Emilie Songolo on Library Research during the Covid-19 Pandemic

The African Studies Program invites you to utilize UW library resources, which are still abundantly available in an online format during the Covid-19 pandemic. We interviewed African Studies Librarian Emilie Songolo to tell us more about how UW libraries and her job have changed during the pandemic. 

Emilie is the Senior Librarian for African, Global, and Francophone Studies, as well as the Head of International and Area Studies for UW libraries. She is the chair of the Africana Librarians Council Title 6 group and the curator of an extensive collection of African commemorative fabrics. She is a graduate of the University of Yaoundé, Cameroon, Mount Holyoke College, and UCLA where she earned her Master’s of Library and Information Science.

Emilie has received multiple awards including the UW-Madison Librarian of the Year, the UW-Madison Outstanding Woman of Color, the Dr. Brenda Pfaehler Award of Excellence and the UW-Madison Academic Staff Assembly Commendation for Outstanding Service in the Community. She is an important figure for the African Studies program, and her passion and fervor for her work and preserving African resources are inspiring.

Throughout the pandemic, Emilie was central to making sure UW libraries and the African Studies collections were up and running smoothly and able to provide research materials in an online format. The Library remained open during the pandemic, and there were always essential staff working to provide students and staff with library materials. Librarians were able to scan books and send digitized copies to scholars and provided research support through online office hours and appointments. Furthermore, the increased reliance on an online format led to a lot of new connections for UW Libraries, such as a new connection with an archivist in Africa because a UW student needed access to their resources. “The world of research information became smaller and more interconnected,” Emilie stated.

Unlike many other departments which were virtual-only, Emilie requested that the UW libraries continue to safely buy and loan physical library materials, which are crucial for many scholars’ research. “In African Studies and areas of the developing world, having only electronic resources doesn’t serve everyone well,” Emilie said. “Physical resources are very important for African Studies. The voices of Africans don’t come through only in books and journal articles— it’s the primary materials that house the real voices of African art and history.”

Furthermore, Emilie described how handling physical materials is one of the aspects she loves most about her job—  touching pages of physical books, fabrics and materials, and scrolls from special collections and boxes of archives. She derives so much joy from physically working with such interesting materials. One such collection is the African Commemorative Fabrics collection, which is an assortment of over 500 African fabrics celebrating and narrating particular areas, events, or people. It is a unique collection on campus and is referred to internationally. According to Emilie, “We need to begin preserving these fabrics, because this is a manifestation of African celebration.”

Cloth commemorating the 25th anniversary of Malawi independence from the Commemorative Fabrics collection.

Emilie described how the African Studies collections have multitudes of resources to offer: books, journal articles, newsletters, funeral programs, documents, photographs, music, films, DVD’s, TV streaming, commemorative fabrics, recordings of performances, rare and special materials, manuscripts and scrolls, etc. As one of the oldest African Studies centers and therefore one of the oldest African Studies collections, we have materials on every topic imaginable. Scholars go above and beyond and cover very specific research topics, so scholars have plenty of resources to choose from. Certain rare materials do not leave the library, such as fabric collections, but librarians can send digitized versions with metadata to scholars. We also have an extensive digital collection.

Not only are there plenty of resources, but librarians such as Emilie and her colleagues at other campuses can help you find exactly what you are looking for through their extensive network of connections. UW Libraries is a part of several consortium organizations to pool resources, including the Big Ten Academic Alliance Library E-Resource Accessibility Group and the Center for Research Libraries. If the UW collection doesn’t have a specific resource a scholar is looking for, they will use their resources to find it.

Finally, Emilie described the importance of posterity for the future of the collections and the passion behind her work: “I’m always thinking about posterity in everything I do, but Covid has made me more intentional about it. What state am I going to leave this collection in for those that come after me? How can I document what I do to ensure next African Studies librarians can continue my work most effectively? I want people to know that this is important, this is how the work is done, and this is how I acquire materials and their funding and servicing. My work is not a fixed, stationary thing; I see it as organizing in constant movement, growing, and bringing more people into this trade.”

Emilie is truly a gift to the African Studies department. We are very fortunate to have someone as dedicated as Emilie as a valuable resource for all African scholars: “I want my purpose in this position to be about filling the gap; teaching and mentoring others to pass on my passion to others. I am really, truly lucky to find myself here [at UW libraries]— it’s not an accident or mistake. I really want my presence here to be a conduit for others to learn more about the importance of the role of librarians in African Studies and research. The passion I have for this work fills me up, I even dream about this stuff!”

You can learn more about Emilie’s work and extensive experience in last year’s feature on Emilie, written by Carly Lucas, here.

Contact Emilie here or via email at emilie.songolo@wisc.edu. Find her during her office hours in Memorial Library Room 278F.

Written by Eden Foster.