African Studies Bibliography

Friday 21 May 2010:

In March 1977, more than thirty years ago, I attended the SCOLMA conference on “Progress in African Bibliography” at the Commonwealth Institute in London, where I happened to be on leave from my job at the University of Dar es Salaam.


SCOLMA 1977 cover


Ever since, I've remained interested in questions of the bibliography of African and Africa-related publications: there has always seemed to be less interest in local scholarship, or material that isn't in English, partly because it's seen as being difficult to track down. In terms of product, my own interest has taken three principal forms, first of all through a focus on Russian and Soviet writing on African affairs, out of which emerged my BRALUP bibliography of Russian writings on Tanzania, my book A Soviet View of Africa, and the unpublished manuscript of a volume on Russian writing on East Africa, which was commissioned by G. K. Hall and then cancelled after the work was completed; second, my involvement in the Addis Ababa- and then Dar es Salaam-based African Bibliographic Centre, out of which arose the five published volumes of Africa Index; and third, my interest in critically annotated bibliography, out of which arose the two World Bibliographic Series editions of my bibliography on Tanzania and the single edition on Mozambique.


Russian and Soviet Studies on Africa

In 1969, while still living in London, I began to study Russian. After moving to Addis Ababa in 1970, I gradually became interested in Russia's historic links with Ethiopia, and began to track down some of the nineteenth century travellers' accounts. This activity expanded during the several periods when the university was closed because of the regular political disturbances that characterised Haile Sellassie's last years in power, and eventually I had enough material to publish a full-length book. However, the manuscript remained in a drawer until I moved to Tanzania, where in 1976 I published a short mimeographed guide to Russian material on Tanganyika and Zanzibar before and after union.


BRALUP Report cover Soviet View title page


In 1976 or 1977 I was contacted by Jim Armstrong, who was then editor of G. K. Hall's series of African bibliographies, to ask if I would be interested in publishing the Horn of Africa manuscript in his series. The volume was eventually published in 1980, after substantial revision and additional research. By that time I had moved on to Maputo, and as a result of my wanderings I never saw or corrected proofs, and many errors unfortunately went unnoticed. The title of the book, chosen by the publisher, was also misleading, since about a third of the entries dated from before 1917. The work was very kindly received by such Ethiopianists as Richard Caulk and Donald Crummey. It was also reviewed in Russian, more critically, by the doyenne of African bibliography in the Soviet Union, S. L. Miliavskaia, in the journal Народы Азии и Африки [Peoples of Asia and Africa].

A follow-up volume on the Russian-language literature about East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) was completed but the publisher, G. K. Hall, cancelled the contract after the manuscript had been submitted.


Africa Index to Continental Periodical Literature

The idea of an African Bibliographic Centre (ABC) was conceived by the late Robert Thayer Jordan (d.2007), while he was on secondment from Federal City College (Washington DC) to what was then Haile Sellassie I University (HSIU) in the early 1970s, and Kebreab Wolde Giorgis of HSIU. I became involved in the latter part of the decade while working at the University of Dar es Salaam.

The most tangible outcome of the ambitious and comprehensive plans of the ABC were the five editions of the Africa Index to Continental Periodical Literature [AICPL]. Many years later, in 1997, John McIlwaine commented on the ABC as a whole that it was “chastening to see how comparatively little of what the ABC proposed has has actually come into being, and how much remains to be done.” [The love of books, Cape Town, 1997, p.10]


Africa Index 1 Africa Index 2


Six issues of AICPL were published in five volumes in the period between 1977 and 1985, covering the six-year period between 1976 and 1981. Of these, nos.1-3 were co-edited by myself and Ophelia Mascarenhas, the double issue, no.4-5, was edited solely by myself, and no.6, the last issue to appear, was co-edited with Alice Nkhoma-Wamunza. The total number of articles indexed was 8,264, or an average of 1,377 articles per year. Given that production methods were artesanal — catalogue-card sized slips of paper typed up and sorted in a cardboard tray on the kitchen table — it was clear that the project was, in the end, unsustainable, and I reluctantly informed Hans Zell, the publisher, that I could not continue.


Africa Index 3 Africa Index 4-5 Africa Index 6


It may not in fact be far-fetched to claim that AICPL lives on, although somewhat shape-shifted. In 1991, the Library of Congress office in Nairobi published the first volume of its Quarterly Index to Periodical Literature, Eastern and Southern Africa [QIPLESA]. This reproduced many of the features of AICPL, both in terms of layout and content, organising the main body of citations in broad subject categories that included, astonishingly, "Class and Class Struggle", "Rural Development" and "Imperialism, Colonialism" taken directly from AICPL. The three indexes (author, geographical, subject term) also reflected the AICPL's approach. By 1999, however, the idiosyncratic subject categories had disappeared from the printed issues, and indexes by article title and periodical title had been added; nevertheless, the AICPL's influence was still detectable. By October 2009, QIPL had indexed 47,339 articles from 750 different journal titles, and it was for a time available online as a database. It also now includes journals from Cameroon, Gabon, Ghana and Senegal in West Africa. So, the indexing of African scholarly and semi-scholarly output may not be a completely lost cause.

The World Bibliographic Series

Several reviewers of A Soviet View of Africa complained rightly about the inconsistency of the annotations. Helen Desfosses, for example, wrote in the International Journal of African Historical Studies [vol.16 no.1, 1983, p.169; JSTOR stable link here] that "the annotation is uneven: some entries are extremely brief, while others are several paragraphs long … sometimes his remarks are political, sometimes merely descriptive; rarely if ever do they note whether an article is worth bothering with or not."

Indicating "whether an article is worth bothering with or not" and why seemed to me to be an excellent definition of what a bibliography is for, and when I came to compile the World Bibliographic Series [WBS] volumes on Tanzania and Mozambique I used it as my guiding principle. This meant, of course, indicating what my own position was epistemologically and politically. The abandonment of neutrality was generally well-received: an anonymous reviewer of the first Tanzania volume in World Development [vol.15 no.4, 1987, p.498] commented positively on the "detailed, sophisticated annotations providing an elegant map of a rich, contentious literary universe." Andrew Roberts was not entirely convinced, however, reporting that the "copious annotation … is sometimes so opiniated as to read like book reviews … [but] Darch is remarkably successful in situating items within the developing literature of their subjects …" [Journal of African History vol.27 no.2, 1986, p.409-410, JSTOR link here].


Tanzania 1st ed. cover Mozambique cover Tanzania revised edition cover


When the WBS volume on Mozambique was published, it pretty much had the field to itself, and so was guaranteed an easier reception. But René Pelissier was critical, describing the selection of items as "un déséquilibre" and complaining that some of the publications were "réservés à la consommation interne" and were in any case "pratiquement impossible de … trouver dans la plupart des bibliothèques publiques européennes ou nord-américaines" [Politique Étrangère no.2, 1988, p.500-501].

The application of a non-positivist epistemology to bibliographic work remains relatively rare; work by the Norwegian historian Tore Linné Eriksen on Namibian bibliography springs to mind as an outstanding example. Nevertheless, I still believe that indicating whether it's worth bothering with a text or not is a useful function in a bibliography, not least because the very act of selection itself involves political choice and judgement of value.