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African Studies: Rare Books, Archives, & Manuscripts

A guide to UF Libraries' research and teaching resources in African Studies. Feel free to let us know what would be useful to have included.

Contact your curator

Please contact me for an introductory orientation to Smathers Libraries collections of rare books and unique manuscripts relating to Africa. This page is intended to offer just a few examples of the kinds of resources available (including original materials and reproductions of large archival collections either in digital/online or microfilm formats).

For manuscripts available onsite, you may browse by subject for African Studies, or locate the Smathers Libraries page for Special and Area Studies Collections, and use the link for Finding Aids. These are designed to allow researchers to know the context and content of manuscripts papers to determine their research value (the index is by collector). Our UF Digital Collections (UFDC) also includes digitized versions of parts or all of many manuscripts held in the department and for African Studies Collections. I'm always happy to arrange an individual consultation or can present to groups or a class on the many resources available onsite and online.

Our largest African specific digital archives collections are: African Blue Books, 1821-1953 and Colonial Law in Africa, 1920-1945 (in three sections for 1808-1919, 1920-1945, and 1946-1966). Under the Beginning your research tab, the page for Humanities research & primary sources includes a good number of leads for other primary resources collections online.

Examples of just a few rare books

These seventeenth century publications provide direct insight on how Africa and Africans were perceived by Europeans during this important time period. The view of Mombasa at the left is a detail from a map print in our collection, "Aden, Mombaza, Quiloa, Cefala" or Civitates Orbis Terrarum (1572-1618).

Books were at this time luxury goods owned only by the most wealthy, elite members of society (the introduction of the printing press in 1453 greatly increased the speed of book distribution, and according to contemporary observers dropped prices by 80 percent, but broad distribution to a wide range of readers was slow to develop). Prior to mass production of books, even examples from several hundred years ago are generally supple, easy to handle, and a pleasure to read. Note that most books were sold without boards or covers at this time period, and the current bindings weren't contemporary with their printing.

Class discussion centers on early books as luxury goods, uses for various editions, and the re-use of engraved plates (would now be considered plagiarism). Also discuss provenance and variation in bindings and paper quality, etc. Consider printing and binding expenses, artifactual value (vs. intellectual value of contents), condition, and provenance. Discuss changes in printing technology (woodcut vs. copper plate detail, durability for larger editions, resolution), contemporary knowledge of Africa by Europeans (reading the text and illustrations or cartouches for cultural-historical cues). Historical context of seventeenth century Europe (Age of Discovery, transmittal of African indigenous knowledge, trade routes, landmarks, and distances to Arab historians and European traders, etc.).

Popular works (rare editions or scarce copies)

Consider what topics and which books were popular at different time periods, how tastes changed during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It's also interesting to look at differences in African and other readers' tastes: who reads what, where, and when? Why? What factors influence taste in reading materials?

Fine press: examples of the work of Peter Bogardus on African spiritual traditions

Fine arts press books are created with special, artistic, craft-focused attention to the full range of the book arts (ink, paper, typographic design, creative writing, printing techniques, graphic design, bindings, etc.). These represent a vision of what a book can be when created as an
organic whole, with full attention to the quality of every element of production. They guide readers back to the historical moment when books were created with the full devotion and attention of expert craftspeople, and which have proven to survive quite well over many centuries. At the same time they demonstrate a new vision for book production in the 21st century, reminding us that books don't have to be only a package for marketing content, but can be artifacts worthy of appreciation on their own terms. Almost no fine arts press books consider African related topics, so these examples from Khelcom represent an even smaller, super-specialized niche of an already arcane bit of the book market.

The Smathers Libraries hold a full set of Bogardus work on African topics to date: Touba-New York (2004), Meskel Demera (2008), Burake (2010), Seventeen trees (2011), Ba suri (2013), and Places of reverence (2018). To our knowledge no other library holds all  (thought 35 other libraries own one or more) of these beautiful works.


African Studies related manuscripts in our primary source collections include materials collected by and/or relating to: Lewis Berner (a UF biologist who conducted anti-malaria work in West Africa during World War II), Gwendolen M. Carter (a political scientist focusing on South Africa and the anti-Apartheid struggle), Graham and Brian Child (wildlife conservation in Southern Africa, Brian is a UF Geographer), Ronald Cohen (retired UF anthropologist who workied in Northern Nigeria), the East African Professional Hunters Association (Kenya), George Fortune (a lingusit of Southern Bantu languages), Frank Jolles (collector of Richard Ndimande's Studio Photographs from South Africa), Rene Lemarchand (retired UF political science professor's materials largely relating to Rwanda and Burundi), Eugene Manis (a plant breeder who worked on a Firestone plantation in Liberia in 1941), Martin Rikli (filmmaker's photographic albums and related materials on Ethiopia at the time of the Second Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935-'36), and George Shepperson (historian's collection relating to Livingstone). Several small collections relate to particular author's works, and some miscellaneous topical collections including Notre Congo a collector card album on the former Belgian Congo. Use the Finding Aids and Browse by collection title or Browse by Subject links for more information.


While not special collections in the reproduction format our library owns, these are important collections of archival materials that may be difficult and expensive for researchers to access in the orignal. Archives available on microfilm include missionary society records; colonial government publications for Nigeria, Tanganyika and Zanzibar (Tanzania), Kenya, Uganda, Northern and Southern Rhodesia (Zambia and Zimbabwe), and Nyasaland (Malawi). Other large archival sets include the Bascom Yoruba collection and the files of the Sahel Documentation Center.

Note that many other collections not listed here are available to UF users via Interlibrary Loan from the Center for Research Libraries (CRL). Please feel free to contact a librarian for assistance in requests for CRL film sets; as institutional members, our users have the right to borrow large sets of microfilm for extended periods of time in order to pursue specialized research with these materials.

In some cases, online guides are available for assistance in working with these large, sometimes complex, materials. For example, see these guides for the CMS records, as well as the guides to the series of colonial government records titled "Government publications relating to African countries prior to independence" (see links from individual countries listed above).

Government documents

Periodicals & newsletters

African Studies Librarian

Dan Reboussin's picture
Dan Reboussin
200A Smathers Library

(352) 273-2642

Onitsha Market Literature

“Onitsha Market literature” can be identified by using this phrase in the catalog or online.

Additional sources for information on Onitsha Market Literature:

Guide to historical photographs

If you're looking for photo archives of Africa, I highly recommend ILISSAfrica's Guide to historical photographs from Africa on the web. The guide covers a great deal of resources.

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