Lessons from World War II and the Holocaust: What Can Be Done Through Oral History to Save the World Heritage of Memory in Africa?

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The recent conflicts in Timbuktu, Egypt, Libya and other countries in Africa demonstrate that its cultural heritage as contained in libraries and archives is routinely targeted for destruction and remains vulnerable throughout times of strife. To complicate the problem, much of Africa’s recorded history is the production of Western scholars or is represented by “official” government records. As a result, much of Africa’s recorded history is compromised, inaccurate, or an insufficient reflection of the continent’s rich history and culture. The challenges faced by many African countries to preserve their cultural heritage, then, exceed the mere preservation of artifacts and records. They must also seek out, elicit and record there collections and experiences of ordinary people. In fact, the people’s collective memory is a valuable, yet untapped, resource for historians and is an option for preserving African cultural heritage. Perhaps the most famous and powerful leveraging of such oral histories has been demonstrate d by the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and the scholars and archivists who recorded their stories. This collaboration between storyteller and archivists, journalists, scholars and librarians is exemplified by Dr. Sidney Bolkosky, Professor of History and Director of the Voice/Vision Holocaust Survivor Oral History Archive at the University of Michigan - Dearborn. Greenspan’s seminal 1998 work On Listening to Holocaust Survivors: Beyond Testimony is now in a second, expanded edition; see also the work of filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, who made the Holocaust documentary Shoah. Such work with oral histories inscribes personal testimony into the historical record, salvaging these narratives from obscurity and bearing witness to events otherwise lost to the competing, obscurantist narratives of nationalism, imperialism and colonialism. Such a collaboration, along with additional efforts by a wide variety of private citizens and international organizations, also served to preserve both the personal narratives and material culture of Europe during World War II, and is likewise instructive for African libraries and archives seeking to preserve their material and oral cultural history. This paper will discuss the value of oral history as a bulwark in the preservation of African cultural heritage against the physical destruction of war and other political unrest, and the attendant importance of collaboration between librarians, archivists, international organizations and local resident s to document, preserve and protect African culture in its broadest sense, including lives lived, local history and genealogical traditions.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Number of pages8
JournalIFLA Conference Proceedings
StatePublished - Aug 18 2015

Cite this