Celebrating Research

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African Studies Library, Mugar Memorial Library

Collection Profile

Students using the African Studies Library usually begin their research with its substantial collection of books, journals, and electronic resources. Beyond these conventional materials, ASL also offers primary research sources: government publications, dating from colonial to contemporary, and published letters and accounts of travelers. Recently, donations outside the original scope were added: ethnographic field notes and diaries from research on the Acholi people of northern Uganda in the mid-1950s, including transcripts of provincial and district court proceedings for which the anthropologist Paula Hirsch Foster was a paid interpreter; a hand-written copy of the Psalms of David in Ge'ez, the liturgical language of Ethiopia, with marginal notes, straw bookmarkers, and bits of candle wax testifying to its frequent use over the years; and site notes and maps of excavation in the 1970s of the ancient city of Axum in present-day Ethiopia.

This and similar raw material for academic research also provides exciting opportunities for students to learn how to use primary sources. The Axum collection on one day might be consulted by visiting archaeologists from Italy and by a student learning what excavation field reports actually are—not Indiana Jones fare, but precise lists of ceramic fragments. Students hired to work on the Foster archive learn how to match unlabelled slides with segments of the text and to find a lab capable of processing the fifty-year-old undeveloped film.

The collections invite creative synthesis of secondary and primary resources. Forrest Whitaker's Oscar-winning portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland or the documentary Invisible Children, portraying the plight of children abducted to serve as soldiers in Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army might inspire a paper topic. Students not only can read a wealth of books, articles, and documents on both eras but can also explore the Foster field notes for clues on what might have led to these horrific events. Guided exercises are being devised for students to learn how to investigate the archival collections and how to use the texts they find there.

Stories of donors add rich context to the collections. The personality of Paula Hirsch Foster leaps out between the lines of her meticulous notes of court cases and interviews; 16mm film segments even include scenes from her wedding. Charles Samz included a chapter describing his adventures as a petroleum geologist from his autobiography-in-progress, which accompanied his gift of an early eighteenth-century Ethiopian manuscript.

From these collections, students come to understand that it's not "all on the Internet," and that vital information isn't always conveniently packaged. ASL prepares guides and finding aids for its collections, but the answers to some questions can only come from reading page after page of material in the hopes of hitting the revealing passage. This is an acquired taste, but the appetite and the skills students develop by using these collections may enrich their entire lives.

Collection Profile and Overview: Gretchen Walsh
Illustrations: Vernon Doucette

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