Academic journal article African Research & Documentation

Headaches and Brainwaves: Libraries, Evidence and Research across the Disciplines

Academic journal article African Research & Documentation

Headaches and Brainwaves: Libraries, Evidence and Research across the Disciplines

Article excerpt

Keynote Address at the Third meeting of the European Librarians in African Studies (ELIAS), Liepzig, 3 June 2009

Once upon a time, my brother was working in the Dominican library in Paris. This was in the early 1980s and he was doing research for his PhD - on the subject of baptism in the ninth to twelfth centuries. Another man often worked there and they would talk now and then but they never actually introduced themselves. The other man sometimes gave my brother a lift across town when they left the library. He seemed rather authoritative. One day he asked my brother, 'Who are you working with?' and my brother said 'Jacques Ie Goff, a very renowned medieval historian. 'Ah, le Goff, yes, he's very astute', the man said, and my brother thought my goodness, who is this man to pass judgement so confidently on le Goff. Another day, when the news was full of the Pope, John Paul II, coming to Paris, my brother asked the man if he was going to see the pope. No, the man replied; you'll find very few people go. The French are racist and they will take offence that the pope chose to go to Africa first, and then to come after Africa to France. He turned out to have been fairly accurate - the numbers were surprisingly low for the Pope's public mass. Eventually, my brother said, look, Fm terribly sorry, I haven't introduced myself, my name is Peter Cramer. The other man smiled: 'Je suis Michel Foucault'.

That is the first of three very short stories I want to tell about libraries and librarians. Barbara Spina, who kindly asked me to give a short talk, suggested that I should do something more personal than a formal paper and so I have tried to take her at her word. Let me tell you two more stories and then try actually to make a point or two, as well as to ask some questions. The health warning is that this will not be exclusively about 'African studies' though it is nicely relevant to what I have to say that this conference takes place in the Albertina library in Leipzig, which itself has a long history and includes medieval manuscripts, some of which were rescued when the library buildings were bombed and two-thirds destroyed in the Second World War, after which the library and its collections have been rebuilt magnificently.

The second story I was told by an Indian historian who teaches at Princeton. We had been talking about Parsees from Bombay. He told how he'd been in the British Library one day and he'd chanced upon an unpublished manuscript, a detective novel written by a Parsee, Phirozeshah Jamesetji Chevalier (Chaiwala) in the 1920s. In the novel a pilot had flown a plane low over the Tower of Silence in Bombay and taken an aerial photograph of the tower, something anathema to the Parsees. The story then cut to London, where a man was looking up at a building. He'd come to track down the editor of the journal that published the photograph, with the aim of killing the editor and then the pilot of the plane who'd taken the photograph. On page 197 the manuscript ended, abruptly, in the middle of the sentence. The historian was terribly frustrated. He kept in mind, on his travels, this novel and tried whenever possible to pursue the idea that there must somewhere be a completed manuscript and to find out about the author. One day he was in a particular library in Bombay, where the librarian was not a librarian but an engineer, who had simply refused to let the library fall into disuse after the previous librarian had died and had taken on the job. Well, the historian did manage there to find the complete manuscript of the detective novel, and he is trying now to get it published.

My third story is more directly about my own library experiences. I was an undergraduate at Cambridge, doing a degree in history. I was in my final year and two main things preoccupied me (at least, in academic terms). One was grappling with primary sources for my "special subject": this was the first year this subject had been taught, a course on the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya taught by John Lonsdale. …

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