Tapping into powerful stories

Posted on April 26, 2023

The Department of Library Services at the University of Pretoria (UP) recently celebrated South African Library Week (20 to 26 March), the theme of which was ‘Libraries: Telling powerful stories’.

This was a particularly appropriate theme for UP’s GLAM (Galleries/Gardens, Libraries, Archives and Museums) initiative, which promotes the University’s heritage through various collections curated by GLAM partners. All these institutional collections have powerful stories to convey.

A prime example is the Van Warmelo Collection, housed in the Department of Library Services’ Special Collections Unit. Dr Nicolaas Jacobus van Warmelo (1904 – 1989) was an internationally recognised anthropologist who served as state ethnologist for the Republic of South Africa from 1930 to 1969. He also sat on the Language Councils for Venda, North Sotho and Tsonga as well as the National Council for Place Names. On 23 March 1989, Dr Van Warmelo received an honorary doctorate from UP.

The Van Warmelo Collection, which was donated to the University after his death in 1989, comprises more than 57 000 pages of writings concerning different South African indigenous groups, which he collected while working as the state ethnologist for what was known as the Department of Bantu Affairs. These writings include manuscripts on the Xhosa, Zulu, Swazi, Tsonga, Southern Sotho (Sesotho, Tswana), Northern Sotho (Sepedi) and Venda (Tshivenḓa).

Most of these manuscripts were written in the original indigenous language, and include detailed information about the history, traditions, way of life, dress, laws, warfare and religion of the groups as well as the traditional life stages that an individual goes through from birth to death.

Dr Van Warmelo collected this information over a period of 30 to 40 years, using professionals within the respective black communities to conduct interviews and record the information. The collection also includes several photographs, albums and cultural samples, and is an invaluable resource.

Interestingly, Dr Van Warmelo was the consulting ethnologist when UP began oral history investigations at Mapungubwe in 1933, following the University’s research on site and in consultation with surrounding communities.

Between 2020 and 2022, the Van Warmelo Collection was digitised and made available on UPSpace. SA Heritage Publishers has also embarked on the Ancestral Voices Project, whereby they are transcribing and translating the writings, making them accessible to a wider pool of researchers across the world. Both the Van Warmelo Collection and the Ancestral Voices Project are of national significance, and the Department of Library Services is planning an event to celebrate this collaboration later in the year.

The Van Warmelo Collection has been described as a written record of heritage – a heritage that was previously considered unwritten and unrecorded – and is a valuable untapped resource. The collection does indeed have powerful stories to tell, and is just one example of the stories preserved with the collections curated and conserved by the partners of GLAM.

Registered members of TuksAlumni can register for library membership. The library has 241 registered alumni, with 59 alumni registering in March alone. UP’s alumni are the library’s largest external user group. Membership includes access to the library and all its collections – including Special Collections – loaning privileges and access to various online resources.

For more information, contact [email protected].

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