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About us 

The Historical Papers research archive, situated in the William Cullen Library, was    established in 1966. We are a friendly, vastly used, valued and popular service as well as unique and accessible hub for human rights research serving civil society, scholars and researchers. 

Historical Papers is one of the largest and most comprehensive independent archives in Southern Africa. We house over 3300 collections of historical, political and cultural importance, encompass the mid 17th Century to the Present.

Our primary aim is to serve the broader community as well as the university and to transform archives into accessible centres for research. Included are the records of many human rights NGOs, trade unions, labour federations, political parties, women's organisations, churches and church bodies, and the papers of human rights activists. We are also home to a huge volume of political trials, photographs, press clippings, oral interviews, and material collected by several research institutions and individual researchers.

Historical Papers tries to promote archival awareness and debate nationally. We also provide advice to NGOs, CBOs and trade unions on the management and preservation of their non-current records. In this way we help to build the capacity of human rights organisations through the sharing of knowledge on technical issues such as digitalization and basic techniques for organising and preserving materials.

Our digitisation activities initially have been made possible with generous funding from the Atlantic Philanthropies Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. We have since built a formidable digital resource, and continue the digitisation of our collections as part of the Library's digitisation program. We have also established an archival description and search platform called 'AtoM', an acronymn for Access to Memory, which is based on the standards set by the International Council of Archives (ICA).

Archives provide the bedrock for society's understanding of the past. They underpin citizens' rights and assert identities. They are also irreplaceable evidential testaments of human experience on which social equality is built. The apartheid past, in particular, has left its mark not only on human suffering but also through the great volume of documents that record both the violations of human rights and the struggle to defend them. In addition, many of the most valuable primary sources relating to human rights struggles are often in danger of being lost, either as a result of the dispersal of documents or lack of capacity of the human rights NGOs that hold them.

Our core business is engaging with ordinary members of the community on a daily basis and empowering civil society through access to information.  Historical Papers is a communal space where the exchange of information provides an incentive for the discussion of political, social, ideological, and cultural issues. We act in the service of the public and we are shaped by public developmental policies, well being, and the defence of society’s cultural heritage, in the interest of insuring the public sphere of influence and diversity.

We actively work to benefit and document communities and the shaping of identities by building partnerships, relationships and collaboration so as to improve delivery to the communities we serve. And the archivists in Historical Papers are facilitators of social change and promoters of the democratisation of information and knowledge. Our work is therefore of fundamental importance to society as we contribute to the formation of cultural and civic identities sustained by socially responsible values.