50 years DFG-funded Special Collection “Africa South of the Sahara” (1964-2014) at Frankfurt University Library

Since 1964 Frankfurt University Library (at that time called “City and University Library”) is in charge of the Special Subject Collection 6.31 “Africa South of the Sahara” in a co-operative acquisition scheme funded by the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG). Some 20 German university, state and special libraries cover more than 100 academic disciplines and regions. The aim is to acquire at least one copy of every relevant book for a German library. Nationwide access is guaranteed via interlibrary loan. With more than 210,000 volumes, “Africa South of the Sahara” is the largest collection on sub-Saharan Africa in Germany and one of the top collections in Europe.


Between 1964 and 2014 the funding of the DFG allowed to collect continuously books, journals and other materials published in African countries with the help of local vendors, on acquisition trips, and with the help, e.g., of the Library of Congress Nairobi Office and the Goethe-Institut. In 1970 the DFG sponsored 32000 DM to acquire 1077 volumes, in the 1980s and 1990s the DFG-part raised up to 100000 DM allowing to add on average around 3000 books a year to the collection. In 2014 the DFG-budget exceeded 100000 EUR. The library in Frankfurt added the necessary own contribution and especially the funds for staff and space. These numbers demonstrate the strong continuity in funding and collection building.

Additionally, it was possible to develop and maintain bibliographic and current awareness services in a broad sense and to adapt these services to the general technical development: e.g. from the printed “Current Contents Africa” (1975-1993) to the “Online Contents”-database (2009-) included in ilissAfrica. At all times it was possible to raise extra funds for the acquisition of special collections, like those of Janheinz Jahn or Janos Riesz.

Finally, beside the regular tasks of collection building, indexing and information services two large projects were managed to get realized: first the digitization of the Colonial Picture Archive (1991-2004), second the set-up of the ilissAfrica subject gateway (2007-2010). In the following a survey of the stages of development, services and projects is given.

Before 1964: Abyssinian and German Colonial Ancestors

The first large legacy of the Oriental-African collection is due to Job Ludolf (1624-1704), the founder of Ethiopian studies. A valuable Abyssinian manuscript collection was presented to the library by the scientist Eduard Rüppel (1794-1884). With the foundation of Frankfurt University in 1914 also books on contemporary colonialism were collected, however, during the Second World War most of them got lost.

German Colonial Society stampIn effect of the Second World War the library and the picture archive of the German Colonial Society came to the Frankfurt City and University Library (“Stadt- und Universitätsbibliothek”, StUB). In the second half of the 19th century some lobby groups were build up to spread the colonial ideas and care for German emigrants. In 1887 the two most important associations, the „Deutsche Kolonialverein“ and the „Gesellschaft für deutsche Kolonisation“, merged and became the „Deutsche KDtKolonialvereinIMG_0748olonialgesellschaft“ (German Colonial Society). It was the most influential and largest pressure group of the German colonial movement with 42600 members in 1914.

DKGTropenkollerIMG_0737AA-ReichskolonialamtDtKol-BibIMG_0733S 17 8405 Supp Cover DSC_0027Some 1000 books of the “Deutsche Kolonialverein” comprised the initial stock of the “Colonial Library“. In 1907 the books moved to the Imperial Colonial Office (“Reichskolonialamt”), which until 1919 was the main governing body in colonial politics. Then the library was situated in the library of the Foreign Ministry (“Auswärtiges Amt”) and during Nazi times in the German Colonial League (“Reichskolonialbund”). Finally, the colonial library was grown to around 23000 volumes (18000 books) containing literature on administration, geography, economics, ethnology, hygiene, agriculture and local languages as well as fiction and colonial novels.

Because of the air campaigns in 1943/1944 two-thirds of the stock of the City and University Library of Frankfurt were lost. The Americans in Hesse compensated some of the losses with collections taken into custody by them. The colonial collections formerly based in Berlin had survived the war in Thuringian mines. So in 1949 they were given to Frankfurt library as a contribution to the reconstruction of education and intellectual life in Germany.

SOASCatalogue1963Since 1961 a special department “Orient – Judaica – Afrika” was set up in anticipation of the new building of the library to be realized in 1964. The common reading room opened at the 2nd of November 1964 with roughly 20000 volumes in the reference collection and in the open-stack journals-section. Between 1960 and 1965 the State of Hesse granted special funds to build up the so-called “Africa Library”: 28000 DM in 1960, 38000 DM in 1962 and 27000 DM in 1964 and in 1965. In 1964, e.g., 1058 volumes could be acquired with these additional funds. One of the largest acquisitions in 1964 was the Library Catalogue of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London in 18 volumes at a price of 3894 DM. Other books came from Accra, Dakar, London, Paris and Moscow.

Blank1964-1994: DFG-funding, acquisition trips & services in printing format

Due to the substantial colonial collections the DFG decided to fund regularly an Africa (and Oceania) collection at Frankfurt University Library from 1964 onwards. Since then it has been the library’s duty to buy foreign and German literature on this area as comprehensively as possible, thus serving highly specialized research. The German Research Foundation covers 75 % of the acquisition budget for foreign literature. Frankfurt University Library has to pay for the rest (including the Africa books published in Germany) and especially for the staff (subject specialist, acquisition, cataloguing, stacks, …), storage space and preservation.

Initially, South Africa was a separate collection at SUB Göttingen (SSG 7,28 “Republik Südafrika”), however, literature on the indigenous people were part of the Frankfurt collection (see DFG: Richtlinien zur Abgrenzung der Sondersammelgebiete, Bonn 1971). Since 1985 South Africa was fully part of the collection “Africa South of the Sahara” in Frankfurt. From the early 1980s until the year 2010 the Africa library of the Deutsche Übersee-Institut (since 2006 the German Institute of Global and Area Studies in Hamburg) was responsible for collecting “grey literature” from Africa.

DFG-Sticker_0662 One of the first books acquired with funds by the DFG was: A bibliography of Ghana : 1930 – 1961 / comp. by A. F. Johnson. – Accra: Longmans 1964. At that time every book was marked with a special sticker indicating the sponsoring institution.

The collection profile includes all social sciences, cultural sciences and humanities, e.g. language, literature, history, politics, geography, ethnography, education, publishing, media, religion, philosophy, art, music, and more.

From the beginning the most challenging task was the acquisition of material published in the African countries. If national bibliographies do exist (which is the case in roughly in half of the countries), they are not complete, appear sporadically, appear years after the books were published (and might have been acquired) and sometimes the bibliographic data is incomplete. Due to low initial print runs the books cannot be purchased later on. Many of the local publishers are not connected to the international book trade. Local bookstores refrain from acting as vendors to international libraries, not interested in dealing with difficult questions of transport, customs and money transfer.


One way to cope with these difficult book markets are acquisition trips. E.g. in February and March 1970 Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Uganda, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Senegal could be visited. One week in each capital made the acquisition of 2650 volumes possible. The DFG sponsoring of this trip was 15000 DM (see Irmtraud Dietlinde Wolcke: Einkaufsreise nach Afrika, in ZfBB 18 (1971), 3, pp. 171-174). Further acquisition trips were made to Africa:

  • 1973: Nigeria
  • 1975: Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Seychelles, Mauritius, Madagascar
  • 1978: Senegal, Gambia, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, Togo, Benin and Cameroun
  • 1984: Central African Republic, Gabon, the two Congo, Kenya, Zimbabwe

Afterwards the travelling was suspended, because of the enormous effort with relative little results. Additionally, library vendors in Kenya (Suba) and South Africa could supply titles and the African Books Collective with its warehouse in the UK improved the accessibility of literature published locally even further.

Some special collections could be acquired beside the regular budget. With a grant from the “Stiftung Volkswagenwerk” around 1000 titles of African literature could be purchased in 1972 from Janheinz Jahn (1918-1973). 1973 a special collection on the Lusophone Africa (4200 volumes) could be acquired at a price of 69.656 DM in total, 33.053 DM thereof funded by the DFG.

ccaCover_0714Since the 1970s the Africa Collection tried to advertise their treasures with some laborious publications. With very simple technical means of printing “card catalogues” in book format, lists of new acquisitions, journals, and subject catalogues were distributed to institutions worldwide:

  • New Acquisitions Africa (“Neuerwerbungen Afrika“), 1972-1994, 300 subscribers
  • List of Africa-Periodicals (“Afrika-Zeitschriften in der Stadt- und Universitätsbibliothek Frankfurt am Main“), 1973, supplement 1977, second edition 1982 on seven microfiche, and the third and last edition 1988 on 10 microfiche
  • Current Contents Africa (CCA), 1975-1977 published in-house, 1978-1980 by Hans Zell, 1981-1993 by Saur.
  • Subject Catalogue Africa (“Fachkatalog Afrika“), 1976-1995, 10 volumes published by Saur
  • Directory of African Studies Experts (“Afrikanistenverzeichnis“), 1982

Blank1994-2004: Digitization of colonial photographs & online cataloging

In the middle of the 1990s these services in print format ended, mainly due to the advent of electronic cataloguing and later on with the expansion of the “world-wide web”. E.g. lists of new acquisitions were offered in a digital format from 1996 on. The Eppelsheimer subject classification of the former subject card catalogue was continued in the “Online Public Access Catalogue” and from around 2000 onwards complemented with German Subject Headings.

The late 1990s were shaped by a large project to secure via microfilming 50000 historical photographs made in Africa during colonial times and to make these pictures accessible via digitization.

EminPaschaColonialPictureArchiv_Bananen S17_IMG_3739

In 1891 the German Colonial Society began to build up an own collection of slides starting with 100 large black and white diapositives for campaigning. Members and friends disposed duplicates from their private collections or gave them as bequests to the society. Over the time further commercial and private collections were included.

Tanzania, 1910-1912

Individual members could lend a whole thematic set of slides together with a paper-manuscript previously elaborated, e.g. by colonial administrators. These talks would make a whole special evening event; alternatively short versions would be presented as an opening act to a cine film.  Together with the manuscript and the slides also two early slide projectors (Scioptikons) could be lend. The annual report of the German Colonial Society talks of 101 papers in 1889. E.g. the former Africa traveller Paul Reichard (1854-1938) alone gave 38 talks on a journey throughout the country. In 1904 350 papers and 389 lectures with slide shows were held all over Germany. The presenters were sometimes supported financially with a fee and a compensation for travel expenses.

The collection of historical photographs documents the colonial history of the colonies and also the colonial imagination of the colonies. There are pictures of nature, agriculture, chase, animals, houses, cities, schools, missions, trade, transport, culture and people. Some illustrate the curiosity and fascination of the exotic. Appropriation, mastery, and self-reassurement of the claimed superior culture is visible in many pictures. However, many of them are seldom visual traces of the history of African countries, even if the pictures were taken and used in a prejudiced colonial context.

ScreenshotColonialPictureArchiveScreenshotAdvSearchRotThe picture collection of the Germany Colonial Society was micro-filmed, digitized and thematically indexed. Retrieval is possible via region, keywords, person, photographer and ethnic group. The thesauri were translated in English by the late Helene Baumann, Duke University. The search interface in English and especially the new search interface via ilissAfrica allow worldwide usage.

Blank2004-2014: ilissAfrica & international cooperation

Since 2004 the DFG promoted the licensing of German National Licences. More than 20 are relevant to the African Studies including e.g. “eHRAF”, “Corpus de la littérature francophone de l’Afrique noire“, “African Writers Series” and the “World Bank E-Library Archive”. Nationwide access is a pre-condition to the funding of electronic resources by the DFG. The database “Africa-Wide Information” is offered to all German users with a Pay-per-Use-Access.  Since 2009 17 E-Journals by the South African publisher Sabinet are allowed to be used for interlibrary loan. Before, these journals were not accessible in Germany (not even in print).

IlissAfricaLogoBetween 2007 and 2010 the DFG funded the set up of the “internet library sub-saharan Africa(ilissAfrica) in cooperation with the Hamburg-based GIGA Information Centre. The portal makes researching literature more time-efficient, and references both conventional printed materials as well as new electronic and online media. One major feature of ilissAfrica is that cross-searching is possible within

  • the catalogues of the Africa collections at Frankfurt University Library, the African Studies Centre (ASC) in Leiden, the Nordic Africa Institute (NAI) in Uppsala, and the Department of Anthropology and African Studies (IFEAS) at the University of Mainz,
  • the “World Affairs Online” database (including the catalogue of the GIGA Hamburg),
  • a part of the Swets database “Online Contents” with information on articles in 180 journals on Africa,
  • the “Colonial Picture Archive”,
  • the database of 5000 websites indexed and quality-tested and
  • “Bielefeld Academic Search Engine” (BASE), an OAI-PMH service provider offering the metadata of some of the most important African (e.g. AJOL) and French repositories (e.g. Gallica).

ilissAfrica MobileThe participation of NAI Uppsala and ASC Leiden are results of the commitment of the Frankfurt Africa collection to the European network of “European Librarians in African Studies” (ELIAS). Project preparation and design of ilissAfrica took place in close collaboration with the “Vereinigung für Afrikawissenschaften in Deutschland” (VAD, African Studies Association in Germany). To reduce language barriers and to improve the contact between francophone and anglophone academics, the subject gateway of ilissAfrica is
offered in French, English, and German. Additionally, ilissAfrica aims to be a useful bibliographic service for researchers based in Africa. An open-access guide lists projects that disseminate free or affordable scholarly journals and databases in developing countries. Since 2013 a touch-optimized website for smartphones is available.

Since 2010 many extra services were build up using the ilissAfrica-“brand”:

PostdocWorkingOnGhana_0655While all these online services can be used by everybody everywhere at any time, many PhD students from all over Germany working on Africa or on the colonial history spend weeks of their research in our special reading room. Already in 1965 the annual report stated this and mentioned a visitor from Cameroon. Researchers composing bibliographies (e.g. NAMLIT or printed bibliographies on African theatre) came to Frankfurt to collect the bibliographic data. In February 2014, e.g., an academic working on the development of the English language in Ghana found a lot of unique material (see the picture on the right).

Two large special collections were added in the last ten years:

  • In 2004 the DFG funded the acquisition of 2300 books collected by Professor Dr. János Riesz during his 30 years of academic research at a price of 80000 EUR.
  • 2012 the “Deutsche Gesellschaft der Freunde Botswanas” donated its library to the Africa special collection, especially because of the central position of Frankfurt in Germany. The collection is strong on government publications and books on AIDS (cataloguing of the material is still in progress).

Since 2007, the Frankfurt Library has taken part in the “Cooperative Acquisitions Program” of the Library of Congress Office, Nairobi (Kenya), an innovation that has considerably improved the process of acquisition: Books from nine countries, periodicals from eleven, and material on human rights issues as well as material in local African languages from nineteen countries in sub-Saharan Africa are now delivered on a regular basis. Beyond that, since May 2009, the tables of contents of all acquired foreign books have begun to be scanned in Frankfurt and added to the library catalogue to allow users a quick preview.

New acquisitions waiting for subject indexingIn 2010 e.g. the acquisition budget rose to 152.000 EUR compared to 138.000 EUR in 2009. 3697 books could be bought and 200 were received as gifts. More than 1300 of these books were published in Africa (via LoC Office Nairobi, Thorold, African Books Collective, Africa Book Centre, Soumbala, Espace Afrique). 2233 documents were delivered to German libraries via inter-library loan and even 210 to foreign countries.

Africa has a lively local production of books and other media. Even if paper and binding are sometimes of low quality they do reflect local academic discourses, e.g. discussions on conferences. The same applies to local journals with often poor distribution and visibility. Research reports and conference papers are produced in limited numbers and with limited circulation even within the institutions where they are produced. Some local magazines and daily presses often do not have an internet website neither an online archive. Fiction by African authors is published by local publishers only. Finally, the “poor numbers“-problem risen by Morten Jerven might be solved partly with the availability of local reports with statistics inside, normally considered as “grey literature”.

Here are some examples of very recent (!) acquisitions of Frankfurt’s special collection on Africa that are unique in Germany:

  • Wilting in bloom : the irony of women labour rights in the cut-flower sector in Kenya. – Nairobi: Kenya Human Rights Commission 2012.
  • Europe’s brand of a Trojan horse? : Africa and the economic partnership agreements / S. K. B. Asante. – Tema: Digibooks Ghana 2010.
  • The architecture for violence against women in Ghana / ed. by Kathy Cusack. – Accra North, Ghana: Gender Studies and Human Rights Documentation Centre 2009.
  • Mapambano ya pamoja dhidi ya umasikini : tafiti kifani za ushirikiano kati ya asasi za kiraia na serikali Tanzania [Kiswahili: On the civil society organisations involved in the fight against poverty in Tanzania]. – Zanzibar: NGO Resource Centre 2008.
  • Enhancing African women’s leadership : [meeting] 26th – 28th September 2007, Panafric Hotel, Nairobi – Kenya / comp. by Atieno Ndomo. – Nairobi: FEMNET 2007.
  • A framework for a long term vision for Botswana / Presidential Task Group for a long term vision for Botswana. – Gaborone: Government printer 1996.

All these documents show the diversity of local voices and perspectives. If German academic projects aim at research with Africa on a level playing field, then local publications should be available in Germany to get to know the local state of affairs and discussions. Solid basic research and political consulting depend on good special collections.

In 2013 a general agreement with the German Goethe-Institut was made that the local Goethe-Institutes will collect books of local publishers as a blanket order via DFG-funds. In February 2014 the Goethe-Institut in Cameroon purchased the first 200 newly published books and send it to Frankfurt via airmail. After an evaluation of this pilot scheme it will be transferred to other countries as well.

BlankThe way ahead: Transition to a “Specialised Information Service”

Existing DFG-funded “Special Subject Collections” are to be transferred over the course of the next three years to the new “Specialised Information Services” funding programme. The restructuring is a result of the programme evaluation during the years 2010–2011. In 2015 the Special Subject Collection “Africa South of the Sahara” will submit its proposal to become a “Specialised Information Service”. As the name indicates the focus is changing from continuous collection building to services framed in a three-year project-grant. Comprehensive collection building for future demand of researchers is not the central aim anymore, but a more focussed acquisition may still be part of the funding. The “Specialised Information Services” are designed to accommodate research interests of the academic community much more directly. The DFG-website states:

“Maintaining a special subject collection differs substantially from the task of developing a specialised information service, since there are no longer any common standards in this area. In the future, the main concern for the maintenance of such collections will be to examine the needs of specialist communities in detail in order to develop a suitable range of services.”

Together with the German African Studies Association (VAD) we work hard on this fundamental transformation. We hope, that there will be a relevant and convincing “Specialised Information Service” for the African studies from 2016 on. In the meantime plans are already made to start a second large digitization project making available online parts of the Colonial Library.

For now, it remains to express our deepest gratitude to the city council of Frankfurt, to the state of Hesse, to Frankfurt Goethe University and particularily to the DFG for the funding and provision of this strong infrastructure in the last 50 years.


  • More information on the first 40 years including famous visitors and organized exhibitions:
    Wolcke-Renk, Irmtraud Dietlinde: Afrika südlich der Sahara (SSG 6,31) : aus der Afrika-Abteilung der Stadt- und Universitätsbibliothek Frankfurt am Main. – Frankfurt am Main : Klostermann, 2004.
  • A report of the Colonial Picture Archive project:
    Jäschke, Uwe Ulrich (ed.): 15 Jahre “Koloniales Bildarchiv” an der Stadt- und Universitätsbibliothek Frankfurt am Main. – Dresden 2004.
  • An evaluation of the ilissAfrica project:
    Bergenthum, Hartmut: «internet library sub-saharan Africa» (ilissAfrica): Bilanz einer Virtuellen Fachbibliothek, in: ABI-Technik 31 (2011), 1, pp. 12-22.
  • A broader view:
    Bergenthum, Hartmut / Thomas Siebold: African Studies – Striving for Integrated Information Services: Recent Developments in Germany and Europe, in: Africa Spectrum 45 (2010), 2, pp. 109-121.

About ilissafrica
This is the blog of the internet library sub-saharan Africa (ilissAfrica).

2 Responses to 50 years DFG-funded Special Collection “Africa South of the Sahara” (1964-2014) at Frankfurt University Library

  1. ilissafrica says:

    Two English language comments on the transition to “Specialised Information Services”:
    * Andreas Degkwitz, “From Special Subject Collections to Discipline Driven Information Provisioning”. LIBREAS. Library Ideas, 27 (2015). http://libreas.eu/ausgabe27/07degkwitz/
    * Kizer Walker: Re-Envisioning Distributed Collections in German Research Libraries – A View from the U.S.A., BIBLIOTHEK – Forschung und Praxis 39 (2015), 1, pp. 7–12, http://www.degruyter.com/view/j/bfup.2015.39.issue-1/bfp-2015-0008/bfp-2015-0008.xml?format=INT

  2. Pingback: Specialised Information Service for the African Studies in Germany granted | ilissafrica's Blog

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