Wikipedia:GLAM/The National Archives/WikiAfrica

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The institution[edit]

View of the main building in Kew

The National Archives (TNA) are a British institution with headquarters in Kew, which defines itself as "the UK government's official archive, containing 1,000 years of history"; a group of several structures that have long dealt with diverse contents, from public documents, official, government, legal and cartographic data, to historical manuscripts, acts of Parliament, correspondence, and photographic documentation such as the one we are going to describe. The "Freedom of Information Act 2000" has certainly contributed in multiple ways to openness, transparency and to the dissemination of these contents, licensed under the Government Open License v1.0 which provides extreme flexibility in distributing, modificating and reusing them.

Overview of the partnership[edit]

From shelves...
... to servers: new ways of reproducing and disseminating cultural contents

The institution was already using many of the typical web 2.0 tools to redistribute their contents, and in 2011 they had already launched a productive collaboration with Wikimedia which focused mainly on the creation af articles related to the Archives; they did not hesitate therefore to formalize the further donation of thousands of images from the collection "Africa through a lens" (Africa through the lens), which were already on their official Flickr account, thus joining a project that declares its purpose in its name - Share your Knowledge (SYK), the same terminology used by the Archives themselves, as we will see. Forwarding a permission letter to Wikimedia's OTRS was necessary because of the doubts expressed by a user on Wikimedia Commons: he found inconsistencies between the statements of another user, who works for TNA, and some sentences on the Archives' website relating to the status of copyright and licensing. The confirmation of the license conditions by the TNA staff was considered more than sufficient and valid and therefore the practice was closed. Spurred by the scientific director of SYK Iolanda Pensa in early 2012, the donation allowed the project tutor to upload images in a short time, which are now categorized according to the country of origin, thanks to the advice of users Leutha and Mr impossible. "I was absolutely delighted about this" was the comment from Jo Pugh, member of the Education and Outreach team at TNA, in reference to the work of the tutor that allowed pictures to be now present also in the shared multimedia archive of WMF projects[1].

The African collection[edit]

Fig.1: women and children Nigeria (1922-23)
Fig.2: A nurse with newborns in Nairobi Kenya (1945)

[...] we have published them (pictures, NDR) online and asked people to comment and share their knowledge.

With this statement the Archives, by describing their photographic collection "Africa through a lens", make their intentions clear: to share their own content, and hence their knowledge with the world. Not only a way to enrich a common cultural heritage, but above all to recognize the importance of the wisdom of the crowd and to take advantage of it, relying explicitly on it to control, integrate and correct errors in their records, from dating to the identification of people and places.

Fig.3: the Prince is much amused by an Akwamu tribal symbol, Gold Coast (1925)
Fig.4: from the annual report of the en:British Togoland (1953)
Fig.5: Tanzania (1961)
Fig.6: Leopard Trap at Yetrim, Ashanti, Ghana (probably 1890s)
Fig.7: A friendly cup of tea! ?? guests the Bishop of Sierra Leone and Mrs. Ingham, Cape Coast - Sierra Leone (febbraio 1893)
Fig.8: The best type of Kenya tomato makes excellent ketchup. Workers at the Pure Foods Factory throwing out faulty specimens [...] (1945)

Caroline Kimbell (Head of Licensing) explains[2] that the process started after they learned about a similar Canadian initiative, called Project Naming, in which many Inuit had helped to identify their relatives and acquaintances in old photos (some dating back to the Thirties). The images of Africa, as a matter of fact, have the same problem: while the British are properly called by name, the aborigines (except the chiefs) are defined more generally as people, or natives. They did not lie much in wait for the public to intervene, as evidenced by comments to the photo of the head Mpama (Yao tribe), or those on the image of Head Mukobela. Fifteen shots of which we know very little are now placed in a category for unidentified locations on Commons, where they await the input of the community.

"Africa through a lens" is a set of thousands of images, part of a much larger collection of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which was acquired in 2008 and covers more than twenty African countries over a period ranging from 1860s to the 1980s. The project arose from the request made in 1869 by the Secretary of State for the Colonies to the Governors of the various British colonies in Africa to document the most peculiar aspects of their respective territories, activities, buildings, landscapes and of course, the various "races" of natives. The term is not randomly chosen: the Archives do stress that the captions and even the very choice of subjects inevitably reflect the historical period and the sensitivity of the moment. Not only this would explain the antiquated jargon and the curiosity towards aspects that characterized the diversity of the African territories, but also that barely concealed pride for their contribution and their "civilizing" work. There is everything in this varied collection that tells stories from the partition of Africa until the independences obtained in the 50s and 60s, with iconic shots of tribal leaders, monuments, ceremonies and public events, wildlife, moments of everyday activities and community life ... Jenny Orme, a Different Histories Specialist at the Archives, helps us[3] to find some meaningful examples.

A very classical picture, one of a handful of women posing nearly nude (fig. 1), shows the sharpest contrast to the British woman of the era, who was just doing away with the corset and donning dresses with naked legs and arms. And the import of clothing was a colonial sign of success, i.e. the adoption of school uniforms or whitecoats used in the hospital (Fig. 2).

The British have thus documented the highlights of their kingdom, such as royal visits, when real contests took places between the colonies to stand out and be noticed (Fig. 3), and they were eager to show also good relations with local populations (Fig. 4); but they also had to register their defeat in the images of the celebrations for independence (see Julius Nyerere led in triumph by the crowd, fig.5).

Photographers can capture the peculiarities of the territory, as traps for wild animals (fig. 6), but also make open propaganda if needed: a convivial moment such as the tea ceremony (fig. 7) would help depicting the presence colonial as that of kind guests, while the caption under the black workers selecting tomatoes for the factory of the "Kenian best ketchup" (Pure Food Factory, fig.8), draws a smile for its naïveté.

Analysis of contents and upload process[edit]

In June 2012 the uploading of content is still very recent, and therefore only about 5% of the uploaded images are actually used in Wikipedia articles. Despite this between April and mid June 2012, the period covered by this survey, the pages containing them have exceeded a total of 300,000 views. Also notice that not just major encyclopedias (including those in Russian, Danish and Spanish) are involved. Some examples are provided in the gallery below.

While the tutor of SYK had uploaded "only" 4780 files, in the same category today there are many more. Why? Well, sometimes the pictures are scans of album or scrapbook pages, containing up to 6 different shots. Therefore wikimedians have not only extracted individual images from the larger ones, but also "restored" them digitally in order to improve quality. This is just one example of what can happen when unfettered access to contents is granted, as proved by a further look at a category of images about Ghana: the efforts of interested users to get better pictures can be found under the names of detail copy, derivative work, or trial of improvement. The most active user on this front is Katharinaiv who is spontaneously sub-categorizing many Ghanaians images after retouching them, a task that was also taken up by users Hic et nunc, Mario Link and Zitronenpresse. And it is precisely this huge work of restoration and cropping, as well as improving categorization of materials (to avoid regretting the usability of the collections on Flickr), and monitoring the pages in order not to miss any comments, the natural path to follow to enhance these important documents of the history of a continent of which we often have a partial, distorted and uninformed view.

Article by Erica Litrenta, June 2012

Results (June 2012)[edit]


The National Archives did adopt QR codes to link to Wikipedia articles. Mobile devices which can scan this image will redirect to this page.
  1. ^ This basic, unclassified info about the donation comes from an email from Pugh to OTRS, which the case-study writer can access.
  2. ^
  3. ^

Related articles[edit]

In the press[edit]

News about TNA in the international GLAM - Outreach newsletter