Innovating an Online Bibliographic Tool

2 Oct 2020 - 10:00
Photo of Henry Fagan.
Photo of Henry Fagan. Courtesy of H. Fagan.


Henry Fagan recently joined the Five Hundred Year Archive project team as an online bibliographer. Like so much of the FHYA's work, the development of online bibliographic tools is an area of innovation and experimentation. One of his projects is the development of an extensive bibliographic resource for researchers working on the five hundred years before colonialism in the KwaZulu-Natal region. The preparatory work on this is at an advanced stage and the current challenge lies the design of the digital interface.

The resource will consist of a series of bibliographical resources and biographical entries about important “makers and shapers” of bibliographic materials pertinent to the late independent era’s history. The online nature of the resource, which will go live in early 2021 as part of the FHYA's forthcoming EMANDULO online archive, visually maps connections among these makers and shapers, linking them to the materials they produced and shaped, linking iterations of the materials across time and creating links to further resources about the materials. This enables researchers to navigate the complex connections between different actors and their productions, while also enabling users to conveniently access relevant works where they are housed digitally either on EMANDULO, or elsewhere online. The bibliographic resource will be subjected to an ongoing process of review, annotation, and updating, and further contributions will continue to be made to the resource over time.

The online bibliographic resource is a spin-off from Fagan’s MA  dissertation, “The Wider KwaZulu-Natal Region circa 1700 to the Onset of Colonialism: A Critical Essay on Sources and Historiography”. The dissertation, accessible to researchers and students on the 500 Year Archive site, argued that a number of breaks have occurred in the historiography of the KwaZulu-Natal region’s late independent era. Fagan identified these breaks by critically examining a broad spectrum of works from disciplines including history, archaeology, anthropology, art history, and literary studies. Each of these breaks, he argued, corresponded with significant political changes, theoretical influences, or epistemological reappraisals which reshaped the contours for the production of history at particular points in time.

Fagan argued that the latest of these historiographical shifts – a transition to what he called a “source-critical approach” – began during the 1980s and has continued to develop into the present. The approach is characterised by the critical scrutiny of sources, examinations of the conditions in which sources were produced, and the giving of attention to how sources have shaped the reinterpretation of history over time. As Fagan demonstrated, by the early 2000s, source-criticism had extended to critical engagement with the archive. Indeed, the source-critical methodology is reflected in the work of the FHYA, which strives to bring previously excluded materials into a digital archival framework, to keep a record of their shaping and reshaping over time and to make all aspects of its archival intervention visible. 

In a further argument, Fagan asserted that the relationship between source material and scholarship is more complex than has conventionally been acknowledged.  Although scholars have long recognised that sources shape historiography, Fagan argued that the inverse is also the case. As Fagan demonstrated, a handful of important historical texts have at specific points in time shaped the types of sources deemed appropriate for the production of the KwaZulu-Natal region’s late independent era history. Oral sources, for example, were long overlooked by professional historians, but began to be “rediscovered” between the mid-1960s and the 1970s. His argument has also raised questions about the conventional distinction made between “primary” and “secondary” sources.

The dissertation was well received by examiners and has been awarded a distinction. Fagan will graduate with a Master’s degree in history from the University of Cape Town this December.