IU Liberian Collections in the IU Libraries

June 23rd 2014
CNDRA’s first graduating class (2011)

The IU Libraries recently celebrated the inclusion of the IU Liberian Collections (IULC) in the Libraries’ research holdings, further strengthening one of this country’s finest African Studies collections.

The Liberian Collections at IU date back to 1997 when University of Delaware Professor emeritus Svend E. Holsoe donated his extensive Institute for Liberian Studies materials to the IU Archives of Traditional Music. This collection, along with the Warren and Kathleen d’Azevedo Collection, formed the early core of the IULC. Also central to the collection are political papers such as those of William V.S. Tubman, Liberia’s longest-serving president, which were brought to IU where they were preserved, organized, microfilmed, digitized, and made available to researchers.  The original Tubman papers and photographs are being temporarily stored in the ALF until the Tubman family feels they can be safely and permanently returned to Liberia.

In 2004 Dr. Verlon Stone, currently Special Advisor to the IU Libraries on the IULC, and Dr. D. Elwood Dunn, a former Liberian government official and emeritus professor of political science at Sewanee—The University of the South (Tennessee), received grants from their respective universities to assess the condition of Liberian document repositories. Liberian archives containing a wide variety of government documents had suffered after nearly a quarter century of civil strife within the country.  The infrastructure necessary for storing, preserving, and providing access to such documents was no longer available, and environmental conditions were placing materials in ever-greater danger of deteriorating beyond repair.

According to Dr. Stone, “The reach and impact of the IU Liberian Collections extends far beyond our most optimistic plans in 2004.  A ten-year collaboration with the Center for National Documents and Records Agency (CNDRA) and other government of Liberia agencies has benefited the partners in both Liberia and at IU. Now that CNDRA and the IULC can exchange digitized materials via high-speed broadband connections, the public has access to valuable Liberian documents, and an international audience of scholars, government officials and development specialists can utilize important primary source material.”

With support from organizations including the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme, the Africana Librarians Council, the World Bank, and the IU African Studies Program, the collections have grown enormously in size and scope, but have maintained a steadfast commitment to preserve and provide access to material via reading rooms, microfilm, and digital technologies, both at Indiana University and in Liberia.

IU Libraries experts including director of the IU Office of Archives & Records Management Phil Bantin, IU Libraries Digital Media Specialist Kara Alexander, Liberian Collections Archivist Megan MacDonald, and many others, partnered with Dr. Stone and CNDRA to launch a digital scanning center in Monrovia, Liberia, focused specifically on preserving and making land deed registers publically available. Because disputes over property ownership can exacerbate civil unrest and political instability, the security and authenticity of documents such as land deeds can have a profound national impact. The CNDRA Digital Scanning Center continues a training and certification program for Liberian digital scanning technicians, developed by the IU Libraries digital library core services and the IULC. 

The IU Liberian Collections have been used extensively since their arrival at Indiana University.  Scholars from as far away as England, Germany and Australia have come to research issues ranging from the environmental impact of the Firestone Natural Rubber Company to the impact of the Liberian experience on African-American missionaries and their theology.

Julie Bobay, Associate Dean for Collection Development and Scholarly Communications, said, “These collections add tremendous depth and richness to the IU Libraries’ African Studies Collection, which is itself a large, well-respected and important research collection for scholars around the world. The addition of the IU Liberian Collections enhances the Libraries’ ability to achieve our mission; these unique resources will uncover new knowledge and new insights for today’s and tomorrow’s scholars.”

In addition, researchers have come to IU to use the archive to trace their family’s history in the aftermath of their emigration to Liberia as free people of color. Many African-Americans emigrated to Liberia after gaining their freedom, and letters, newspaper articles, photos, and ships’ logs contained within the archive are parts of their ancestral puzzle.

As project archivist Megan MacDonald explains, “Every Liberian or Liberian American I’ve met, inside or outside of the Archives, is genuinely grateful for the work we’re doing here. Hearing their stories and having them thank me definitely makes me that much more passionate about the work that I’m doing here because I know it’s making a difference.”

About the IU Libraries African Studies Collection:

The African Studies Collection in the Herman B. Wells Library is highly ranked. Its vast print, audiovisual, and digital holdings include a significant body of materials on and in African languages as well as two special collections: the Somali Collection considered one of the top three in the world; and the H.K. Banda Archive, a collection of primary materials on Malawi and southern and central Africa more generally. Rare materials are housed in the Lilly Library.