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“We Are Trying to Make History Accessible”: Archivi.ng, the Startup On a Journey to Digitise Nigerian History

“We Are Trying to Make History Accessible”: Archivi.ng, the Startup On a Journey to Digitise Nigerian History

“We Are Trying to Make History Accessible”: Archivi.ng, the Startup On a Journey to Digitise Nigerian History | Afrocritik

“What we need to do is, one, expand the archives. The second is figuring out how to build all the things that facilitate knowledge production. Third is to constantly explore the paths to funding for all these things.” __ Fu’ad Lawal.

By Chimezie Chika

Archivi.ng (pronounced archiving) is an ambitious new startup in Nigeria trying to solve the problem of poor archiving practices in the country. The locus of their operations is centred on recapturing, in their words, “lost Nigerian history by digitising old Nigerian newspapers and making them accessible online.” But why newspapers, one may ask. Are they the sole repository of Nigerian history? Their answer to this is an interesting one. They believe that old newspapers are the archival window into Nigerian history: “Try finding something from . . . 1965? You’ll have little luck finding anything online written by Nigerians. Your only options are to visit a local library and look through old newspapers.”

But even with this option, it must be acknowledged that there is no guarantee that one will find newspapers on certain years and dates. The problem of physical archives in Nigeria is the continuous index of neglect and poor maintenance culture, evident in most public infrastructure. It is not surprising that many of the newspaper archives in libraries around the country are rotting and gathering reams of dust. Archivi.ng is solving and attempting to solve a fundamental problem of Nigeria’s national well-being, contributing in no small way to cultural preservation in the country. The project therefore aims to capture images of Nigeria’s cultural, political, and social history as they happened. The crucial point here is their desire to make the information publicly accessible without hindrance. This is an onerous, time-consuming, and cost-intensive task, and to this end, they need all the help and donations they can get from all relevant bodies, from organisations administering grants to Newspaper corporations and Nigeria’s ministries of Information, Culture, and Education.

Recently, Afrocritik’s staff writer, Chimezie Chika, caught up with a few members of the Archivi.ng team — Fu’ad Lawal (Chief Archivist), Hannah Kate (Operations), and Aisha Oyegunle (Engineering) — for an interview, where they discussed what it means to archive day-to-day, the technicalities, the challenges, and prospects for the future, amongst others. 

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Chimezie: Let me start by asking how it all began. What is the story behind Archivi.ng? What is it all about? What was the motivation?

Fu’ad: It was the good old problem of finding references. If you are working on a story of this kind, for example, you’d like to see if there have ever been any digitisation efforts in the past at the national level. As a society, the biggest repository of information and current affairs is newspapers. We can say that they are richer than television because newspapers were more accessible to people before the invention of television. Such a repository just didn’t exist. And so, just as a random curious thing on Twitter (now X), I wondered what it would look like if we actually figured out a way to collect all the newspapers. But there was also the part where everyone says that as Nigerians we don’t keep anything. Sometime ago I was travelling through parts of Sokoto and went to the Usman Dan Fodio Library and Archives and I saw some volumes from the ‘80s and was impressed. So we decided to pick the period between 1960 and 2010. We found 97% of the papers closer to 2010. The question became: what could we do to preserve them and what could we also do to make them more accessible for everybody? And that’s when that work of preserving history by digitising old newspapers and making them more accessible began. Those questions led to what we are doing now.

“We Are Trying to Make History Accessible”: Archivi.ng, the Startup On a Journey to Digitise Nigerian History| Archiving| Afrocritik
Archiv.ng is on a mission to digitise Nigerian history through newspapers | Archiv.ng Team

Chimezie: So, why is archiving, particularly digital archiving so important? What do you suppose makes record-keeping so vital in the world we live in?

Fu’ad: I think everyone has different meanings that they attach to why archiving is important. Some people keep records for nostalgia; some people keep records for all kinds of reasons. But, for us, the fundamental purpose is that there exists a vacuum in just how we understand our past. And the thing about vacuums is that they always present an opportunity for the inevitable, so there’s a lot of information and all kinds of stuff. By filling that vacuum with dependable sources of knowledge and information, people can find answers to questions about history and how we live. 

You can consider an inevitable part of having a better-informed present because when you look at, say, one of the biggest conversations last year around the presidential election, there were lots of questions about the credibility of candidates — whether it was Tinubu, Atiku, or Obi — based on their previous tenures in government. Finding information about each government was supposed to be easier because each of these candidates had tenures in the 2000s and 2010s, which are very accessible in terms of print information. Yet we found all sorts of false information flying about. So archiving matters because it gives integrity to people and whatever they want to do with it.  

Hannah: Archiving is important because history is being lost. Nigeria is the largest country in Africa by far — it contains millions of people. This is why it’s so important to preserve information and maintain archives online, given the amount of it that’s available here. Especially with young people — Gen Zs — who haven’t had history taught in schools like it was back in the day. You will be surprised to discover the knowledge gaps they have about their country’s history. So it’s important to make information available and easily accessible. 

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Fu’ad Lawal, Chief Archivist at Archiv.ng
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Hannah Kate is part of the Product, Design, and Engineering Team at Archiv.ng 

Chimezie: Thank you, Hannah. And to Fu’ad too. So while I was researching archiving, my findings made me wonder where we are as a country in terms of cultural preservation, especially in terms of our music, politics, arts, technology, etc. So why is this project so culturally relevant?

Fu’ad: History will always be relevant. That does not change. Culture, in a sense, is less about how we define it as arts, expression, language; it’s more about how society organises and operates over time. It’s also about businesses and ideas that come and go. I met an elderly woman one time who said there used to be canned jollof rice. You can imagine that scenario. So the question is, why didn’t it work that time and why did we not have it now?  History is a fundamental resource to begin to make sense of the present. The very nature of all progress and advancement is that we have a body of knowledge that we build on top of. 

One specific trigger that used to respectfully annoy me a lot was the fact that every year on Twitter, there was a period where we usually saw a student who made a car that ran on kerosene, water, or some other alternative energy source for his university project. And every year you find people who say, “Oh, wow, someone should pick this up and turn it into this and that.” And up until three or four years ago, someone always made the same horrible car. You can’t blame them, but the problem is that when you do not have a foundational base of knowledge that can be built upon, you find yourself doing the same things over and over again. That, fundamentally, is the cultural relevance. Another example: Roving Heights’ bestselling book of 2023 sold less than 10,000 copies. And Roving Heights is pretty much one of the biggest booksellers currently in Nigeria. So how did Nigerian authors do it in the past? Because they definitely sold more than that. What was possible and why is it no longer possible? Is what was possible, possible again? In the context of cultural preservation, we can talk about the politics of representation; in literature and elsewhere. Instead of just making assumptions on the internet, this suddenly becomes a utility for us to ask important questions.  Cultural relevance here is that content will always be relevant. 

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Inside Archiv.ng

 

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Chimezie: Yes, indeed, content will always be relevant. Fu’ad, you have noted that you are in the first phase of the project, wherein the aim is to digitise the period from 1960 to 2010. You have also noted elsewhere that you have so far archived 4000 days out of a projected 18,627 days. What are these phases about really? And why is it necessary to have the project in phases?

Fu’ad: First of all, all of history is extremely overwhelming, that’s why I said that our focus period will be from 1960 to 2010. So when we do this we will feel like we’ve done a phase. In terms of the function of that, you can think of it as some sort of super project management, which makes it more bearable. This is because when you think about trying to archive the entirety of all the extant documents about Nigerian history, from personal letters to the constitution, it becomes a tricky situation. So phase one for us is having at least one newspaper for every day from this entire period, such that when a researcher asks what happened on so and so day, an answer will be right there for them in the form of digitised newspaper content from the requested date. 

The second phase is giving the digitised content perspective so that one event can be seen from different angles. From a pure archiving and operations side, we intend to have papers from every region and state in the country. For example, The Tribune is a very Western Nigeria-centred newspaper, the now-defunct West African Pilot was Eastern-centred in a way, and many others. It is about making sure that there is a diversity of perspectives so we don’t end up digitising one perspective. We are pushing more ambitious things at the core of product management itself, which is making it more useful to the public. Phase two is more open-ended because there are many possibilities. 

Aisha: Fu’ad has said a lot already. The most important thing for us is to not just throw ourselves into the project, but to section things out and properly focus because we know what we are trying to achieve. Nigerian history is very vast and diverse, and it’s important to focus on what we want to do first and what we want to do next. Currently, we are at the point where we are gathering information from 1960 to 2010. And gradually we move to the phase where we ask questions about what we can do with materials we’ve gathered, what people can do with them, and whether they are important to people. That is, asking, how can this be the default for people looking for information on Nigerian history? And subsequently finding ways to make it accessible. This is going to be the next thing after our milestone number of archived newspapers is reached. So, for now, it is basically open-ended because the possibilities that can come out of this are endless. Bringing archives out of physical location and placing them in a digital space, brings out many possibilities. Recently on Twitter, our work inspired a comic strip — which is one delightful possibility we did not expect.

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Aisha Oyegunle is part of the Product, Design, and Engineering Team at Archiv.ng 

Chimezie: So how do you plan to achieve all these? Do you plan to fast-track the archiving process? Or do you prefer the process to be slower?

Fu’ad: The digitisation work as it stands is endless. And, perhaps, the way to go is to be faster, but that speed also has to have precision. But we cannot just move fast without sorting out technicalities. One of the questions we ask ourselves is, what is the quality of the scan? If you open Archivi.ng, for instance, at least 80% of the papers you’re going to find have been scanned more than once. There was an old version and it was rescanned because it was not good enough the first time. It feels like a process that will always be there. Consider it a continuous activity. But we will continue to evolve and get stronger. We expect the archives to provide multiple answers for researchers. So for now, as far as the work is concerned, there is unlimited utility, as Aisha said. We will continue to make sense of what we are doing in the archives and facilitate knowledge production so that when other people want to make sense of stuff in the archives, they will have the system or resources to help them with that. 

Chimezie: I know that obtaining licences and copyrights to archival materials and historical documents in Nigeria can be quite difficult. The frustration of bureaucratic processes is immense. So how do you go about obtaining rights to the newspapers?

Fu’ad: You are correct. It is our single biggest blocker; just the speed with which we can move around things. If you go on Archivi.ng, you will find that’s why we are currently focused more on materials nearer to the present. For many of these newspapers, we say to them: give us permission and we will help you worry about your archives. For some of them, the problem is that it is very long ago. But we are making gradual progress in that area. Our method is basically to find a publication, find out how to meet with them, and see how we can collaborate. 

 

Chimezie: As far as I know, digital archiving in Nigeria is still very underdeveloped. Apart from newspapers, do you plan to archive other documents and repositories of Nigerian history?

Fu’ad: We’re still much focused on newspapers at the moment because they have more undiluted information and do the job of basically archiving the world as it is happening. But, fundamentally, what we are trying to do is make history accessible, and this accessibility means many things. For instance, we often say that the first Nollywood film is Living in Bondage (1993), but when you speak to old Nollywood actors like Joke Silva, she gets furious about this because she begins to ask what happened in the first twenty years of her career. 

Almost inevitably, there are adjacent opportunities that this project presents to us. So we are open-minded for the future. For example, we can ask ourselves, what are we going to learn about the CMS Cathedral (in Lagos)? Then we digitise their entire marriage registry archive. I know that document exists because I know someone who went to trace his entire family’s history in it, right from Brazil to the present. So what does it mean to have those records online? What does it mean to have others like it? For example, I know a woman who found out that her aunt died in World War II in France. And the Aunt was a Nigerian. So it begs the question, what is a Nigerian woman doing in World War II France? And it turns out that she married a Jewish man who migrated from Poland to France. She caught a sickness at the time and died in the 1940s. It makes for an interesting history about Nigerian women in the Diaspora from way back. So we are almost inevitably going to push into other materials. 

Archiv.ng - archiving Nigerian history - Archiv-ng| Afrocritik

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Chimezie: Is Artificial Intelligence part of the design and engineering of Archivi.ng? Companies like this may particularly find AI to be indispensable. If not, is there a point in the future when you plan to incorporate it?

Aisha: That is currently being used. When you open a paper on Archivi.ng, the summary is generated by AI. The summary is always beside the picture of the newspaper page. It basically extracts the information on the paper. The truth is that I am also learning on the project because there are a lot of new things we are trying out; there are many possibilities and tools that can be used, and each one proves indispensable and will eventually be used. 

Hannah: We’re using AI in a few different ways right now. So the first is the process of actually extracting the text out of the image, especially with high-resolution images of the newspaper pages, making sure they are run through an OCR recognition. Another is in terms of searching for data on the site, searching keywords in the text is also part of the AI capability. We are already relying on AI to make any of these possible and we are looking to further improve these functions by using additional AI tools for language and figuring out texts. 

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Chimezie: Was creating the database difficult? What are the challenges of maintaining such a database? 

Hannah: Maintaining such a database will be difficult but thankfully we are doing okay. We also have very talented and qualified engineers who are trying to help us with some of that. They have been there, so we are very happy to have them. The other is the cost of running all of these services. It costs money to use ChatGPT, for instance, and it costs money to store these files. I think the daily management isn’t that difficult but it’s something that could be costly overtime and setting up all the tools to get it working is also very challenging

Chimezie: How do you market Archivi.ng? Or, in other words, what are the economic prospects of this project? Is it a for-profit project or a non-profit enterprise?

Hannah: It’s non-profit. The whole point of it is a non-profit vision. We intend to pursue revenue-generating streams to kind of stabilise the costs. So that’s something we are considering and looking into, but primarily we are funded by donations. 

Chimezie: So is there a point in the future where you plan to incorporate profit-making?

Fu’ad: What we need to do is, one, expand the archives. The second is figuring out how to build all the things that facilitate knowledge production. Third is to constantly explore the paths to funding for all these things. We know for a fact that we need to get very creative about how we think about finances, mainly because we are a non-profit. Even more, because we need to do this working with publishers. We inevitably have to figure it out because we intend to build sustainable products. We do not yet have a plausible way to make the project sustain itself. For now, we just have a button on the website where we request people to donate to the project if they can. We are also applying to grants of all kinds but it’s a slow and excruciating process. At the moment we are 100% funded by donors. 

Chimezie: What is the plan behind making Archivi.ng resources available to the public? I am quite surprised to read that it will be free to access and not subscription-based like many new tech start-ups. Is there a point though where access to the site will be by subscription?

Fu’ad: The problem here and what you need to understand is the idea of the product and the market and how it fits. We have to think about it in the sense that we are producing knowledge — so if we 100% go behind a paywall at this point, does that help the business?

Aisha: I think certain aspects of Archivi.ng will always be free but as we move ahead, there will definitely be a need for paid services. It can also be as simple as, “Oh, the highest quality you can get for free is so and so.” So it will be up to the researcher to decide depending on their needs.

Chimezie: What important place does Archivi.ng intend to take in Nigeria and what does the company hope to achieve in the future with regards to Nigeria?

Fu’ad: It is obvious that what we are trying to do is very important. Information is dependable, even more so when there is context. When you look at your favourite YouTube channels, especially the ones that are dedicated to explainers, you see that they depend a lot on archival materials, archival footage, and archival newspaper information. At present in Nigeria, we cannot completely produce that type of knowledge because we do not have the material. When you see films such as period dramas you see how rich the world they built into the stories are — we can’t do that because we do not have the necessary archives that show us what those times looked like. This is why, for instance, you might notice historical inaccuracies if we attempt a historical drama set in, say, 1965. What we are doing, fundamentally, is building a well and figuring out how to make that well accessible to everyone — this entails building the taps, the pipes, and perhaps the road to the well, too. We are gradually getting there. For example, we are already receiving emails from people around the world who are searching for stuff on Nigeria’s history. These are only going to increase considerably with time. 

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Chimezie:  So what next after the milestone of archiving 5 million pages is achieved? By any chance, is there any plan to expand the concept of Archivi.ng beyond the shores of Nigeria?

Fu’ad: The future is mostly a fantasy. One of the things you realise when you start to do anything in any African country is that problems are quite similar. We’ve even had some Ghanaians telling us they wish they had something like this in their country. Yes, there is a future where we might expand into other African countries. But for now, we do not know how and when we are going to do that. If we have acquired the resources and have achieved excellence in Nigeria, there is nothing stopping us, because one of the things about Nigerian history is that when you start to walk back, you realise how fluid the continent was before we had modern borders. Five million pages may seem like a lot but it’s also grounded in some maths: if you say that we have fifty dailies in Nigeria and they publish for at least forty years, you will have between 3.5 to 4.1 million pages. Five million pages is an interesting round number; it also grounds us and gives us a sense of where we are going. 

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Chimezie Chika’s short stories and essays have appeared in or forthcoming from, amongst other places, The Republic, The Shallow Tales Review, Terrain.org, Iskanchi Mag, Isele Magazine, Lolwe, Fahmidan Journal, Efiko Magazine, Dappled Things, and Afrocritik. He is the fiction editor of Ngiga Review. His interests range from culture, history, to art, literature, and the environment. You can find him on Twitter @chimeziechika1.

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