995. Contains more than 17000 entries from more than 220 countries and territories as of June 2001.”

This site does not seem to have been updated since 06-26-2002, so more African government agencies may actually now have Web sites. Finding a Web site is not necessarily the same as finding a source for documents. Many of these sites are little more than directory entries with graphics. Many, however, contain reports and other documents. Bear in mind that the sites themselves may well have been updated recently, even though the country pages on African Governments on the WWW have not.

  • Africa South of the Sahara This is a compilation of Web sites dealing with Africa. In the section arranged by country and region, links to official government sites are provided in alphabetical sequence mixed with non-governmental sites. There is some overlap with African Governments on the WWW, but this site is enormously useful, and kept up to date.
  • International Constitutional Law Provides links to sites with text of the constitutions of nations worldwide, including many African nations.
  • USAID Development Experience Clearinghouse Offers over 9,000 reports of USAID projects free for downloading. The database contains over 110,000 reports which can be ordered from the Clearinghouse.
  • A Slave Narrative “Memoirs of Boyrereau Brinch, Nick-named Jeffrey Brace. Containing an Account of the Kingdom of Bow-Woo, in the Interior of Africa; with the Climate and Natural Productions, Laws, and Customs Peculiar to That Place”

Regional Organizations

United Nations and Other International sites

Non-Governmental Agencies

Problems in Using Archival and Primary Resources

There are three areas which can present problems for researchers using primary sources:

Access: What kinds of materials might answer the research questions? Where have those materials been collected? How can I find the materials in that collection that deal with my questions? Will I be allowed to see the material and use if for my research? If primary resources are privately owned, there may be strict restrictions on their use, or they may be hidden from public view entirely.

Example: The Cooperative Africana Microform Project (CAMP) at the Center for Research Libraries has a large collection of microfilmed collections of papers, letters, and other primary resources. Many are restricted, such as the papers relating to the Rwenzururu Secessionist Movement in Uganda. In 1973 the donor stipulated that the collection should be embargoed until 1980 or until it was deemed safe to make the material publicly accessible. Because there is still a regional war going on, the donor has not given permission to open the collection. The Carter-Karis collection of South African materials is now open to public access, but for many years was restricted in order to protect people active in anti-apartheid movements, particularly the ANC.

Preservation: What records have been kept? Who decides about retention? Primary resources are not always preserved for the benefit of researchers; if preserved, they are not always made available or easily accessible. Consider how many researchers, including government investigators, would like to have access to the records that Enron shredded. Archives in African nations suffer the deleterious effects of climate, insect damage, and war. African governments seldom have the luxury of placing any priority on the conservation of their official records.


In 1973, twelve years after independence, and following a civil war that was based largely on ethnic clashes, Nigeria conducted its second annual census. Claims were made that the figures had been rigged, skewing the count in favor of one ethnic group. The entire census was scrapped, and no census was conducted until 1991. Researchers cannot consult the 1973 census. It no longer exists.

The discussion logs of H-Africa frequently contain messages concerning the state of archives in Africa during war or natural disaster. A message in July of 1999 is typical, describing a researcher raveling to a remote town to examine legal records for information on land tenure, only to discover that the court archives had been destroyed. The records may have been destroyed because individuals wanted to turn the situation to their advantage, or they might simply have been burned as fuel,or as part of general destruction and looting. Livingstone Museum; Rhodes House.

In Megan Vaughan’s review of Robert Harms: The ‘Diligent”: A Voyage through the Worlds of the Slave Trade (“Tricky Business”. London Review of Books December 12, 2002, p. 11-12), she comments on the archival evidence preserved concerning the lives and deaths of 242 Africans brought to Martinique aboard the French slave ship “Diligent”. Harms based much of his book on the account given in the journal of Robert Durand, a lieutenant on the “Diligent”, rounded out with material from archives. The journal had been used as evidence in a lawsuit between the owners of the ship and the captain over events that resulted in the death of slaves, and subsequent loss of profit for the owners:

“This is the end of the journey for both the historian and his readers.”

The comment refers to the complete lack of any information in the archives of Martinique about the Africans.

Historians and other researchers will find in archives only what has been preserved, and they will find that only if it is made accessible.

Other preservation issues involve the merits of preserving the original copy as an artifact; of using microfilm as a more durable means of preserving the image of the original and enabling dissemination; of digitizing the content (and sometimes the image) as a means of disseminating the information more broadly.

The main purpose of an archive is to preserve the contents for the primary users. The contents of archives are usually unique, and their use is limited to secure circumstances. it is advisable to learn what the conditions are before beginning research. There is usually no borrowing allowed, and. in-house use will be monitored by staff. Items may be fragile, needing extra care. Photocopying may be limited or prohibited altogether.

Despite the need to preserve unique materials, African archives often exist in lamentable conditions — little climate control, poor security, infestations of pests. Optimum archival preservation simply has a lower priority in national budgeting than national security, education, or health care.

Digitization seems to be the wave of the future, but is not yet proven as a good means of preserving documents. Microfilm remains the standard for most archives. Sometimes, however, digitization is the only means of preservation available. For instance, a faculty member of Northwestern University is attempting to preserve Arabic manuscripts at the Mamma Haidara Memorial Library in Timbuctu by digitizing them. The manuscripts themselves are in such poor condition that microfilming could not produce a readable image. On the other hand, some firms, such as Coca Cola, are moving toward digital archives as their sole means of preserving records. (“Coca-Cola: Enterprise Archives Preserve Social History”. (IRLA January 2002, p. 8)

Ethical Issues: Migration and Destruction of Archives

Unesco has a publication available: Lost Memory: Libraries and Archives Destroyed.

No matter what the conditions a nation can provide for its archives, those records are the property of that nation and represent its heritage. “Migrated” archives is a widespread problem that refers both to the extraction of colonial records from the independent country to the former colonial power, and to the (perhaps) well-meaning but misguided researcher who takes documents he finds in appalling circumstances in order to “give them a better home.”

Addressing the Problems: Some Projects Underway

Evaluating Primary Sources

Whether paper or electronic, you must ask many questions about primary resources.

  • Is the document what it is claimed to be?
  • Who produced it?
  • Would this resource be admissible as evidence?Is it an eyewitness account, or a document of record? If it would be “admissible”, can it stand up to your cross-examination? Even an eyewitness account may be mistaken because of poor observation or faulty memory. Witnesses do lie and companies do file false reports.
  • Can this resource be found again, either by the original researcher or colleagues and readers who wish to consult the sources?

Citing Primary Sources

The research guide The Research Process provides considerable guidance in citing both print and electronic sources, and Africa South of the Sahara has numerous Web sites with information on citing Web resources. Citing archival material is less well documented. One good site is a guide prepared at Wesleyan University. The Library of Congress also has a clear guide to citing online resources.

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