The British Library holds an outstanding collection of published works on and from Africa, from the 16th to the 21st centuries, and continues to collect in this area. We have substantial holdings of current publications from Africa as well as Africa-related material from the UK, US, European countries including France, Germany and the Netherlands, and elsewhere in the world.
Most printed works can be found in Explore the British Library.
- Current collecting
- Historic collections on and from Africa
- Government publications
- African literature
Our holdings constitute one of the most important scholarly collections for African studies in the UK. We collect works on and from Africa across the broad range of the humanities and social sciences, including history, anthropology and archaeology; economics, politics and development studies; gender studies; social policy, sociology and psychology; law and education; art and design; performing arts and media studies; philosophy and theology; and languages and literature, which are a particular strength. We also acquire scientific work relating to (and in some cases published in) Africa; holdings of scientific periodicals are strong.
The Library’s collections are especially good for Anglophone Africa, but we also acquire works from, and relating to, the rest of the continent. For North Africa, we collect mainly in Arabic and (to a lesser extent) in French and English. For more information see . For Francophone countries see also our French collections. For historic items on Portuguese- and Spanish-speaking countries, see the listing of 19th-century works.
Our holdings of books and periodicals published in Africa are strong. We buy works by university-based scholars and researchers, research reports from non-governmental and international organisations, government publications, African-language material, and literary works in European languages. We also hold important collections of pamphlet literature, for example from Ghana and Nigeria, and continue to collect very selectively in this area.
We acquire works of research level published outside Africa, mainly through legal deposit (for items published or distributed in the UK) and purchase.
The SCOLMA Acquisitions Scheme indicates other UK academic libraries with strengths in resources for African studies.
European publishing about Africa began in the 16th century. Many of the significant works of the early period came into the British Museum Library with two of its 'foundation' collections, the libraries of George III and Sir Joseph Banks, together with a substantial number of pamphlets concerning trade and the Royal Africa Company, which were once the property of Sir Hans Sloane. Other important titles were acquired retrospectively. The first edition (1550) of Leo Africanus's Descrittione dell'Africa..., for example, was not purchased until 1848.
The earlier European accounts of Africa are often the writings of travellers, explorers, missionaries or colonial officers. The British Library holds many such accounts, for example those by Mungo Park, Richard Burton, David Livingstone, Jean Baptiste Léonard Durand and Gaspard Mollien, together with the reports and proceedings of bodies such as the Society for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa. Before the arrival of Europeans, Islamic geographers had already written about Africa. The British Library holds their work in both manuscript and printed form; for a recent summary see A corpus of early Arabic sources for West Africa (eds J.F.P. Hopkins and N. Levtzion). See also the Arabic collections.
Portrait of Olaudah Equiano; Frontispiece from The interesting narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavas Vassa, the African. Written by himself...; British Library 615.d.8; Copyright © 1997, The British Library Board
Africans have been visiting Britain since the second century A.D. - from the relatively small number of North African soldiers who came with the Roman army, to the thousands of Africans and people of African origin brought to Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries. Many were domestic slaves or had survived an early life of slavery on the plantations in the Caribbean or America. Some wrote about their lives and experiences, and their voices are also represented in the collections. Works from the 18th century include those of Olaudah Equiano, Ignatius Sancho, Ottabah Cugoano and Ukawsaw Gronniosaw. Some of these are included in the British Library's Caribbean Views online exhibition.
Frontispiece from Letters of the late Ignatius Sancho, an African, British Library 1607/1717. Copyright © The British Library Board
The early works relating to Africa held by the British Library were predominantly printed in the UK, especially London, followed by material from Europe, especially France and Germany, and then North America. However, numerous examples of early printing from Africa can also be found in the collections.
Indigenous literature in much of sub-Saharan Africa was oral by tradition, although Islamic scholarship and the practice of writing in Arabic and/or Arabic script also has a long history, particularly in west and east Africa. The earliest printing presses, however, were invariably linked to either missionary or colonial government activities. Most such material held by the British Library dates from the mid-19th century, although there are some late 18th- and early 19th-century items from South Africa and Mauritius. Such titles include Annonces, affiches et avis divers pour les colonies des Isles de France et de Bourbon (1773-1775), and Claude Bernard Challan's Vocabulaire malgache (1773), both printed by L'Imprimerie Royale on Isle de France. The output of these missionary and government presses mostly consists of translations of the Bible into local languages, and government reports. However, there are also other types of early material, particularly from South Africa and Mauritius, but also, for example, from Liberia, where G. Killian printed Edward Blyden's A voice from bleeding Africa, on behalf of her exiled children in 1856.
In 1842, the Imperial Copyright Act extended legal deposit arrangements to British dominions and territories. A number of colonies subsequently brought in their own legislation. Although not always very effective, colonial legal deposit legislation thus enabled the British Library to build up its holdings of works published in Africa, resulting in a substantial collection of books, serials and newspapers between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries from South Africa in particular, but also from Mauritius, Sierra Leone, East Africa, the Gambia and Ghana.
These early works can be found in Explore the British Library.
Historic holdings of government publications are good. Although official material is still acquired, predominantly from Anglophone Africa, collecting is not as extensive as for the earlier period and obtaining a regular supply is often difficult, particularly now that many African governments are no longer publishing in hard copy.
Most government publications from Africa are listed in Explore the British Library. There is also a card index in the Social Sciences Reading Room. See also this list of government publications, which contains fuller holdings information than Explore the British Library.
Holdings of African literature (especially from English-speaking Africa) reflect the proliferation of African writing since the mid-20th century, but also cover earlier creative works. Our collections thus include, for example, Sol Plaatje’s Mhudi (1930), Heinemann's first edition of Chinua Achebe's Things fall apart (1958), and Cyprian Ekwensi's An African night's entertainment, illustrated by Bruce Onabrakpeya and published by the African Universities Press in Lagos in 1962. We hold a vast range of contemporary works of prose, poetry, drama and criticism, wherever published. Recent acquisitions include the Kenyan literary magazine Kwani?. We also hold, and continue to collect, printed literary works in African languages.
Works are also acquired on the oral literature of Africa, for example, collections of folktales, proverbs and riddles, both in translation and in the original languages. Many such publications represent the results of projects by African universities to record, preserve and study their oral heritage. Researchers interested in African linguistics and literature will also find much of interest in the collections of the British Library Sound Archive.
Dr Marion Wallace, Curator of African Collections
Asian and African Studies
The British Library
96 Euston Road
Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7829