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Herskovits Library Adds Jan Vansina Papers to Collection

Historian and anthropologist, Vansina considered major figure in the study of Africa

EVANSTON, Ill. --- It has been said that renowned historian and anthropologist Jan Vansina’s “academic career is virtually simultaneous with the field of African history itself.”

Now Northwestern University’s Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies -- the largest separate Africana collection in existence -- is home to The Jan Vansina Papers, which fill 136 boxes with documents that span the years 1953 to 1994.

A major figure in the study of Africa, Vansina is professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he taught for more than three decades. In his career he published 20 monographs and more than 200 articles and did extensive fieldwork throughout Africa. His methodologies and research into pre-colonial oral tradition helped found the field of African history. As a professor, mentor, author and researcher, his influence has been profound.

“Professor Vansina’s gift is among the most major gifts to the Herskovits Library in its history,” said David Easterbrook, George and Mary LeCron Foster Curator emeritus at the Herskovits Library. “Generations of scholars and African historical research will benefit immeasurably from his generosity.”

The collection is made up of working files containing field notes, correspondence, photographs, maps, manuscripts, drafts and more used by Vansina in his research, writing and teaching during his more than 50 years of professional activity. The original arrangement of his papers has been preserved. A finding aid to the collection is available online.

Vansina had a relationship with Northwestern University as well, beginning when the pioneering African anthropologist Melville Herskovits offered him a job, though he was committed to Wisconsin at the time. He would later serve as a visiting professor.

“It’s an honor to have his papers as part of our collections,” said Esmeralda Kale, George and Mary LeCron Foster Curator at the Herskovits Library. “Of particular interest to researchers, I suspect, will be the materials on the ethnography of Central Africa.”

Vansina became known as one of the founders of the modern study of African history and made Central Africa his focus. He also put an emphasis on the whole of Africa in the pre-European contact era. He wrote his first book, “Oral Tradition,” about how to use rigorous historical methods to further document the historical evidence left behind by the Kuba from the Belgian Congo before there were textual records to analyze. He insisted that it was possible to study pre-colonial African history in a systematic framework using the documentation of the oral tradition. This insistence helped instill a sense of justification and self-confidence in the burgeoning field of African history. 

Vansina left his most lasting academic impression at the University of Wisconsin, where he joined the faculty in 1960 and served as a mentor to graduate students interested in studying African history until his retirement in 1994. He also served as chair of the department of African languages and literature. In 1965, a full-fledged African History Program was started after Vansina pushed for its creation. He was also in charge of running the African research seminar for the university.

He established the Comparative Tropical History Program, which encompassed African history and African studies with the help of Philip Curtin, a fellow history professor, and brought numerous African specialists to the university. They expected their students to have great knowledge in French and African languages, learn about another area of the Third World, conduct fieldwork and become enthralled in African history in such a way that would set Madison graduate students apart. This program was reproduced at many colleges nationwide. 

“Having Professor Vansina's archive at the Herskovits Library of African Studies will draw scholars from around the world to dig around in the copious notes, interview transcriptions, and other field materials which are especially rich for the full sweep of Central Africa, from Angola and DRC to Rwanda and Burundi, but are also rich for early 20th-century Libyan military history,” said David Schoenbrun, associate professor of history in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern.

“Our Undergraduate and Graduate students now have a trove of material to explore as they learn the arts of historical and anthropological thinking, analysis, and interpretation. The entire Northwestern community -- and those from around the world, but especially in Africa--- should be grateful that Professor Vansina has entrusted the Herskovits Library with the curatorial responsibility for easing access to this archive. It was the perfect choice,” said Schoenbrun, whose work has been profoundly influenced by Vansina.

Jonathon P. Glassman, professor of history at Northwestern who studied with Vansina at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said it would be difficult to exaggerate Vansina’s importance to the field of African studies.

“He pioneered in placing the study of pre-colonial Africa on a firm methodological basis, and he has remained a pioneer for over 50 years. There is no historian of Africa who has not been influenced by Vansina, directly or indirectly, and who is not in his debt,” Glassman said.

Vansina was born in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1929. He went on to study law and history at the University of Leuven (Belgium) from 1946-1951 and anthropology at the University of London from 1951-1952.  He received his doctorate in history from the University of Leuven in 1957.

Vansina was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1983 and was the first scholar chosen as “Distinguished Africanist” by the African Studies Association of the United States. His many books include “Paths in the Rainforest,” “
Living with Africa,” “Kingdoms of the Savanna” (winner of the 1967 Herskovits Prize), and “The Children of Woot,” all published by the University of Wisconsin Press.

The Vansina papers are available for research in the Herskovits Library from 8:30 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Monday through Friday. Advance appointments are recommended. For further information, visit the Herskovits Library website or e-mail The African studies library is on the fifth floor of Northwestern’s main library at 1970 Campus Drive, Evanston. Check the online schedule for public hours and special holiday hours.

The Herskovits Library not only serves Northwestern and its renowned Program of African Studies but also is used by scholars around the world. Established in 1954, it includes materials covering a wide variety of literary genres and subject matter, ranging from art, history, folklore, poetry, music and religion to communications, management, textbooks and cooking.

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