Anne Marieke van der Wal-Rémy: ‘The Instagram influencer should also be preserved as a historical source’
Anne Marieke van der Wal-Rémy, assistant professor of African History and International Studies, has received a Comenius Teaching Fellow grant of 50,000 euros. She intends to use the grant to set up an online archive of digital primary sources, together with her students. Van der Wal-Rémy: ‘ “Once on the internet, always on the internet” is a much-heard phrase, but it’s not necessarily true.’
The aim of the Comenius Teaching Fellow grant is to bring innovation to education. How are you planning to use the grant?
‘We have been working on renewing the BA African Languages and Cultures for some time now, to bring it more in line with today's Africa and with current debates in society. Together with the Africa Study Center, I’m going to use this grant to create an online archive of digital sources. It will be part of the lecture series "Living Past. Sources and Heritage of African History", and the students will participate. It is a long-term project; students will be able to continue supplementing the archive in the coming years.’
‘I put a lot of time and love into my teaching, but if you want to go the extra mile without having to sacrifice all your other tasks, a grant like this helps enormously. The Comenius Teaching Fellow grant will make it possible for me to hire three student assistants and intensify the collaboration with colleagues from the Africa Studies Center library.’
Why are digital archives so urgently needed?
‘Just like in the rest of the world, an increasing proportion of the population in African countries get their information from social media. Particularly in those areas where traditional mass communication means, such as television cabling or telephone lines, are more scarce, digital communication fills the gap.’
‘Today, the future historical resources that are currently being created, for example on social media and on the internet in a broader sense, are not preserved well enough. This is a problem for the field of history in general, not just for African history. “Once on the internet, always on the internet” is a much heard phrase, but it’s not always the case. There is so much information online that you often can’t see the wood for the trees. At the same time, a lot of information gets deleted. Until recently, it was the norm for political organisations or clubs to meet physically, take pictures of the gathering, make notes on paper, produce yearbooks, you name it. Those sources were kept physically and then somehow found their way to archives or an attic somewhere. But now that people also come together digitally, many resources are being lost.’
‘This poses a problem for the historians of the future. How did young people comment on Facebook about certain lifestyles, about political movements? That kind of information is very important for historians. For that reason, I think it’s important that online sources are preserved. I hope to foster an awareness among students of selecting, assessing, evaluating and archiving primary online sources. What do we want to preserve for future generations? What things do we need to consider when we make these decisions? Do people approach digital sources in the same way as physical sources? By raising these questions, I want to involve students in the process of archiving. I don't have a definitive answer to these questions myself, so I hope the series of lectures will be a true journey of discovery both for me and for my students.’
When you talk about online or digital sources, what do you mean by that?
‘For example, a colleague of mine was researching evangelical sermons in Nigeria that are streamed online. After a while the preacher's website became full, and old sermons were removed. That’s a pity, because those sermons may contain a wealth of information for future historians. A digital archive can safeguard such sources. But you can also think of posts from Instagram influencers: they are very informative about how young people experience society.’
‘These online primary sources can then be saved in different ways, for example by taking screenshots or downloading videos. There are still a lot of hurdles to take, such as copyright issues and source labeling. And how do you trace the "author" if a video has been shared by many people? These are questions I would also like to put to the students.’
Do you also see it as a personal mission, as a historian in the present day, to secure historical sources for the future?
‘Certainly. Historians love the past and tend to be less concerned with the future; I’m just as guilty of that as the next person! But if we don’t put effort into such projects, will the future historian have the means to study our current society? Fortunately, historians are increasingly concerned with digitalizing the academic field. But as of now, by far most attention goes to digitalizing existing, physical sources. Of course that is crucial work, because it makes existing collections available faster and more widely, but finding and archiving primary sources originating from the internet is just as important.’
Text: Ifang Bremer
About he Comenius Teaching Fellows programme
The Comenius Teaching Fellows programme gives impetus to educational innovation and is one of the initiatives to use funds that became available when student grants were scrapped in 2017. The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science funds the programme and NWO implements it.
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