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Historical Papers

Historical Papers is a unique, and accessible hub for human rights research situated in the William Cullen Library of the University of the Witwatersrand. It serves civil society as well as scholars and researchers.

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.

With this in mind, Historical Papers was established in 1966 as a centre where South African memory and heritage, particularly that which was/is under threat or may be lost, is preserved and made available. We have concentrated on documenting and providing enduring evidence of resistance struggles against oppression and exploitation. As such, the voices of those who have been politically and socially marginalised are also reflected.

The material includes: letters, minute-books, memoranda, diaries, notes, documents, parish registers, press-clippings, scrapbooks, drawings, photographs, slides, articles, pamphlets, posters, stickers, badges, T-shirts and oral interviews.

Historical Papers is the proud custodian of over 3000 collections and is consequently the most comprehensive independent archive in South Africa. 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 (mainly from 1960s - 1990s), photographs, press clippings, oral interviews, and material collected by several research institutions and individual researchers. Many of these documents reflect struggles from the early 20th century through to today.

The scale of resources required to ensure that human rights archives will remain viable over the long term makes collaborative efforts and unity of purpose imperative. Historical Papers has thus worked hard to foster co-operation and partnerships among archives in South Africa and has formed strategic alliances and built up a number of collaborative relationships with other institutions and NGOs. Examples of these are the collections of the South African History Trust (SAHA), the Gay and Lesbian Archives (GALA) and the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), which are housed with us.

Additionally, Historical Papers has been identified by the Digital Imaging South Africa (DISA) Phase 2 project as an important partner. DISA is a national project funded by the Mellon Foundation to digitise key South African archival material.

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 microfilming, digitalisation and basic techniques for organising and preserving materials.

Facilities offered

Delegation from the South African Native National Congress, 1914Our staff are friendly, experienced and professional and are able to offer constructive advice and help to users. Photocopying facilities are available. We are linked to the National Register of Manuscripts (NAREM) allowing for national on-line searches of manuscript material.

Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday: 8:00 - 17:00
Wednesday: 09:00 - 1700
On the First Wednesday of Every month (except June and November): 10:30 - 17:00


Postal address
Historical Papers
William Cullen Library
University of the Witwatersrand
Private Bag X1
P.O.Wits 2050
South Africa

Physical address:
We are located in Room 2 on the ground floor of the William Cullen Library on the East Campus at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

Telephone: +27 11 717 1940

Fax: + 27 011 339 4137

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