Book Title

Book history in Africa : A historiography

Élizabeth LE ROUX

Department of Information Science, University of Pretoria


As long ago as 1899, Garnett Richard was complaining that “the appearance of the first African printed book is a matter of some obscurity”, and he mentions texts from 1637 and 1641 as possible contenders, “if their sources could be verified”. While the contours of the picture of African printing have been filled in to some extent since then, much scholarly work remains to be done. The example of Nigeria shows the scope of research still required : sources variously list the first printing press as being established in 1846 (Apeji, 1996 ; Carnie, 1973 ; Shoki, 2010) or 1847 at Calabar (Nwagbara, 2010 : 14) and 1848 in Abeokuta (Abernethy, 1969). Apart from scholarly articles, each of these dates has also filtered down to popular materials on printing and publishing in Nigeria. Can we firmly set 1846 as the date of first printing, and move forwards from there ?

As is revealed by such gaps and inconsistencies, the systematic study of the “history of the book” and the impact of print and writing in African countries has not yet received widespread recognition as a discipline. That being said, in the past two decades, levels of knowledge and interest in this field have grown. This essay aims to trace the trajectory of research carried out in the broad discipline of the history of the book in Africa. The only previous attempts at an overview of existing scholarship in this area were carried out by Hofmeyr (2004) on anglophone research, and Cooper-Richet (2008) on francophone studies. While helpful, the first is a two-page summary, indicating possibilities for future research to a greater extent than examining what has been done. The latter indicates certain trends in book history scholarship, but is also flawed. This essay thus attempts to synthesise the anglophone and the francophone, and to present a wider view of the development of this field. A number of the works identified and discussed here would label themselves “book history”, but a far larger proportion would not. This is perhaps due to the perceived and sometimes all too real academic isolation of African scholars, as well as ignorance of the debates taking place in the field now known as the history of the book. Until the past decade, there has been little engagement with the theoretical and methodological advances associated with the history of the book.

This is reflected in the number of conferences, special issues of journals, and book-length studies since 2000. Before that, scholars in this field would have been working in some isolation. While a large number of conferences in Africa have focused on publishing and printing, these tend to be future- oriented, and not historical in nature. They also tend to be dominated by practitioners and policy-makers, rather than academics. Thus one of the first academic conferences to be held in an African country on a book history-related subject was the “Books and their Audiences” conference, held in Cape Town as recently as April 2001, followed by a conference on “Colonial and Post-Colonial Cultures of the Book” in Grahamstown, also in 2001. A later book-historical conference on “A World Elsewhere” was held in Cape Town in April 2007. These were preceded, in the 1990s, by a series of non-academic conferences in South Africa, the Bibliophilia Africana conferences, which brought together a wide range of interested parties, and played a role in putting publishing studies on the map in this country. There has been, to a limited extent, participation by scholars from other African countries and a trickle-down effect in encouraging new research.

The presenters at these conferences also tend to be those who have published most prolifically in the area of African book history. Several South African and international journals have published special issues since 2001. These include : Current Writing (2001, with the sub-title, “The Book in Africa”), English Studies in Africa (2004, on “Histories of the book in Southern Africa”), South African Historical Journal (2006, “Book history in Southern Africa”), Innovation (2007, “Book history, reading and publishing in South Africa”), the literary journals Scrutiny2, Stilet and English in Africa (all 2008), and, most recently, Africa (2011, “Print cultures, nationalisms and publics of the Indian Ocean”). The novelty of this field for African scholars is well illustrated by the title of the introduction to the SAHJ special issue, in which guest editors Isabel Hofmeyr and Lize Kriel (2006 : 1) ask, “Book history in Southern Africa : What is it and why should it interest historians ? ” With such a question being asked so recently, it is perhaps not surprising that there has as yet been no monographic study of “the history of the book” in any African country. It is only very recently, that African book history has begun to be written in a systematic way, which engages with the wider concerns of the history of the book.


Before such studies could be written, however, a foundation had to be laid by earlier studies–largely bibliographies and literary histories. The earliest studies of publishing or printing history in Africa date back to the colonial era, and these were often written by interested colonial administrators or those involved in the areas of printing and publishing, not trained scholars. The colonisers also commissioned some of the earliest bibliographies and records collections ; for instance, Cecil John Rhodes commissioned George McCall Theal to compile Records of South-East Africa (published over nine volumes from 1898 to 1903). Moreover, an early study of printing in Madagascar was written by a writer himself, Emile Daruty de Granpré (1902). In South Africa, Louis Henri Meurant could write in 1885 of his own involvement in and reminiscences of the establishment of early newspapers and the struggle for freedom of the press. Graziano Krätli (2004 : 1) criticises such “colonial scholarship” for its “tentative surveys of prominent libraries, a limited number of partial handlists, and a handful of reviews or translations of individual works” and for making no “serious and systematic attempt at mapping the manuscript territory it had discovered and started to explore”.

Some landmark early studies were also written in the late colonial era, shortly before decolonisation. For instance, Helen Kitchen’s The Press in Africa (1956) is still used as a textbook and referred to in newer studies. Similarly, Toussaint’s (1951 ; 1969) and Demeerseman’s (1953 ; 1954) studies of early printing remain valid–and indeed, no newer scholarship has emerged to render them obsolete. From the late 1950s, the wave of decolonisations began, with Ghana achieving self-rule and thus nationhood in 1957. This was a period of nationalism and patriotic pride, before widespread poor governance and lack of skills would become apparent in a number of countries. In the period just after independence, there were very few local universities (apart from in South Africa and parts of North Africa), so there were also few local, trained scholars. As a result, studies of African countries often tended to be done by European or American scholars, with a minority of “local” scholars – an imbalance that has been corrected to some extent yet may still be seen today. Of course, it is difficult to generalise across such a diverse body of knowledge, but nonetheless, certain recurring strands can be identified in studies from this era.

The first, in keeping with the nationalistic project, is studies harking back to the pre-colonial era, for instance to a revaluation of the manuscript cultures of North and West Africa. Before the printing press came to Africa through missionaries and colonisation, there was an existing history of book production, consumption, and circulation, largely through the influence of Arab traders who crossed the Sahara Desert. Early work in this field tends to be enumerative, cataloguing lists of manuscripts, and was based to some extent on earlier large bibliographic surveys that covered Africa only scantily. Bivar and Hiskett (1962 : 105), for example, refer in their “provisional account” to the aim of presenting “a general survey of the subject at its present stage… the more so since many of the published sources of information are either out of print, or for other reasons not easily available except to a few with access to specialized libraries”. Ould Hamidoun and Heymowski (1965–66) also refer to their work as a “provisional catalogue”, and Monteil (1965) to his as a “bilan provisoire”. Bibliographic data on manuscripts and archives also began to be collected at Ibadan, Dakar and other parts of West Africa. The book (or manuscript) market in Northern Africa and across the Sahara has since continued to be an important area of study, as has the general influence of “non-alphabetic writings” and Ajami script (see Amaeshi, 1977 ; Sene, 1982). Interestingly, in South Africa, this area only received much scholarly attention after the democratic transition in the 1990s (see, for instance, Haron, 1997).

The second key strand in the early “book historical” studies is also nationalistic in nature, referring to studies of the “foundations” and “origins” of printing in various nation-states. These studies tend to privilege the establishment of newspapers, and examples may be mentioned for most of the most significant states (politically and economically) in Africa : in West Africa, Ghana (Chick, 1967), Nigeria (Omu, 1967 ; Coker, 1968) and Sierra Leone (Jones-Quartey, 1974) ; in East Africa (Scotton, 1971), Kenya (Carter, 1970), Ethiopia (Pankhurst, 1962) and Uganda (Scotton, 1973) ; in Southern Africa, Botswana (Parsons, 1968 ; Jones, 1972), South Africa (Switzer, 1979), Lesotho (Kunene, 1977), Madagascar (Bloch, 1968 ; Razoharinoro, 1970), and Toussaint’s (1969) important study of Mauritius, Madagascar, and the Seychelles. Such studies have provided us with a great deal of basic information, such as establishing the dates of the first printing presses in various African countries. However, debate remains as to facts as significant as the identity of the first printed work of each of these presses, and indeed of a country or even the continent as a whole. (Nobody has yet adequately identified the first book printed in Africa, despite several contenders for the title).

A related area of focus is that of the spread of printing through the arrival of missionaries. Printing was an important aid to the missionary endeavour, and may be linked to the later spread of print culture, as Taiwo (2010 : 71) argues : “There is hardly a greater testimony to the success of the missionaries in this area than the fact that Nigeria, especially the southern region, where the missionary influence was greatest, has remained home to the most diverse and vibrant print media in the continent.” The early post-independence scholars saw themselves to some extent as pioneers in the study of print history, with Carnie (1973 : 265), for instance, referring to his study of Samuel Edgerley in Calabar as “the first attempt by a booktrade historian to re-create the circumstances by which printing was brought to Eastern Nigeria”. In Malawi, Namponya (1978 : 12) notes that the history of printing is synonymous with mission presses : “Malawi’s history of printing and publishing is essentially the history of the efforts of the missionaries at evangelisation and of the Government at administering the colony”.

In South Africa, there is a strong tradition of studying religion and the role of the mission presses in relation to print culture (e.g. Venter, 1955 ; Picton, 1967 ; Schutte, 1969 ; Switzer, 1983, 1984). One of the few book-length studies of a single mission press is that of Bradlow (1987), which examines Robert Moffat’s Kuruman Press in South Africa. Lovedale Press has also been the subject of several studies, with, for example, Peires (1980) using the then newly uncovered archives to examine factors which shaped the policy of Lovedale Press in the mid-twentieth century. Studies would only later be published on mission printing in central Africa (see Yates, 1987 ; Benedetto, 1990 ; Vinck, 1992) ; West Africa (Alemna, 1991 ; Amegatcher, 1997) and other parts of southern Africa (Macola, 2003 ; Harries, 2007). Lusophone Africa would only receive such scholarly attention much later, perhaps due to the delayed independences from Portugal in this area, while many individual states–perhaps as many as half of Africa’s 54 states–have, to date, received little to no scholarly interest in terms of their print and book history.

A last important area of study, which also has its origins in the post- independence period, is that of more popular forms of publishing, especially popular fiction. So, in Nigeria, a flourishing area of study is that of Onitsha market literature, which can be dated to early studies by Beier (1964) and Nwoga (1965). This has remained a strong focus area for book-historical studies in the African context. On the whole, early studies of print history are brief, unscientific, and descriptive in nature, and they are also often difficult to access. Conclusions and assumptions are repeated, and have come to be generally accepted, although newer research suggests that they require revision.


With the indigenous publishing industry “emerging” in the 1970s, ac- cording to Rex Collings (1970), so too did academic study become more widespread. The majority of studies from this period are forward looking, such as the now seminal Publishing in Africa in the Seventies (Oluwasanmi, Zell& Maclean, 1973). Hofmeyr (2004 : 3) criticises such studies for showing little interest in history : “there is little curiosity about how print culture has been ’baptized’ in African intellectual and spiritual traditions”. There are very few historical overviews or comparative studies, with exceptions being Rea’s (1975) summary-style article on trends in Anglophone African publishing since 1945, and Taubert and Weidhaas’s (1984) volume 4 of The Book Trade of the World focusing on Africa, which includes brief historical information for each country.

Extant studies thus tend to focus on the print history of a specific country or region. A number of PhD and similar studies from the 1970s are exemplary of this trend, examining the national print history of Kenya (Ndegwa, 1973), Nigeria (Tamuno, 1973 ; Fasanya, 1975), Ghana (Yankey, 1978), Malawi (Mwiyeriwa, 1978 ; Namponya, 1978), and Tunisia (Chenoufi, 1974), for instance. Fasanya’s title sums up the kind of study available–“a descriptive and statistical study of the indigenous book industry in Nigeria”–while Yankey’s is a “short history”. An important study from the same period is Anna Smith’s (1971) examination of South Africa as part of “The Spread of Printing” series, to be followed in the 1980s by comprehensive bibliographical studies of South African printers and publishers from 1795 (Rossouw, 1987 ; Buys, 1988). By this time, a number of African countries could reflect back on at least a century of printing, although the scope of such studies may be disappointingly brief (see, for example, Munyiri, 1996 on Kenya). Barry’s (1985) monograph, developing a bibliography for publishing outputs in francophone Africa, is refreshingly substantial, in contrast. It is problematic, however, that no national bibliographies exist for at least twenty African countries (Zell, 2008 : 190).

The first studies of indigenous publishing houses also date to this period, with an overview, for example, of 20 years of the Mambo Press (Plangger, 1978) or the first years of Mbari Press (Yesufu, 1982). These studies either tend to follow the established trend of being highly anecdotal or personal, or they are highly quantitative and statistical ; their titles often include the words “appraisal” or “evaluation”, without actually being very rigorous or qualitative in their analysis. An extreme example of the trend is Martin’s retrospective (1983) on the first two years of the Zimbabwe Publishing House. Related to the bibliographical work being done on the publishing outputs of such publishing houses, an attempt was also being made to answer Bernth Lindfors’s question : “Are there any national literatures in sub-Saharan Black Africa yet ? ” (1975). There has been a great deal of work done on the literary histories of African countries and on the production of literary bibliographies, and often heated debates have been generated around definitions and boundaries (“What constitutes Nigerian or South African literature ? ”, for instance, or “Who is qualified to speak for a whole nation’s literary outputs ? ”). The work of Estivals (1980) and Lüsebrink (1990, 2003) on francophone Africa is significant, as is Gérard’s (1986) large-scale European-language writing in sub-Saharan Africa, which describes the development of printing in a number of African countries. There are also numerous national literary histories, for almost every country on the continent. The majority of such literary histories focus on authors and writing, but there is also information to be gleaned on bibliographies, publishing matters and contexts. Lüsebrink deserves special mention for his focus on African authors publishing in Africa rather than in the metropole (France, in this case). There have also been several publishing histories of major African literary journals, such as Black Orpheus, Transition, and Présence Africaine (both the publishing house and the journal in this case).

What may be mentioned here is that the majority of the scholars now working in defined “book history” terms are literary scholars, many of whom have been involved in the debates around literary historiography and the sociology of literature. This has since translated into a wider awareness of the material context and production of the book. Priebe (1978 : 396), for instance, notes that “a consideration of the economic, social, and political factors that have influenced both production and consumption of popular literature makes it exciting to study (popular) literature in and of itself”. Key articles pointing the way for new directions in book history studies are those of Berg (1977) and Couzens and Gray (1978), both of which focused on issues of scholarly editing–in Madagascar and South Africa, respectively–as well as the interplay between print and orality, and the creation of authoritative versions of texts. Both studies were prompted by the availability of new archival sources for such study.


In 1979, Elizabeth Eisenstein’s groundbreaking The Printing Press as an Agent of Change was published, and Fevre and Martin’s The Coming of the Book was translated and published in English. These heralded a shift in emphasis towards “print culture” studies in the West. However, during the 1980s and 1990s, little evidence of awareness of these texts may be found in studies of or by Africans, and their influence appears to have been limited until a much later period. The major studies of publishing continued to provide just a brief sketch of print history (along with an assumption that this would be known and accepted). An example is Henry Chakava’s Books and Reading in Kenya produced for Unesco (1983), as well as his retrospective memoir (1988). Both scholarly and popular materials appear to assume that the history of book culture by this time was both known and accepted ; thus, myths such as the dating of printing in Nigeria to 1848 persist. Hans Zell (2008 : 190) points out that this lack of attention to detail is common in publishing research, arguing that “There have been dozens of articles recently containing sweeping, mostly unsubstantiated statements to explain the current unsatisfactory state of the book industries in Africa”.

Yet the period also saw new developments in the field of the history of the book in Africa. The 1990s in particular saw a great deal of concentrated work on the manuscript and pre-print traditions of a large swathe of Western and Eastern Africa (and reaching far beyond that region in their influence, as far south as Zanzibar). This work has produced more systematised information, more detailed bibliographies, and more analysis and contextualisation. UNESCO (and other donor-funded) surveys and studies in the late 1990s also focused attention on the need for the conservation of manuscripts. In this respect, we should note in particular the work of Stewart and Hunwick, in the early 1990s and into the new century. For instance, Hunwick was largely responsible for a very important multi-volume bibliography of Arabic literature in Africa. Alongside such work is a growing group of studies of epigraphic historical evidence which examine the contents of inscriptions as texts, as “proto-scripts” and as “texts trying to tell some kind of story” (Henige, 2005 : 186, 188).

This has proved a most fruitful area of study, evoking lyrical titles for monographs such as “the book and the sand” (Krätli, 2004), the “inkwells of the Sahara” (Lydon, 2004) and “the meanings of Timbuktu” (Jeppie & Diagne, 2008 ; see also Gaudio, 2002 ; Farias, 2003). Krätli (2004) notes that the manuscripts of the Sahara have begun “to attract the amount and kind of scholarly attention they deserve, not only as historical and literary documents but also for the information they provide on a variety of topics, including book production and circulation in pre-colonial and colonial West Africa, forms of learning and transmission of knowledge, and the relationship between paper, books and other commodities in the trans-Saharan trade”. But the study of these incredibly rich materials and of the extent of the precolonial book trade is still incomplete ; indeed, not even all of the texts have even been catalogued and they remain difficult to access. Initiatives such as the Tombouctu Project should create more awareness.

The sheer numbers of books and manuscripts that have been discovered through such cataloguing point to a longer history of reading and of print culture in Africa than was previously assumed. One result of such study is that the timeline of African book history has had to be redrawn, to take into account a much older textual culture, as Hunwick (1997 : 210) notes : “The history of writing in Arabic extends over a period close to 800 years in the Nigerian region”. When we are debating the origins of textual culture in Nigeria–as in the first paragraph of this essay–we would do well to keep this older written heritage in mind as well as the products of the printing press. Moreover, the reconceptualisation of Africa’s textual culture requires a new way of thinking about how Africans have encountered and used texts and print in different contexts ; in other words, African countries should no longer be seen as empty vessels into which outside influences brought print, medicine, and other trappings of “modernity”.

Another corrective shift in scholarly emphasis during the 1990s relates to the ideologies and values that underlie the production and dissemination of books. In this regard, we may note in particular the increasing number of works on censorship, and on the role of print in resistance and opposition. Such studies cover both the colonial and post-colonial period, and may be highly critical of the post-independence African governments and their role in censoring the press (e.g. Durrani, 1991 on Kenya ; Gafaiti, 1997 on Algeria). In South Africa, this translated into studies of anti-apartheid publishers and oppositional literary journals (e.g. SPRO-CAS and Ravan), although the majority of such works are anecdotal rather than scholarly in approach. Trabold (2003) analyses strategies of resistance from oppositional newspapers in South Africa. The same period, however, also saw the production of an important multi-volume study of the establishment, Afrikaner publishing houses in South Africa, and the creation of further bibliographies in other African languages–reflecting the diversity in this country.

In other parts of the continent, the focus has also fallen on attempts to link printing and colonialism, as it has proven difficult to trace the impact of one without the other. Which was the greater “agent of change”, to use Eisenstein’s term : colonisers, missionaries, traders, or the tools they brought with them, such as print and writing ? Several scholars see a direct link between the spread of print culture and the end of colonialism, with, for instance, Sanneh (1992 : 96) positing a direct link between the two. Hawkins (2002) has examined the links between writing and colonialism in Ghana, while Opland (2003) speaks of “fighting with the pen” in examining how early indigenous writers appropriated the press to resist their colonial masters. Durrani’s (2006) book, titled Never be Silent, is important for its examination of the role of publishing in resisting colonialism in Kenya (over the broad period 1884–1963). And Stanton (2011) has studied the role of a “small publication”, El Moudjahid, in the Algerian War of Independence. This field, however, merits further scholarly attention. In particular, work that could trace the differential impact and spread of print culture in the context of different forms of colonialism and different policies towards literacy, education and censorship, would be both innovative and interesting.

A related shift in scholarly focus is to examine the role of foreign or multinational publishers in Africa. Ironically, while the dominance of the multinationals is widely blamed for the poor state of local African publishing, the history of their involvement has not been studied in depth as yet–this is one of the areas of book history that is assumed knowledge rather than the subject of study. An early, UNESCO-sponsored study of the role of “transnational book publishing” in “less developed countries” provides only a very brief mention of their historical establishment in African countries (Smith, 1976). Yet, a great deal of attention has been paid to Heinemann’s African Writers Series (AWS), which had a significant influence on the publishing and development of African literature (a sample of such articles includes Maja-Pearce, 1992 ; Low, 2002 ; Clarke 2003 ; Currey 2003 and his book-length memoir of 2008). Barnett’s (2006) reception history of the AWS deserves particular mention for its examination of the publishing context, and not just the texts and authors involved. His theoretical approach, using Genette’s concept of the paratext, is also exemplary. Stec (1997) has examined the AWS in terms of canon formation and publishing decisions, another innovative approach. Other multinationals have received less attention to date. Caroline Davis, among others, has also examined Oxford University Press’s involvement in Africa, for instance via the Three Crowns Series (2005), and its role in publishing during the apartheid period in South Africa (2011). Attention has also been paid, on a relatively small scale, to the part played by Macmillan and other European publishers as well, but this is another area that is awaiting fuller academic treatment (Hill, 1992).

A third important shift is a move towards studies of the readership, consumption and circulation of books. A special issue of the journal African Research and Documentation in 2000 focused on “Reading Africa”, and a research project in the UK looked at “The social histories of reading in Africa”, a signal that this is now a growing area of study. To begin with libraries and “the library in the life of the reader” (Dick, 2006), from the 1980s onwards, library history has been an important area of study (e.g. Maack, 1982 ; Rosenberg, 1984, 1993 ; Olden, 1987, 1995 ; Osei-Bonsu, 1988), although in South Africa and in isolated cases for other countries, the tradition dates back to around the 1950s. Ourgay (1992) has written a particularly interesting article, from a book history point of view, as it combines publishing history with the library history of Ethiopia. Some of the issues raised in such studies include the role of foreign library associations in African countries, the development of literacy, and the politics of collection building in various straitened circumstances. Maack’s later work (2001) links book donations and the creation of cultural libraries with the proxy wars and struggles for influence of foreign governments during the Cold War era, and presages the work done by Laugeson (2008) on Unesco’s promotion of libraries in Africa.

But the real move forwards, methodologically and thematically, has been in the area of the creation of readerships and reading communities (see, e.g. Apronti, 1980 ; Van der Merwe, 1989 ; Baron, 1994 ; Carmichael, 2006 ; Crummey, 2006). There has been a development from studies of reading, to studies of readership (cf. Hofmeyr, 2004). Karen Barber’s 2001 article on audiences and the book in Africa, and her 2006 collection, Africa’s Hidden Histories : Everyday literacy and making the self, have proved very influential in popularising readerships, literacy and reception as an area of study : she speaks of the importance of “the regimes, disciplines and social forms of organisation associated with writing and with books”. For instance, Rita Nnodim (2006 : 154), acknowledges a clear debt to Barber’s work in her studies of “imagining, convening, and addressing audiences in Yoruba literary creation”. The areas of dissemination and reception are also allowing scholars to re-examine issues from new angles. Thus, Frederiksen (1991), for one, would start to look differently at literary history through the lens of dissemination, readership and publishing history, while Riemenschneider (1982) has studied the reception and history of the impact of anglophone literature in several West African countries. Harries (2001) examines the continuing importance of orality in parallel with literacy–describing, in one instance, the manipulation of written documents by an “illiterate” (from a Western point of view) African chief.


The most recent period shows a growing awareness of book history debates, but these have still not been entirely incorporated. Showing the ongoing need to remind scholars of this perspective, Claudia Schulz has persuasively argued for the importance of a historical approach when studying publishing : “the history of printing in Africa is an area that is neglected by both African historians and book historians” (2001 : 241, my translation). Her chapter is included in an important collection of essays on publishing and book history (Michon & Mollier, 2001), and this inclusion–along with that of Chakava on Kenya and Bendana on Tunisia–is significant because it highlights the previous exclusion of African case studies from larger multinational studies of the history of the book. The inclusion of sections on Africa in the Oxford Companion to the Book (e.g. Van der Vlies, 2010) is a further sign that the continent is now moving into the arena as far as global book history is concerned. Another key signal that book history is beginning to take root in African countries is the change in terminology that is used. The term “print culture” has been used in studies of Africa only since the early 1990s, but may be found more readily in works produced after 2000. For example, the South African author and literary scholar, J. M. Coetzee, would use the term in the early 1990s, based on readings from Eisenstein and Fevre and Martin, but his work is firmly focused on the role of the author rather than wider publishing concerns. Some of the key theorists to begin to apply “print culture” in an African context include Stephanie Newell (e.g. 2009), Karen Barber (e.g. 1997, 2006 ; 2009), Isabel Hofmeyr (e.g. 2011), Bodil Folke Frederiksen (e.g. 2011), and Andrew van der Vlies (e.g. 2004). The special issue of the journal Africa on the history of the book (2011) is sub-titled, “Print cultures, nationalisms and publics of the Indian Ocean”, showing the growing use and acceptance of this term.

But another new book on the subject, Written Culture in a Colonial Context (Delmas & Penn, 2011), deliberately uses the term “written culture” instead, as the collection includes a wider range of written and printed forms in its scope– from inscriptions and rock art, to maps and diaries. Similarly, Van der Vlies (2007) has shifted to using the term “textual culture”. With the ongoing importance of manuscript culture in parts of Africa, often in parallel with the use of print, further debate on the use of such terms should be encouraged. Two new and seemingly divergent strands of study are also emerging : a transnational approach, which is broad and comparative (and in particular wider than a specifically national focus) ; and on the other hand, a focus on the (very) local and on micro case studies. Alao (1999 : 169) bemoans “the absence of studies comparing cultural phenomena in the subcontinent’s three politicolinguistic zones, also known as its francophone, anglophone, and lusophone regions”, and such comparative studies are indeed rare. Since the mid-2000s, scholars have increasingly called for a wider, transnational history of the book among African scholars (see Hofmeyr, 2005 ; Van der Vlies, 2007). In the special issue of Africa mentioned above, the guest editors emphasise the needs for methodologies for studying print culture in a transnational and transcultural context (Hofmeyr et al., 2011 : vi). Isabel Hofmeyr’s own work is exemplary of this trend. Her landmark study on The Portable Bunyan (2004) is a transnational history of that work, with a special focus on the African context. Another recent example of transnational study is the work of Piers Larson (2007), who examines publications in the Malagasy language that appeared in print before the French Revolution. His work traces links between French colonialism, slavery and linguistic diversity in Madagascar, the Mascarene Islands, France and as far afield as Rome.

But, at the same time, a great deal of work remains to be done on a smaller scale. For instance, Newell’s work focuses on the reception and impact of especially popular writings, largely in Ghana, and using small, focused case studies. While readily using the term “print culture”, she also uses the term “literary culture” (cf. 2002), reflecting her disciplinary origins in literary studies. Similarly, Priebe’s earlier work (1978 : 396) on popular writing in Ghana examines how “material factors have shaped production, form, and content of a rich body of popular literature, and by extension, an elite literature as well”. Griswold’s quantitative work on the production and reception of Nigerian novels (2000, 2002) is similarly focused on a small sample and case study. And Moudileno (2008) considers the “troubling popularity” of a specific genre in a specific region, i.e. the romantic novels of the Adoras Series. Such micro-studies lay the foundations for further, comparative study of the emergence of print culture on the African continent.


A survey of studies in the field of book history in Africa shows that interest in this area has largely emerged from literary studies, and the writing of literary histories after independence in particular. While there are some historians working in this area, the majority of scholars looking at book history in an African continent are in fact literary scholars. This has led to an emphasis on literature, and especially fiction, with considerably less attention being paid to other forms of writing or printing. The other exceptional case is that of newspapers, whose history has been examined in some depth, and whose readership and role in promoting national identity has been the subject of much study. Perhaps because of the context in which printing was introduced to African countries, usually via missionaries or the colonial administration, in historical studies, connections with politics and religion–and thus with values and ideology–remain important. Moreover, the original interest in locally focused or national histories appears to have endured, although some scholars are now beginning to conduct larger, transnational and comparative studies. However, without more baseline studies of the origins and development of printing and publishing, a solid basis has not yet been laid for more far-reaching studies. Considerable gaps remain, so there is great scope for further research on this continent.


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