Making the Past Accessible: Conserving South Africa’s Heritage through Zotero and the Internet Archive

The historical documents contained in South Africa's archives and related institutions are a modern treasure. These primary sources illuminate compelling pasts—from the biography of Mahatma Gandhi to the strategies of movements opposing racism. Increasingly, such vital materials are in danger of being lost, if they are not preserved with new technologies. Recently, several European and American institutions have launched projects to scan archival documents for storage in internet repositories. However, some of the websites containing this evidence require a subscription to view content. Since these digital initiatives are not fully controlled in South Africa, they have limited local efforts to conserve the country’s heritage.

Opening Access

SouthAfricaArchive.org will employ technology generously donated by the Internet Archive, a non-profit organization that grants public access to digital history collections. With this gift, “Making the Past Accessible” intends to establish a virtual depot for archival documents with universal access through a freely available network cloud. In so doing SouthAfricaArchive.org will offer a way for local stakeholders to control the preservation of heritage in an online resource that retains evidence from a range of repositories, libraries, and other institutions.

Using Zotero

Zotero is an open-source computer program designed to help researchers gather, classify, analyze, and share sources (citations, full texts, web pages, images, etc.). South Africans are becoming aware of the innovative dimensions of this software, particularly its potential multi-lingual applications in a country with eleven official languages, among them English, isiZulu, isiXhosa, SeSotho, and Afrikaans. Each of these mother-tongues has literate traditions that extend back centuries. Indeed, the countless isiZulu writings contained in provincial repositories of KwaZulu-Natal bear testimony to this fact.

SouthAfricaArchive.org will be powered by Zotero in order to enhance the organization of expandable collections of meta-data. It is hoped that "Making the Past Accessible" will also shape the development of Zotero as a computer tool that standardizes historical fieldwork and archival management in South Africa and the rest of the globe.

Advancing Objectives

  1. Establish and develop SouthAfricaArchive.org as an online repository of historical sources using the Internet Archive cloud.
  2. Train South African archivists, including members of the National and Provincial Archives, scholars and students in the operation of Zotero (front and back ends).
  3. Design and coordinate a pilot project demonstrating how to standardize the digitization of endangered materials to be stored in repositories inside and outside of South Africa.

Project Directors

  • Prof. Keith Breckenridge,
  • History; Internet Studies; University of KwaZulu-Natal
  • Prof. Benedict Carton
  • History; African and African American Studies; George Mason University

South African Advisory Board

  • Mr. Mwelela Cele
  • Librarian, Killie Campbell Africana Library, University of KwaZulu-Natal
  • Dr. Harriet Deacon
  • Director, The Archival Platform, University of Cape Town
  • Prof. Natasha Erlank
  • Director, Centre for Culture and Languages in Africa, University of Johannesburg
  • Prof. Isabel Hofmeyr
  • African Literature, University of the Witwatersrand
  • Prof. Shamil Jeppie
  • History, University of Cape Town
  • Dr. Vukile Khumalo
  • History, University of KwaZulu-Natal
  • Prof. Cynthia Kros
  • Director, Heritage Division; History; University of the Witwatersrand
  • Prof Lungisile Ntsebeza
  • Sociology, University of Cape Town; Chief Research Specialist, Human Sciences Research Council
  • Prof. Julie Parle
  • President, Southern African Historical Association; History, University of KwaZulu-Natal
  • Prof. Sandra Swart
  • History, University of Stellenbosch
  • Prof. Goolam Vahed
  • History, University of KwaZulu-Natal

United States Advisory Board

  • Prof. Peter Alegi
  • History, Michigan State University
  • Prof. Daniel Cohen
  • Director, Center for History and New Media; History; George Mason University
  • Prof. Robert Edgar
  • African Studies, Howard University
  • Ms. Catherine Foley
  • Digital History Librarian, Michigan State University
  • Dr. Sean Jacobs
  • International Affairs, The New School
  • Ms. Kristin Lehner
  • Department of History, Johns Hopkins University
  • Ms. Elizabeth Moore
  • Digital Research Historian, George Mason University
  • Mr. Dingani Mthethwa
  • Zulu Language; World Studies; Virginia Commonwealth University
  • Prof. Robert Vinson
  • History, College of William and Mary