Friday, July 17, 2009

Archival Research

I thought I posted this last week...
I did some research at a small library in Kinshasa. It is actually a remarkable place, located at a seminary very close to where I was staying. There was Belgian priest who taught history at the university for many years. He passed away about five years ago, and his personal library remains one of the best places there (perhaps in the world?) for doing research on Congo. It includes lots of standard books, but also unpublished theses and dissertations and lots of pamphlets and smaller documents that are not available widely. For example, I found, quite remarkably, a 1906 publication from a Belgian rubber concessionary company responding to critics of its human rights record. (William Sheppard, an African American missionary in the area, was one its most outspoken opponents. The company later sued him.)

When I was last there, this library was not regularly open because there was not anyone there to staff it. I was really excited to learn that the situation has been remedied and it was now open regularly. By regularly, I mean you call the priest who supervises it or the student intern and they can open it up for you. (Unfortunately this situation is about to change as the student is graduating and the priest is traveling and there are no replacements.) The catalog is a 200+ page binder listed roughly alphabetically; there is no electronic catalog or anything.

An electronic catalog would be limited anyway since there was no electricity for the time I was there. The seminary actually has a big generator but they don’t turn it on until after the sun sets. (They run it from 6 or 7pm until 10 or 11pm). So I requested the books and then set up a chair and table outside in the parking lot where I was able to work under the light and heat of the sun. It was a bit surreal. Me with my laptop taking notes from 100-year-old Tshiluba dictionaries while, at the other end of the parking lot there is always a crowd of people filling up large 5 gallon containers with water from one of the only reliable taps in the area.

The seminary campus is quite lush and pleasant. Unfortunately, there are a ton of mosquitoes as well. Even though I wore long sleeves, my typing hands were exposed. After my first day there I noticed several bites on my hands where they were feasting while I was working.

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