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  • Rick Rohde

The wonder of digital archives

On Monday 11 September 2017, I attended SCOLMA’s (Standing Conference on Library Materials on Africa) annual conference at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. This year’s theme was, ‘Document to Digital: how does digitisation aid African research?' Drawing on research conducted as part of Future Pasts, this presentation was a collaboration with Samantha Venter (rePhotoSA project coordinator) and the Director of University of Cape Town's Plant Conservation Unit (PCU), Prof. Timm Hoffman, with the title ‘Repeat landscape photography, historical ecology and the wonder of digital archives’ (see long abstract below).

I spoke largely about my long-term collaborative research with Timm in Namibia and Namaqualand, and showcased a variety of repeat photographs (where the historical images were taken as early as 1876). I also spoke about rePhotoSA, the repeat photography project of southern African landscapes, the collections used in the project and the impact that citizen science has had on research activities at the PCU.

Approximately 30-40 people attended the conference from Africa, Europe (Bodleian Library in Oxford, British Library in London, and various UK Universities, such as Edinburgh, St Andrews, Stirling, Oxford and Birmingham), and the USA. Speakers presented on a wide range of topics including projects involving digitised archives, photographs, grey literature and rare publications, focusing on how these have been used for academic research and wider accessibility. The invited keynote speaker, Jody Butterworth, spoke about the Endangered Archives Programme at the British Library that with local partners provides grants for the digitisation of archives at risk around the world.

A few presentations in particular stood out for me. The first speaker presented on their time at the Archive of the Church of Scotland in Nairobi, described as like a garbage tip, full of mice and mites and mould and heaps of paper and broken boxes. The speaker spent three months sorting out and cleaning up the archive, and made some interesting observations about the ethics of archiving, as well as the political and sociological aspects of his project. Another speaker spoke about collaboration with the Rwandan government on a challenging project where 140 full time employees and some very smart software and a consortium of European partners were garnered to digitise 1.9 million trials and 60 million pages of documents. The online publisher, Adam Matthew, shared a brochure of some great photos of ‘frontier life’ and links to the apartheid archives among lots of other things.

Overall, I found the conference to be thought-provoking and a great success. Many attendees showed particular interest in my presentation, in spite of (or perhaps because) it being something of an outlier in terms of subject matter. He found that people are quickly drawn into the repeat images with much amazement in relation to the longevity of desert plants! In addition, it was great to be back in the solid atmosphere of the National Library of Scotland where I used to spend time during my MSc.

Also see blog on PCU website.


Repeat landcape photography, historical ecology and the wonder of digital archives

Keywords: Ground-based repeat photography, digital photographic archives, environmental change, citizen science, historical photographs, historical ecology.

Rohde R. 1*, Venter S.L. 2 and Hoffman M.T. 2

1 Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh, 4 Carlton Street, Edinburgh EH4 1NJ, UK

2 The Plant Conservation Unit, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, 7700


Ground-based repeat photography has long been used as a tool for documenting landscape change, particularly regarding the rate and scale at which environments are transformed due to climate and land-use. Measuring such broad-scale and rapidly manifesting spatial and temporal change using repeat photography, however, requires a large set of archival landscape images related to the particular area or region under study.

We have been involved in several projects that use repeat photography to analyse the influence of both local and global drivers on the long-term changes in the vegetation of southern Africa. One of these research projects involved finding the exact sites of fifty-two historical landscape photographs made during the Palgrave Expedition of 1876 along a 1200 kilometre ox-wagon route that followed a steep climatic gradient in central and southern Namibia. Other projects have focused on the effects of land reform on communal and commercial rangeland in Namibia and South Africa, and another examined how the riparian vegetation of perennial and ephemeral rivers systems in the semi-arid, winter rainfall region of South Africa has changed over time which concludes that an awareness of the region’s historical ecology should be considered more carefully in the modelling of future climate change predictions.

Presently we are investigating vegetation change in the hyper-arid Namib Desert as an indicator of how the sea surface temperatures of the adjacent Atlantic Ocean affect the fog dependent biota of this region and regional climate change more generally. All of these projects depend on finding useful archival photographs that in the past has been difficult.

Times have definitely changed since we first engaged with repeat landscape photography in the early 1990s. The labour of searching libraries and archives for suitable images, making hard copies and finding reliable metadata has since been replaced by digital archives that have allowed us to search British, German, Swiss, Namibian and South African photographic collections by keywords and to download and print both images and metadata.

We have also initiated an online citizen science website: rePhotoSA is a new repeat photography project of southern African landscapes, which builds on a decades-long research programme on long-term environmental change in southern Africa. It is founded on one of the largest historical landscape photograph collections in Africa, which consists of over 20,000 digitised images. To date, 5,219 historical images from six collections have been uploaded to the website. Since the project launch in August 2015, 89 repeat photographs have been uploaded by 19 active citizen scientists, many of which have already shown changes such as bush encroachment, township expansion, plantation expansion and alien infestation and removal across southern Africa. Here we discuss and give examples of the benefits of an online project such as rePhotoSA, as well as digitised photographic collections elsewhere and the ongoing challenges associated with obtaining historical images and adequate associated metadata.

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