Preserving History for the Future in Guinea Bissau

Posted July 16, 2021

Photo: UNDP, 2021

When he returned to the National Library at the end of Guinea Bissau’s Civil War in November 1999, Iaguba Djalo remembers crying as he entered the building, which had been bombed after the military took over the building as a base.

The hallowed-out roof meant water had flooded the library during the West African country’s tropical rainy season, and animals had made homes in the bookshelves.

Djalo, who served already as head of the library, waded through waters filled with snakes, dogs, and other animals to try and save what remained of the books, recordings and photographs that held the history of his country.

“It felt like loss, like memory erased,” he says now. But he and his colleagues did not give up, despite having to kill a few snakes that tried to bite them as they saved the documentation. They managed to save many documents, some dating back hundreds of years, despite difficulties with funding for storage and transportation.

Today, these archives and many more are still at risk of being lost due to water damage, dust, and other threats due to lack of proper equipment and facilities.

That’s why the United Nations Development Programme in Guinea-Bissau and the National Library of Guinea-Bissau, part of the National Institute of Studies and Research, via the Association of Librarians, Archivists and Documentalists have teamed up to preserve the rich history.

Through United Nations Peacebuilding Fund support, the United Nations Development Program has delivered high-tech equipment, trainings, and more to the local institutions working to ensure they can preserve these documents.

The documentation of Guinea Bissau is in many ways the story of two wars : Many of the archives tell the story of the country’s 11-year liberation struggle from Portugal that was won in 1974, but much of this was destroyed in the country’s 9-month inter-military turmoil from 1998 to 1999. Djalo says by saving and improving access to the historical documents, they can make sure they are not doomed to repeat history.

“If we look at the causes of instability, we can see them in our History and memory. If there is no History, no memory, each time we start again at zero,” says Djalo.

According to Djaló, the new equipment will allow 120,000 documents, 3,000 photographic images, 8,000 film negatives and 4,000 microfilms to be digitalized.

A key aspect of the project is to help Bissau-Guineans better access the information as well as all documents will be available online via the website of INEP/National Public Library. Librarians are also being  trained on collection, database management, and categorization as well as on using and maintain the digital equipment for future efforts at preservation as history continues to unfold. This Is also done with the support of the CPLP.

By strengthening the library’s role as a coordinator of national information and research, another aim is to help the library implement the reading policy of the country – contributing to not only the preservation of the past generation but also the development of future generations.

“Collecting, organizing and digitalizing the documental patrimony of Guinea-Bissau allows the country to maintain and ensure the preservation of national memory, key to promote long-term peace and social cohesion, as it permits citizens to have access to its history, promotes the right to information and the exercise of full citizenship,” says Djalo.

Photo: UNDP, 2021