Southern African Collections: a co-curation

Ingoma yenu ngiqale ngayizwa, ngayizwa ngayeya ngokungaz, namuhla sengiyayiqonda ngiyayithobela. (When first I heard our tribal songs, they seemed to me of little worth; but now their message echoes in my heart)" 


B.W. Vilakazi, Ngizw' Ingoma ('I hear a singing ...') (1935)


Creating new connections: shared digital curation of the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) southern African collections at Cambridge University Library is a two-year project generously funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York. The project aims to consider and develop approaches to co-production and co-curation using the holdings of the RCS relating to southern Africa.  

This material encompasses a diverse range of content and format from personal papers, manuscripts, diaries, drawings, watercolours, photographs, pamphlets, cartoons, newspapers and maps to directories, monographs, official publications and journals. There is good coverage of nineteenth and twentieth century South Africa, including material relating to the predecessor colonies of the Cape, Natal, Transvaal and Orange River, as well as material relating to Zimbabwe (formerly Southern Rhodesia), Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia), Botswana (formerly Bechuanaland Protectorate), Lesotho (formerly Basutoland) and Eswatini (formerly Swaziland). The bulk of the southern African collections are currently accessible only to those physically able to visit Cambridge University Library. In their current state, the collections are effectively set apart from the communities they document.

The project represents a first step in opening up the collections to communities and researchers in southern Africa, where the material originated in the first place, and globally. The creation of a dedicated digital collection relating to southern Africa, drawing on local and personal knowledge, will allow more robust interrogation and interpretation of the collections than has previously been possible. A programme of conservation, digitisation and enhanced cataloguing based on a considered collaborative approach will secure continued access, both physical and digital, to the material for future generations.

By creating and developing new connections with southern African communities, it is hoped the project will facilitate a better overall understanding of the collections and inform decision-making about the future care of this material. In particular, the selection of material for digitisation and the prioritisation of workflows will be actively informed by these new relationships and partnerships.

For more details about the project, including regular blogposts about the collections and the project’s engagement activities, see the Southern African collections: a co-curation project webpage.  Newly digitised material, with accompanying enhanced metadata, will be added to the Digital Library throughout the second year of the project (2023). To get involved or to learn more about the RCS material relating to southern Africa please contact