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Book in Africa: A Day Symposium (Institute of English Studies, London, 20 October 2012)

This symposium was organized as a collaborative event by Open University, Oxford Brookes University and the Institute of English Studies. Organizers should be congratulated on their successful fund raising. In particular, financial support from OU and Oxford Brookes made it possible to offer free registration for delegates (always a good thing, especially for PhD students!). British Academy funding, made available through the International Mobility and Partnership Scheme between Oxford Brookes and Pretoria University, covered the travel expenses of Archie Dick and Beth le Roux (both from Pretoria U).

As somebody who works on Anglo-American publishing houses, I was perhaps not the most obvious delegate for a symposium on the book in Africa. Yet, I learned a lot not only about African literature and print culture, but also about the spatial expansion of ‘book history’ as a field. There were at least three recurring themes during the discussions, starting with the idea that African print culture had an impact on Europe and the rest of the world. “We should ask not what book history can do for Africa, but rather what Africa can do for book history,” said Peter McDonald (U of Oxford). The second theme was the interconnection between print culture and orality. As Karin Barber (Birmingham U) put it, bibles could travel to places where missionaries could not go. Finally, many speakers mentioned the practical difficulties of doing research on the book in Africa. Robert Fraser (Open University) said that it was complicated to get funding for African delegates to travel to the UK, which hinders collaboration between British universities and institutions from Nigeria, Ghana and other African countries. Moreover, Beth le Roux talked about the difficulties of working in publisher’s archives in South Africa. There is no list of those archives, and no complete records. Since so few South African scholars work on book history and publishing studies, there is also little incentive to make publisher’s archives more available to researchers.

In response to those challenges, scholars have developed innovative ways to study African print culture, often using interdisciplinary theoretical and methodological frameworks. In her PhD dissertation on Kenyan literature, Kate Haines (U of Sussex) draws from book history, memory studies and African literary criticism. Beth le Roux also employs a hybrid methodology including archival research, historical bibliography, and political sociology.

The last panel brought together a scholar and two publishers of African literature. James Currey (James Currey Publishers) and Becky Nana Ayebia Clarke (Clarke-Ayebia Publishers) talked about their work at Heinemann, a firm that played a major role in popularizing African literature with its African Writers series. The last speaker, Peter McDonald, asked the audience to guess the provenance of a text on a PowerPoint slide – thus converting the pixelated text to oral words. The next slide showed a photo of the Heinemann paperback edition in which the text was initially printed. McDonald talked about the paratextual elements, including the statement on the back cover and the list of other books in the series. I thought it was a great example of the ways in which a text is mediated, through digital, oral, and print formats.

After this excellent panel, the symposium ended a bit abruptly with a diner for invited speakers only. But on the whole, this was an informative and well-organized symposium on a growing area of book history.