Reflexivity and Archiving: Reflections on the High Court of Uganda’s Archive

At the end of May 2018, a team assembled in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, in order to appraise, organize, and catalogue the High Court of Uganda’s archive. Over a period of three months, the team of 15+ archivists, academics, and High Court staff members catalogued what is believed to be the largest legal archive in sub-Saharan Africa.

Initiated by Sauda Nabukenya, Ph.D. student in the History Department of the University of Michigan, and Dr. Derek Peterson, professor of history and African studies at the same university, the project’s aim was to “organize and make accessible the very considerable archives of the High Court.” Over the course of the first two months, the team transported over 800 boxes of materials from the High Court’s basement to an offsite location that provided adequate space for sorting. Once there, the team sorted and catalogued over 450 boxes, totaling 45,000 files. Finally, the Judiciary granted a project extension for August 2018 so that the remaining boxes could also be catalogued.

The sheer scale of this project and the rate at which it was completed is impressive and warrants reflection. However, the project provoked several considerations for me, a professionally-trained archivist interested in the politics of archival use and control in the aftermath of colonialism.

Neutrality of the Archive

Neutrality has been a central pillar in the ideals/mythologies of archives. The archivist, armed with their catalogue, is expected to assist a user in navigating a collection by organizing and describing materials much like a GPS would any other terrain – accurately, objectively, and usefully. Though the concept of neutrality has been contested within the archival profession and likewise by researchers, other ideals have not been as discussed. Below, I raise collaboration and reflexivity as useful alternatives.

Useful Imperfection and Collaborative Cataloguing

Working on this project, I was aware of several systematic violations of neutrality. I wish to explore them here with ambivalence. I would argue that some of the conditions of our work (time pressure, resource limitations, asymmetrical archiving skills and knowledge of the material, etc.) are characteristic of archival projects more generally and influenced our cataloguing. For example, we devised a categorizing schema such that records were tagged at the item level based on the nature of the case in the file (i.e. Civil Suit – Labour – Unlawful suspension). These categories depended on our cursory reading of each file to identify the cause of the case and despite our aspirations for uniformity and because of our diverse expertise and time restrictions, our classification undoubtedly varied. Instead, our goal was to operate with useful imperfection: choosing consistency and transparency over objective accuracy so that a researcher could understand how and why we catalogued things as we did.

Our team, stationed in a single workspace, worked collaboratively in cataloguing. Pairs of cataloguers worked together to quickly identify the key descriptors for every file and made joint decisions on classification. The results of this cooperation not only included quicker, more accurate work but provided social contact around each file which, especially in my case, often helped bring to life the significance of the materials. For example, alone, I would not have known that business transfer cases in the 1970s were often consequences of the Asian expulsion process under Idi Amin.

Reflexive not Neutral

Other of our working conditions were more unique. I was the technical lead on this project, and for much of the project’s duration, the only non-Ugandan. On the one hand, I had experience in similar projects in years prior (at the Kabale and Jinja District Administrative Archives) in addition to working as an archivist in the U.S. and U.K. and was professionally trained.  On the other hand, I was the least qualified on the team to understand the contents of the materials, their significance, and the contemporary political situation in which they sit. Geopolitics was at the fore of the very structure of our project’s hierarchy.

Some in the archival profession argue that content-knowledge is unnecessary for an archivist to adequately perform their job. I disagree. The High Court’s archive is a rich resource on many fronts. Historically, it helps in understanding changing notions of crime, punishment, and power. It offers insight into the socio-legal history during the rapid successions of post-colonial governments. Contemporarily, it holds legal records belonging to individuals and families that are necessary to pursue due process. My ignorance as an outsider/non-specialist was challenged and remedied by the expertise of my colleagues – Ugandan academics and citizens. The dangers of empowering ignorance are not as simple as wrongfully describing a file but misunderstanding the file’s power. For example, the international crisis of land grabbing – or contentious land acquisition – is a huge problem in Uganda. The High Court archive contains land deeds and titles which, if recklessly treated, have the potential to accelerate that crisis.

Reflexivity in the archival profession isn’t supported by project-oriented funding structures and the daunting stress of backlogs. In fact, I had to leave my job working as an archivist in order to think more deeply about archival work. However, the stakes are too high not to. The High Court’s archive is a gift to scholars, but it is a right for the people of Uganda. The archive, and those who tend it, are far from neutral – on the contrary, the archive is an intervention. Better to understand this intervention rather than deny it. I am hopeful and enthusiastic to track the future and progress of the High Court’s archive, left in the very capable hands of our 2018 team members.

For more information about the High Court archiving project please see: The Judiciary Web and the article A MacArthur “Genius” Works to Preserve Uganda’s History” by Leslie Station.