Nelson Mandela Foundation

The Nelson Mandela Foundation’s Centre of Memory houses Nelson Mandela Archive that includes Madiba’s private papers, office papers and associated papers. The digitisation project aims at creating a virtual archive by documenting, enabling access and preservation, and promoting the utilisation of the writings and life and times of Nelson Mandela. Although analogue materials can survive for centuries if they are kept under proper conditions, it is important for them to be digitised so that they can be accessible and readily available.

Over the past few years, the archive team has been working at digitising and cataloguing both the collections under the custodianship of the Foundation as well as maintaining associations with other related collection owners and institutions. The archivists' role in digitising the archives is to work and manage modern access systems, work with legacy material and equipment, and handle valuable assets. One must handle every item carefully, that is with clean and dry hands and to ensure that there is no food and liquid close to the machines or archival materials all the time.    

Building a virtual or digital archive is based on 12 processes – scoping, screening, selecting, preparing, inventorying, capturing, processing, describing, loading, storing, accessing and utilising. The processes are used to digitise analogue collections and changing born digital to archival digital collections.

It is important to know and understand why we digitise collections and this is in alignment with the Foundation’s vision, mission and objectives. We digitise for preservation and providing access so that Madiba’s legacy will be available not only in the present but for future generations as well.

Digitisation is very expensive and time-consuming, hence we keep our digitised collections in three different places, two storage media, and one off-site for backup. At the Foundation, we do paper-based and audio digitisation, and we out source video and film digitisation. Paper-based involves the digitisation of photographs, documents, awards and certificates. When you are digitising paper-based collections, you can feel their texture, get to see Madiba’s writing, and read the letters he wrote. The feeling of touching the papers that were once touched and belonged to the legend who is Nelson Mandela can be overwhelming and exciting at the same time. It is my greatest honour. Sometimes I go through an emotional journey from reading the notes and letters. By digitising the archives, we are making information that was previously only accessible to a number of researchers available to everyone, thus putting the story of Nelson Mandela as a man, father, husband, politician, leader and former president out there.

At the beginning of the year, of the bulk of the work that I was doing was around paper-based digitisation that involved the use of a scanner. Due to Covid-19 I am unable to carry out the task of digitising both audio and paper-based materials because of numerous reasons. Firstly, we are in lockdown and as such do not have access to the building. Secondly, the machines used for digitisation cannot leave the office for safety reasons. Thirdly, the archival collections are too valuable to takeout of the office. It is impossible to carry out the task without risking the equipment or archival collections. However, the current situation has made training for my new role as Archivist: Digitisation and Audio-visual (AV) happen quicker and remotely. I am grateful to be contributing to the Foundation and to be in team Archive and Research.