Launch of the Archbishop Desmond Tutu Digital Archive

At 1 minute past midnight SAST on October 7, 2023, on what would have been Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 92nd birthday, the Archbishop Desmond Tutu Digital Archive was officially launched by the Tutu IP Trust in collaboration with Africa Media Online and AM.

The digital archive aims to preserve Tutu’s legacy and make it accessible to the world. In the first phase of the project Africa Media Online was tasked with creating a digital archive that could curate enough of the collection to give the public a taste of what is in the archive in order to be able attract funding for the further digitisation and digital archiving of the bulk of the collection.

Africa Media Online had just three months to work with the Tutu IP Trust to conceptualise the digital archive including the arrangement of material into the phases of Tutu’s life; engage with the physical, digitised and born-digital archive at the headquarters of the Tutu IP Trust and the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation; select appropriate material to populate the various phases of his life; digitise physical materials or process materials already in digital form; arrange the material appropriately; build a digital repository; load the materials to it and curate those materials on the digital archive.

Engaging with the archive took a significant amount of time. On various trips we had a team of myself, David Larsen, Deon Schutte, Linda Martindale and Julia Smith. The archive is significant in size and it took time to orientate ourselves regarding the material that was there and to also understand what material had already been digitised and if it had, how it related to the physical materials. It was a pleasure to work with Itumeleng Ramano, Roger Friedman and Benny Gool of the Tutu IP Trust who opened the doors for us with the team at the Desmond and Leah Tutu Foundation who gave us access not only to the physical archive which was being handed over to the IP Trust, but also to the raw digital archive which was spread across servers and across a number of hard drives. We were able to map the physical archive and then work with the raw digital archive to select out a set of material appropriate for a public digital archive. There was a significant problem with duplication of files between servers and multiple hard drives. Often the same files or slightly different versions were in multiple folders in multiple places, so we had to work through hundreds of thousands of digital files to consolidate them onto a single 8 TB hard drive and then to deal with the duplication folder by folder. Archival material was mixed in with everyday work files and so it was a mammoth undertaking.

We knew from our own history of interaction with what was in those days the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre, that there had been an attempt to build a digital archive on a system called AtoM. Ahead of arriving in Cape Town on our first trip I had some fortuitous interaction with Helen Joannides who had been a heritage consultant to the Peace Centre at that time working with Razaan Bailey who was able to orientate me as to the work that had already been done, so we arrived determined to build on what had already been done and not reinvent the wheel. It was a real breakthrough when we were able to locate that digital archive.

The other breakthrough was when we discovered the work that digitisation guru, Ardon Bar Hama, had done on the archive. We had been following Ardon’s work for years and he was the inspiration for us investing in our Alpa technical camera with Phase One digital back for digitising heritage materials as Ardon had brought that technology to capturing the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Codex Vaticanus at the Vatican Library, material at the Nelson Mandela Foundation and, we knew, at what was the Tutu Peace Centre. Discovering all the work he had done gave us confidence that we have a solid base of material to get a digital archive launched.

The Digital Archive has been built using Africa Media Online’s Preservatio technology stack which includes two particular components. ArchiVault is the digital preservation component where digital files are placed into Security Boxes in its Digital Vault from where they are backed up to LTO tape for off-site storage. ArchiVault is there to look after those digital files over the long-term.

For the presentation of the digital archive to the public the system we believed would be best for the Archbishop Tutu Digital Archive was AM Quartex created by AM. After building our own digital archiving systems for 23 years, in 2023 Africa Media Online made the move to open up its technology stack to best of breed systems from around the world. AM Quartex is one of those systems and is particularly appropriate for curating heritage and academic archives which it does both elegantly and in line with recognised archival standards. We were delighted to work with the highly efficient team at AM Quartex under a tight deadline to bring the digital archive to the world. It has been a joy to see how together we were able to bring both discoverability and elegant design in showcasing valuable materials in the archive. The system allows us to showcase any media type – documents, audio images or video and in a compelling way through such features as exhibits and timelines.

By the time of the launch 2,847 assets were fully loaded and presented through the digital archive, spread across 28 sub-categories. We also presented 9 extra sub-categories where material is yet to be digitised in order to populate it, in this way curating silence. What this does is it informs the public that there is more material to be captured and digitally archived. There are over 700 photographs and a good number of videos already on the system and more materials are being loaded in the days following the launch.

In the work we did for the Tutu IP Trust it was a privilege to meet Dr Mamphela Ramphele, Chairperson of the Archbishop Tutu IP Trust. In viewing the digital archive she said:

“The Archbishop Tutu IP Trust is thrilled to have prepared the ground for the next phase of the archiving project that will draw in the expertise of university partners in the UK, US and South Africa.”

“The digital platform has been designed to be accessible, easily searchable, and robust.

“Memory of Archbishop Tutu’s template for human leadership based on the principles of inter-dependence, love and justice for all cannot be lost to a world (and our beloved country) being driven to the abyss by consumptiveness, inequality, and division”.

There is, of course, much more to be done. The large majority of materials still need to be correctly arranged, itemised, accessioned, inventoried, captured digitally, have metadata captured against them and loaded to the Digital Archive. And there is more to be done with processing more born digital materials bringing to the world the extraordinary legacy of Archbishop Tutu. Toward this end there is a fundraising initiative to take this collection forward which all can participate in by visiting the Donate page on the digital archive and donating on the GivenGain campaign that has been set up.