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Background of the centre

Between past and future

The Human Sciences Documentation Centre has offered Africanists a social science reference database at the RMCA since 1925. Located, then, in the Central Library, it is a veritable bibliographical database that has assumed several forms of which the online, delocated, version is its latest incarnation. The books and articles cited in it have been consulted at the RMCA, but also, to a great degree, in other libraries, including, over several years, university libraries in Paris and London.

On cards, the old database
 (RMCA ©)Each year, depending on the period, 200 to 300 periodicals have been systematically studied, as well as books and collective works written in seven different languages.
Through 1982, all these data were placed at the disposition of researchers in a catalogue located in the reading room of the Museum Central Library. In addition, the bibliographies were published in book form. Throughout the Centre's century-old existence, the bibliography has taken several forms. In the early days, references were summarised on index cards and organised in wooden filing cabinets by author and subject. Beginning in 1983, references were computer-processed in order to be published in book form. Indeed, if the many visitors were able to consult the old infrastructure (still intact at the RMCA and useful in a historic context), these periodic publications brought the bibliography to the international public. The final publication of the Bibliographie de l'Afrique sud-saharienne - Sciences humaines et sociales (Bibliography of Africa South of the Sahara - Social Sciences and Humanities), covering 1988-89, appeared in 1992, when the current computerisation began and integrated data from 1983 onwards.

A quick look to the past...

The Bureau international d'Ethnographie (International Ethnographic Agency) was created in 1905 during a World Congress held in Mons. Over the years, it evolved into today's Centre de Documentation en Sciences humaines. The task of the Bureau international d'Ethnographie was to gather and publish as much information as possible on the populations of the Congo and neighbouring regions. The most original feature of the Congolese monographs published by this institution are that they were drafted according to a very precise and consistent method: J. Halkin's Ethnographical Questionnaire, published by the Société belge de Sociologie in 1905. This questionnaire attempted to cover different aspects of life among studied populations by posing 202 questions grouped into seven categories. Presenting the data in this way was designed to facilitate comparative studies.

In addition to the research for and publication of monographs, the Bureau international d'Ethnographie (BIE) also created a database on African ethnography. A project involving the analysis of periodicals and books was undertaken in order to gather all available information on the populations of the Congo. The references for each document were copied onto index cards and classified according to different criteria: author's name, ethnic group or geographical region and subjects addressed. The subjects included were grouped in accordance with the 202 questions in J. Halkin's Questionnaire. The First World War brought an end to this undertaking.

In 1929 Senator Cyrille Van Overbergh, Chairman of the BIE, donated this documentation in its entirety to the Ministère des Colonies (Ministry of Colonies). The Museum was charged with the task of conserving and continuing this work. In 1930 the Section d'Ethnographie (Ethnography Department) was enlarged to include a Bureau de Documentation ethnographique (BDE - Bureau of Ethnographical Documentation) led by Ms Olga Boone. A Scientific Committee including E. De Jonghe, J. Halkin, J. Maes and C. Van Overbergh was established to guide and monitor its activities.

On its creation the Bureau de Documentation ethnographique set itself the target of publishing three different types of documents: ethnographic monographs on the populations of the Belgian Congo and neighbouring regions, thematic monographs corresponding to the 202 questions in the Halkin Questionnaire and an annual ethnographical bibliography.

The bibliographical compilation soon accounted for the bulk of the Agency's work. Within the space of 15 years, Africanist ethnology had undergone considerable development: its own scientific corpus had been established and numerous field studies carried out. Thus researchers were in urgent need of a bibliographical inventory of texts published since the termination of BIE activities.

A first volume of the Bibliographie du Congo belge et des régions avoisinantes - Années 1925-1930 was published in 1932. The yearbooks for the years 1914 to 1924 never saw the light of the day: only index cards containing references for the main Africanist studies that appeared during this period were compiled and are available to researchers in the reading room. Since this first publication in 1932 the concern of those in charge was to make the bibliography accessible and of practical use. The references were alphabetized by author. Two indexes allowed researchers to find data without necessarily knowing the author's name: an index by subject was compiled according to the broad categories of Halkin's Questionnaire, while an ethnographical index listed the names of populations in alphabetical order. In its 75 years of existence the Bibliography certainly underwent some changes, but after 1932 its organisation in general remained unchanged.

The Halkin Questionnaire system was abandoned during the 1940s, though the descriptors remained in use as required, and over the years a thesaurus was compiled. The insistence on precision sometimes came at the expense of rationality and led to the production of a very unwieldy thesaurus of descriptors containing more than 20,000 words. In 1959, the Verification Committee of the Bureau de Documentation was no longer, owing to the deaths of its members. By this time the Bureau was already fully integrated into the Museum and its activities continued without interruption.

Recent developments

In 1960 the Bureau de Documentation began working alongside the Centre d'Analyse Documentaire pour l'Afrique Noire (Documentation Analysis Centre for Black Africa - C.A.D.A.N.), which later became the Paris-based Centre d'Analyse et de Recherche Documentaire pour l'Afrique Noire (C.A.R.D.A.N.). An exchange of references and analytical abstracts between the two institutions enabled both bibliographies to be enriched. This cooperation came to an end in 1981.

In 1962, after the Congo had gained independence, the Bibliography changed its name to Bibliographie ethnographique de l'Afrique sud-saharienne (Ethnographic Bibliography of Sub-Saharan Africa). The name change was clearly a response to political events. However, it should be pointed out that the geographical zone covered by the bibliography had already extended far beyond the former Belgian colonies, and had in fact done so since the publication of its first volume.

In 1970, after nearly forty years of documentary research and scientific studies (see the two ethnographical maps of the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi), Olga Boone passed the torch to her associate, Béla Lessko. Encouraged by A. Maesen, the latter expanded the areas covered by the bibliography to include a number of other disciplines such as African sociology, psychology, history and linguistics.

1970 saw the creation of the Section d'Anthropologie sociale et Ethnohistoire (Sectin of Social Anthropology and Ethnohistory), at that time headed by Marcel d'Hertefelt. The Centre de Documentation was integrated into this research unit and would henceforth represent the core of the public-oriented activities. After the departure of Béla Lessko in 1978, Marcel d'Hertefelt steered the development of the Centre until 1993.

In 1982 the Bibliography changed its name once again. In fact, this edition signed M. d'Hertefelt, D. de Lame and A-M. Bouttiaux covering 1978 is entitled Bibliographie de l'Afrique sud-saharienne - Sciences humaines et sociales., thus revealing the various fields of research which were actually covered.

Marcel d'Hertefelt and Danielle de Lame, who were conducting research on Rwanda in parallel to their documentary analysis, combined the fields of their scientific activity and, in 1987, offered researchers a wealth of references in their work Société, Culture et Histoire du Rwanda - Encyclopédie bibliographique 1863-1980/87. Marcel d'Hertefelt was the first to computerize the data, once again transforming the presentation of the bibliography.

In 1993, Danielle de Lame became the Centre's director and modernized it. Building the computerised database on Africa South of the Sahara continued. As presented here, it includes periodical article references published during and after 1983, in addition to all works acquired by the Ethnosociology and Ethnohistory Section. The thesaurus, after a radical modification performed during the computerisation process, is updated according to the emergence of new research interests and the evolution of disciplines. Detailed keywords are attributed by high-level researchers, making them an incomparable tool. The database complements that of Leiden's Afrika Studiecentrum, which visitors of our database can also effectively consult.

Accessible via the internal museum network since 2005, the Royal Museum for Central Africa Human Sciences Documentation Centre database had to be made more accessible to researchers, particularly African researchers. This has been achieved. The participation of the Ethnosociology and Ethnohistory research unit in the CREATING Project, financed by the Commission of the European Communities, provided the necessary impetus for the English translation of the thesaurus and the posting online of the two versions.

Olga Boone, Béla Lessko, Yvette van Quickelberghe, Marcel d'Hertefelt, Danielle de Lame, Anne-Marie Bouttiaux, Sophie Decock, Quentin Nolet de Brauwere, Cristiana Panella and Jeroen Cuvelier have contributed to the Database over the years. Cristiana Panella is currently the main contributor, under the direction of Danielle de Lame. Jeannine Stas-Roekens has been responsible for encoding data's for over forty years. Currently, Diane Tonnoeyr is in charge of this part of the job.

ICT: Philippe Vignaux. Designer: Benoît Hardy


  • Africa-Museum Tervuren, 1898-1998, Musée royal de l'Afrique centrale, Tervuren
  • Bibliographie ethnographique du Congo belge et des régions avoisinantes, 26 volumes, 1925-1930 to 1959, MRAC, Tervuren.
  • Bibliographie ethnographique de l'Afrique sud-saharienne, 18 volumes, 1960 to 1977, MRAC, Tervuren.
  • Bibliographie de l'Afrique sud-saharienne - Sciences humaines et sociales, 7 volumes, 1978 to 1989, MRAC, Tervuren.
  • Boone, O., La documentation ethnographique au Musée royal de l'Afrique centrale, Africa-Tervuren, X, 4, 99/102, 1964.
  • de Lame, D., "Documentation africaine en Belgique (complément portant sur les années 1981-1985)", in : Actes du Colloque "La documentation africaine en Europe - Paris, 22-23 mars 1986", ACCT, CEEA, Paris, 1986, pp. 68-70.
  • d'Hertefelt, M., "Analyse et recherche documentaires africaines en Belgique », in : Actes du Colloque "La documentation africaine en Europe - Paris, 22-23 mars 1986", ACCT, CEEA, Paris, 1986, pp. 53-67.
  • d'Hertefelt, M. & de Lame, D., Société, culture et histoire du Rwanda. Encyclopédie bibliographique 1863-1980/87, MRAC, Tervuren, 1987.