Nelson Mandela’s past goes digital

By Gemma Ware 
in Johannesburg

Posted on June 8, 2012 13:32

The archive contains letters, manuscripts, photos and videos. Translations are planned.

The archive contains letters, manuscripts, photos and videos. Translations are planned.

It’s like walking into a museum from your desktop. A groundbreaking digital archive launched in March by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, in collaboration with the Google Cultural Institute, allows free access to a trove of papers, photographs and personal testimonies of South Africa’s first democratically elected president.

The archive contains Mandela’s warrants of committal to Robben Island, pages of letters and manuscripts smuggled out of prison, and rare photos from his youth and prison years. There are also video testimonies from Mandela’s friends, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and a section for others to upload their memories of Madiba.

Handwritten documents have all been digitised by Google, allowing users to search for people and events. There are plans for translation into other South African languages.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation received a $1.25m grant from the Google Cultural Institute – 40% of which has been used for its core costs and the rest for digitising the archives. So far, only a third of the foundation’s current archive is online; the project is ongoing.

“Our instincts are to put everything up,” says Verne Harris, head of the memory programme at the centre. But any personal or intimate details in Mandela’s letters have to be checked with a third party. Mandela, who is frail and has been in and out of hospital in recent months, has never used computers and was not part of the launch, but the concept was discussed with him.”

In the past, South African archivists have been reluctant to agree to digitisation, concerned about who will hold the intellectual-property rights. For the Mandela archives, photographers such as Benny Gool retain their copyright, and have agreed to let low-resolution versions be used as a public resource. Anyone wishing to purchase the image will be directed to Gool’s website.

“I see the launch of this archive as part of this imperative of creating a know- ledge economy in our country and our continent,” said Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s minister of science and technology, at the launch.

“Much of the research locked up behind publishers’ paywalls is funded by the public purse,” lamented Pandor, who is pushing for more research to be readily available online.

Other archives in South Africa could soon get the digital treatment. Google has given another grant to the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre for a similar project.

The National Heritage and Cultural Studies Centre at Fort Hare is also assessing its archives of South Africa’s liberation history, with plans to put them online. The university intends to launch a master’s and a PhD programme on liberation movements in January 2013. ●

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