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Liberian Cultural Treasure - Trove Stored at IU

Liberian cultural treasure-trove stored at IU, By Steve Hinnefeld.
The Herald-Times, Bloomington,
September 12, 2003

Vital records of the history and culture of Liberia are found in more than 300 boxes of government documents, newspapers, photographs, art items, music recordings and other materials kept at Indiana University.

Called the Indiana University Liberian Collections, the materials are more than a treasure-trove for scholars.

They could be a valuable tool for the reconstruction of the war-torn West African country, where 14 years of warfare and chaos have caused official documents to be destroyed or lost.

"This is an extremely valuable resource, and there´s none like it anywhere in the country at this point," said Amos Sawyer of IU´s Workshop on Political Theory and Policy Analysis, a former interim president of Liberia.

Indiana University graduate students George Ibekie, left, Tamara Jordon and Fagdeba Adjola Bakoyema worked on the Liberian Collection Project. Many documents have been destroyed in civil war

He said the materials, added together, help define the intellectual heritage of Liberia, which was founded in 1842 by freed slaves and free-born blacks from the United States.

The collections project, based at IU´s Archives of Traditional Music, came about almost by accident, said its coordinator, Verlon Stone.

It began in the early 1990s when Ruth Stone, an ethnomusicology professor and Verlon Stone´s wife, directed the music archives. She had grown up in Liberia and had been active in the Liberian Studies Association. Some of her colleagues were looking to donate research materials to a university, and she accepted them.

The breakthrough came in 1997, when Svend Holsoe, an anthropology professor at the University of Delaware, donated his vast collection, forming the core of the project. Another large collection, including arts-related materials, came later from Warren d´Azevedo at the University of Nevada at Reno.

Verlon Stone was hired in 2002 to coordinate the project, the mission of which includes organizing and cataloging the materials and finding ways to make them available to scholars and the public. He supervises a crew of students who work at the project´s office at 510 N. Fess Ave.

He said the materials have been made available on a limited basis to scholars and members of the Liberian diaspora - many of them intellectuals - who fled the fighting to the United States. In the future, the center will work with IU´s Digital Library Project to convert documents, photographs and recordings to digital form and put them on the Internet.

Stone said collaboration by archivists, document-preservation experts, museum curators and scholars from several academic departments have helped make the project work. "At IU, you can really get a lot of help between departments," he said.

IU graduate student Stephanie Santos sorted and cataloged artifacts at the Mathers Museum.

The materials that Holsoe and d´Azevedo have donated or plan to donate to IU include African masks and other art objects that go to the university´s Mathers Museum of World Cultures. Ellen Sieber, curator of collections at the museum, said they were collected over 50 years and relate to cultural and political life in Liberia and its links to the United States.

"These objects will be of great value to museum staff, students and researchers as we learn and teach about the role of culture in everyday life," she said.

Of the donated documents, files, books and recordings, some are being indexed and others are in storage at the Archives of Traditional Music in Morrison Hall and other locations.

They include Holsoe´s 24 boxes of government documents; Catholic, Episcopal and Methodist missionary archives; and papers from Liberian poet Bai T. Moore, journalist Albert Porte and foreign minister Cecil Dennis, who was executed in a 1980 coup. There are survey documents, to the township and village level, done for a rural radio project; genealogical records from the 1800s; and a stack of political posters, including a 1979 calendar with grisly photographs of hanged men and the statement, "If you kill, the government will kill you."

Stone said it´s hard to predict which will prove important to the Liberia of the future. In a way, he said, an archivist´s job is not to make judgments but to preserve information that may have value.

"If you know the questions, a lot of times the answers are here," he said.

Sawyer, a member of the board of advisers for the collections project, said the material will be a rich source for historians, textbook authors and other scholars.

"It´s easy to think about reconstruction in terms of brick-and-mortar activities, putting up buildings," he said. "But what are you doing in those buildings, especially with respect to giving people a sense of shared community and helping them reconstruct their heritage?"

Photos by David Snodgress, The Herald-Times

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