SCOLMA AGM Chair’s Report 2020

SCOLMA AGM 8 June 2020

Chair’s Report 2019/20

2020 has been a momentous year so far. I start my report by reflecting on major current events and their consequences for SCOLMA members.


The COVID-19 pandemic

The year 2020 has so far been dominated by the coronavirus pandemic. Although the UK lockdown was not announced until 23 March, most libraries and archives effectively shut down in the previous week. It has been a very demanding time. Library and archives staff have had to convert very swiftly to working from home, sometimes without access to appropriate devices or to electronic files held on central servers. Remote meetings have become the norm, with Zoom and Microsoft Teams the favoured options. Generally speaking, there has been little or no access to physical collections between lockdown and the time of writing, and other routine activities, such as book acquisitions, have been partially or wholly suspended. Librarians have had to scramble to support students finishing courses and dissertations with electronic resources only, and to assist academics converting their teaching to online-only.

For SCOLMA, the main consequence of the pandemic was the cancellation of our conference, scheduled for 8 June, on African-language publishing and collecting. We also initially cancelled our committee meeting on 20 April, but in the end went ahead on Zoom. At that point we were only about a month into working at home, still dealing with the shock of the new situation and exploring how to make things work, and seeing each other on Zoom was, I think, a morale-booster – it certainly was for me.

Although the pandemic is likely to continue for some time, I think it is already clear that it will bring big changes in how we do our jobs, even after things begin to get back to something like normal. It looks as if it will become much more acceptable for those who can to work from home as much as possible, and that employers may improve their IT provision to support this. In terms of library provision and activities, the impetus for digitisation and open access are both likely to be strengthened; indeed, many academic publishers are currently making their online publications freely available for a limited period. What happens to international travel, and whether conferences will be able to continue as they have in the past, remains unclear at the moment.

The rise of Zoom and other remote-meeting technologies has given us a new way of doing things and holds out the possibility of doing much more online (and thus cutting carbon emissions) in the long term. It has also enabled meetings to be more inclusive than in the past, as people unable to travel have been included. Online meeting and teaching has, however, once again underlined divisions and inequalities. Academics in African universities have on the whole found it much harder to switch quickly to online teaching than those in the West.

The pandemic is also leading to severe economic recession, which will have consequences on the university and library archives sectors internationally. In the UK, it will impact on our institutions, with particularly grave consequences for those already in financial trouble. Measures are already being taken to make savings from current budgets, and without government rescue, which may not be forthcoming, some universities may be at risk.

Black Lives Matter

The death of George Floyd in police custody in the US on 25 May 2020 has led to an outpouring of protest in the US not seen since the civil rights movement, and to demonstrations across the world, including many in the UK (despite the coronavirus regulations). This seems to be a truly significant historical moment, with deeply felt and widespread expressions of anger at the enduring nature of racism, and a new determination to see the end of discrimination. Institutions are being challenged, from within and without, to make changes.

With respect to anti-racism, SCOLMA has, I believe, a record to be proud of in many areas, but there are still challenges to address, and much more that we can do. Jenni Skinner, Lucy McCann and I have worked on a resolution for presentation to the AGM today which acknowledges the situation, calls for change and commits us to practical actions.



Committee meetings and seminars

The SCOLMA committee met in person on 11.11.19 and 10.2.20, and via Zoom on 20.4.20.

On 11 November we met at King’s College London, where Geoff Browell (Head of Archives) kindly gave a seminar on the Finding Africa and Archives Africa digital projects, and hosted an extensive exhibition of the KCL archival collections relevant to Africa.

2019 conference

This took place on 10 June 2019 in Edinburgh on the theme of ‘Decolonising African Studies: questions and dilemmas for libraries, archives and collections’. The conference was a multi-faceted exploration of this complex subject, including consideration of African voices in the archives and printed collections, and acquisitions policies; African publishing; calls for African libraries and archives to define the agenda in relation to their history and collections; the migration and repatriation of records; and the current decolonisation movement. Contributors came from the UK, Sudan, Zimbabwe, the Netherlands, France, Switzerland and the US. Three of the papers of the conference have been published in issue 136 of our journal, African Research and Documentation.

2020 conference

This year’s conference was to have taken place on 8 June at SOAS. The title was

‘Oun a ní la ? gbé l’árug? (It is the heritage we have that we must celebrate): Publishing, Collecting and Accessing African-language Materials

The organising group (Terry Barringer, Pat Hewitt, Alison Metcalfe, Sarah Rhodes, Dawn Wright and I) had put together a strong draft programme, with speakers from a number of countries, covering various aspects of this topic. We had anticipated interest from diaspora communities in the UK as well as the research and library & archives communities.

We are hoping to be able to reschedule for about the same time next year, with the same programme and, as far as possible, the same speakers. Of course, things remain uncertain at the moment.

African Research and Documentation

Issues 135 and 136 were published during the year. We are particularly proud of 135, which is a special issue on archives and collections in Ethiopian Studies, guest-edited by Sophia Thubauville (Frobenius Institute, Frankfurt) and Sayuri Yoshida (Nanzan University, Japan). The issue is packed with articles and lavishly illustrated – an important contribution on this subject, as Ethiopian collections come more and more under the spotlight.

There was some delay in printing issue 136, because of the coronavirus situation, and we therefore decided to put this issue up on our website as a PDF (openly available SCOLMA African Research No.136 Web). Fortunately, the printers are now operating again, and 136 has been printed and distributed.

As ever, the success and smooth running of ARD is down to the hard work of our editor, Terry Barringer. John McIlwaine continues to give invaluable help with copy-editing and proofreading, and committee members including Lucy McCann and Barbara Spina have also helped.

During the year, we started to review the future of ARD again. We would like to increase access and long-term (electronic) preservation, while ensuring we don’t lose the advantages of producing it in print. The journal is healthy, and fulfils an important role, but we need to bear in mind both the changing environment and the need for financial self-sufficiency. We will be continuing to discuss this in the coming months, building on the work carried out this year by Stephanie Kitchen and others.

Finally, I would like to note the good work of our printers The Printing Place, who rose to the challenge of printing Ethiopian scripts and many illustrations for issue 135, and then produced 136 in lockdown conditions.

Web presence

Our web manager, Jenni Skinner, is currently reviewing and updating both the content and the look of the SCOLMA website, which are due for a refresh, and working on changing the hosting platform.

We continue to Tweet regularly, using a rota of SCOLMA members to try to keep up a flow of information. We now have 573 followers (@SCOLMA).

Mailing list

During the year we refocused on our Jiscmail mailing list, LIS-SCOLMA, which we are using to publicise SCOLMA activities to our friends and supporters. Since mid-May, we have had 40 new subscribers. Anyone interested in keeping up-to-date with our work is warmly encouraged to subscribe to this list.

European Librarians in African Studies (ELIAS)

The ELIAS meeting this year was originally planned to be held in Bordeaux on 29 May. It was held instead on the same day on Zoom, with three SCOLMA members (Dawn Wright (our member on the ELIAS Working Group), Lucy McCann and myself). There was good representation from across Europe (including, for the first time, Italy), as well as from the US. Most of the discussion centred around the pandemic and its effects on libraries and archives. It was encouraging and enlightening to hear how colleagues in other countries were dealing with the situation. We also discussed (without coming to any conclusion) whether annual in-person meetings should continue in future, or whether we should try to introduce a stronger element of remote meeting.

African Studies Association (UK)

Stephanie Kitchen continues to represent ASAUK on the committee. Lucy McCann attended meetings of the ASAUK Council on behalf of SCOLMA. The ASAUK conference, scheduled for September 2020 in Cardiff, has been cancelled.

COVID-19 resources

We responded to the pandemic by creating a page of free resources on the SCOLMA website at

Thank you and committee

This year has presented unprecedented challenges, and committee members have nevertheless managed to continue our work effectively and as a strong team.

Thanks are due to the whole SCOLMA committee for all their hard work during the year. I am very grateful to Pat Hewitt for taking on the role of Treasurer over the last year with great commitment and efficiency, and to Sarah Rhodes for continuing as our very effective Secretary. Thanks to our other officers and special representatives for their hard work: Terry Barringer, editor of African Research and Documentation; Jenni Skinner, Web Manager; Dawn Wright, our ELIAS representative; Dan Gilfoyle, Programme Secretary; Stephanie Kitchen, ASAUK representative on the SCOLMA committee; and Lucy McCann, SCOLMA representative on the ASAUK Council. The ordinary members of the committee, Charles Fonge, Alison Metcalfe, Nicky Sugar, Katie Sambrook and Barbara Spina, contributed in numerous ways, from making actual or virtual room bookings to conference organisation and proofreading ARD.

Thank you to everyone for your contributions, and to all SCOLMA members and supporters for your support during this difficult year.

In the coming year, I am very pleased to welcome Julio Cazzasa, who is standing as an elected member of the committee. Julio is the new Commonwealth and Latin American Studies Librarian at Senate House Library, University of London. I am also very pleased that the rest of the committee and officers are continuing in their current roles.


Marion Wallace, Chair, SCOLMA


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