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23 July 2014 15:07 (South Africa)
World

Nelson Mandela enters cyber-Valhalla

  • J Brooks Spector
  • World
digital mandela

The Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and Internet giant Google have launched a thoroughly searchable, fully interactive archive website that brings thousands of Nelson Mandela’s diaries, letters, books, interviews, video clips and much more, including reminisces from friends, colleagues and family members to the global public. This is the latest Google Cultural Initiative project that is making worldwide digital access to important historical, cultural and scientific materials available to scholars, students and the average person. J BROOKS SPECTOR was at the Mandela Centre for the launch.

How many books by – or on – Nelson Mandela are there nowadays? The average bookish household in South Africa certainly owns several. At the very least, a copy of Long Walk to Freedom has been a must-own for South Africans for years. And then there are all those picture books, high concept art books, cook books, colouring books, children’s editions, those “favourite sayings of”-style books, CD/book sets, coffee table books and more. This writer has a dozen or more Mandela volumes in one of his bookshelves, plus others around the house, on top of a desk, sitting on a chair and a bedside table or two. A quick online check shows that one such book dealer carries a list of just under 4,000 books about Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela available for immediate order right now. And undoubtedly, many more are now underway or being planned.

Of course, a few historical figures have ultimately had more publications written about them – Abraham Lincoln now gets about 16,000 titles and Napoleon Bonaparte clocks in with over 34,000 – with nearly 12,000 available through Amazon. But Bonaparte and Lincoln’s admirers have had a century and a half headstart in chronicling their heroes. Mandela’s admirers have cyberspace on their side now.

The Mandela archiving business has just taken a great leap forward in the business of putting Mandela materials – no longer just books – in the “hands” of people everywhere. On 27 March, the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and Google publicly launched their joint effort to digitalise a huge archive of Mandela-related materials – journals, writings, photographs, video interviews of colleagues, friends and relatives, and memories of Mandela from ordinary citizens.

They are making all of this material accessible to the world for free – with no firewalls or premium pay boundaries, and promise to continue building this online archive in the coming years with a constant flow of new material. And all of the material is interconnected and searchable in a myriad of different ways. To make this project happen, Google provided a $1.25-million (R8.6-million) grant to the Mandela Centre of Memory a year ago to help preserve and digitise all those thousands of archival documents, photographs and videos about Nelson Mandela.

In announcing the establishment of this effort, the Centre explained that “Along with historians, educationalists, researchers and activists, users from around the world now have access to extensive information about the life and legacy of this extraordinary African statesman. The new online multimedia archive includes Mr Mandela’s correspondence with family, comrades and friends, diaries written during his 27 years of imprisonment, and notes he made while leading the negotiations that ended apartheid in South Africa. The archive will also include the earliest-known photograph of Mr Mandela, rare images of his cell on Robben Island in the 1970s, and never-seen drafts of Mr Mandela's manuscripts for the sequel to his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.”

Luke Mckend, country manager for Google South Africa added further that “The Archive currently includes over 1,900 unique images, documents and videos, and will grow over time. South Africans from all walks of life can now engage with important parts of our country’s history. For example, reading handwritten pages of a letter smuggled from Robben Island in 1977, or seeing Warrant documents that sent Mandela to jail first for five years and then for life.”

“You can immediately see a curated set of materials threaded together into a broader narrative,” Mark Yoshitake, product manager at the Google Cultural Institute, wrote in his blog posting from the ceremony. He added “These include handwritten notes on his desk calendars, which show, for example, that he met President F.W. De Klerk for the first time on December 13, 1989 for two and a half hours in prison; the Warrants of Committal issued by the Supreme Court which sent him to prison; the earliest known photo of Nelson Mandela's prison cell on Robben Island circa 1971; and a personal letter written from prison in 1963 to his daughters, Zeni and Zindzi, after their mother was arrested, complete with transcript.”

Over the past several years, the Google Cultural Initiative, now headquartered in Paris, has been putting its expertise – and more than a fair bit of money – in the service of digitalising unique international collections of artistic, cultural and historical materials, ensuring free, unfettered access to all of these items from anywhere in the world for anyone with a computer, tablet or mobile device.

Previous one-off Google cultural projects are now incorporated into the initiative, now based at Google’s Paris base. Earlier such efforts include the digitalisation of the Yad Vashem archive of Holocaust-related materials, as well as the Google Art Project, a digital repository of pictures from over a dozen museums including the National Gallery in London, the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Even before the Google Cultural Initiative was formally launched, one of its earliest projects was the creation of a complete, searchable archive of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

To get a sense of the impact the creation of such a digital archive can have – when the Dead Sea Scrolls website went public, it drew a million virtual visitors in less than a week. Now, compare that to the attendance at the Israel Museum of Jerusalem – the home to the actual, tangible scrolls – after it reopened following a thorough renovation. It also drew a million visitors to see the real thing – but it took a full year to hit that seven-figure total.

Steve Crossan, director of Google’s initiative spoke to the media last year about the Dead Sea Scrolls project – as well as about additional projects then coming on stream. Crossan said at the time “We’re building services and tools that help people get culture online, help people preserve it online, promote it online and eventually even create it online. We’re engineers; we’re technologists. We hope we bring competence in storing large amounts of data and serving it and creating a good experience for users, but we’re not professional curators or historians or artists ourselves, so we need to connect with that world.”

But, in addition to partnering with museums and archives, Crossan said Google engineers also plan to create an off-the-shelf toolkit any institution could put to use in digitalising its own collection. In that way, even a small private archive could go online in formats that would make them easily accessible to global audiences.

At the Johannesburg launch of the Mandela Centre of Memory’s interactive archive on Tuesday, Crossan said “The Mandela Digital Archive Project shows how the Internet can help preserve historical heritage and make it available to the world.  We’ve worked closely with the NMCM to create an interactive online experience with powerful search and browsing tools, so that users can explore Mr Mandela’s inspiring life story.”

Of course Google hasn’t had a totally smooth ride as it rolls out its ambitious digitalisation plans. The company has been sued by authors and publishers in America and Europe over its book-digitisation project, and then, three years ago, French president Sarkozy pledged to support France’s own digitisation program, to prevent, as he said at the time, France from being “stripped of our heritage to the benefit of a big company, no matter how friendly, big or American it is.”

The activities of Google’s new cultural institute are somewhat different from many other Google activities, if for no other reason that it has severely limited the branding of its involvement in these projects. In the case of the Dead Sea Scrolls, while Google provided the technology to digitise the scrolls and hosts the resulting digital contents on its own servers, the only reference to Google anywhere online in this archive is a small note that says the site is “powered by Google”. The new Mandela Archive has the same limited Google branding. In an earlier interview, Crossan admitted “Sometimes we have, in the past, not quite taken the time we needed in terms of communicating what we wanted to do,” he acknowledged. “I think those lessons have been very well learned in the DNA of the company.”

Crossan added Google was providing its services to the cultural institutions at no cost, with no immediate expectation of a financial return. Crossan acknowledged “There’s certainly an investment logic to this. Having good content on the Web, in open standards, is good for the Web, is good for the users. If you invest in what’s good for the Web and the users, that will bear fruit.” Or, in other simpler words, if we do some good for others, we’re going to do really well for ourselves in the long run. Okay, fair enough.

The idea of digitalising archival materials is not totally new. America’s Library of Congress has been hosting its constantly expanding “American Memory” project for years, and the Gutenberg Project has been placing thousands of literary and historical classics on the web for over a decade. But, the most important difference between those kinds of efforts and the one at the Mandela Centre for Memory is the thoroughly integrated searchability of the entire archive and the thoroughgoing integration of all those aural, video and print materials – both in autograph format and in clear, readable texts for those who have any difficulty with Nelson Mandela’s prison era handwriting.

From the perspective of official South Africa, the importance of this new project was abundantly clear. Two Cabinet members – science and technology’s Naledi Pandor and arts and culture’s Paul Mashatile both came to bless the project and to encourage future collaboration with all the other historical archives that have been so painstakingly assembled in South Africa in recent years. The challenge, of course, is, as it always is, money.

Sadly, however, while this new archive is now available globally within a mouse click or two, it will have little direct benefit for those South Africans who are without electricity, or access to a computer and an Internet connection. Given the country’s very low Internet penetration – well below the average in North Africa, let alone that in East Asia, America or Europe – it will still take great effort to bring the contents of this archive within the grasp of the ordinary man, woman or child in a place like Lusikisiki – or even in most homes in Soweto, Umlazi or Nyanga – and a nation where nearly 80% of its schools still lack a basic library. Time for the $200 basic PC, a solar powered, wireless Internet connection and national broadband capabilities. DM




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Photo: The Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory homepage.

  • J Brooks Spector
  • World


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