The beginnings of the Basler Afrika Bibliographien (BAB) go back to the initiative of Carl Schlettwein (1925-2005). Carl Schlettwein lived in former South West Africa (today Namibia) for many years during the 1950s and 1960s. In these years, he began systematically collecting publications on the country and founded the BAB in 1971. This enabled the formation of institutional partnerships and the editing of initial publications. Gradually, the book collection activities were complemented by the collection of other formats such as rare books or maps.
With the launch of the Carl Schlettwein Foundation in 1994, the basis was established for sustainable continuation of the collections, which were further developed and expanded systematically. Since 1995 special collections such as personal and institutional archives, the poster and map collections as well as image, sound and film archives have been formed. Parts of these are continuously digitised and, in consultation with Namibian institutions, repatriated.
Today, the BAB is firmly anchored in Basel as an integral part of Switzerland’s most significant hub for African studies. The institute’s activities have grown to include the organisation of events on scholarly, cultural and socio-political issues involving southern Africa.
Carl Schlettwein began assembling a library on Namibia (at the time South West Africa) as early as 1952. Especially against the background of apartheid and the country’s colonial status, it was his desire to compile independent documentation and to foster general bibliographic information on Namibia: “Reporting on this country seemed to be somewhat biased, and [my] collecting activity resulted from a personal desire for independent information“.
From 1965 on, Carl Schlettwein lived with his wife, medical scientist Daniela Schlettwein-Gsell, in her home town in Basel, and systematically enlarged his collection. He expanded it with archive holdings, and, at the suggestion of the International African Institute in London, gave the collection an institutional framework in 1971: the Basler Afrika Bibliographien.
From then on, he steadily compiled bibliographic information on Namibia and, through the BAB Publishing House, released three volumes of the Namibian National Bibliography (NNB) between 1971 and 1979.
At the same time, Carl Schlettwein assembled a collection of rare antiquarian works on the African continent, today called the Rare-Book Collection of Africana. He also acquired a map collection on Namibia and established a diverse publishing programme on historical and geographic themes.
Carl Schlettwein’s ardent collecting and publishing activities decisively influenced the decolonisation of knowledge on Namibia as well as international research on this country. In 1994, Carl and Daniela Schlettwein launched the Carl Schlettwein Foundation, thus enabling continued sustainable expansion of the BAB’s collecting and publishing activities.
Since 1995, various special collections have been developed, including personal and general archives, poster and map collections, as well as image, sound and film archives. The library continues to systematically acquire publications from and about Namibia, and maintains predominantly scholarly holdings covering all of southern Africa. Initially focused on bibliographical editions and materials relating to BAB collections, the publishing programme today emphasises monographs on southern Africa and includes the Basel Namibia Studies Series, established by Pierrette Schlettwein in 1997.
These developments further deepened the research opportunities found in Basel, which has established itself as a hub of African studies in Switzerland. In addition to the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute and mission 21, the University of Basel plays a crucial role in this capacity, with the Carl Schlettwein Foundation lending it crucial momentum and support for African studies. In 1997, the University of Basel paid tribute to Carl Schlettwein’s efforts by awarding him an honorary doctorate.
Since Carl Schlettwein’s death in 2005, the Centre for African Studies hosts an annual Carl Schlettwein Lecture at the Basler Afrika Bibliographien.
Since 1995, the Basler Afrika Bibliographien has offered regular lectures and seminars, often in cooperation with the University of Basel. Scholars from southern Africa are frequent guests at Klosterberg 23, where the BAB are housed.
The BAB have reached a broader audience through transnational film events (in particular the film cycle “in motion” since 2014) and exhibition projects with partners in southern Africa, e.g. the exhibition “Images at War” (2006, together with the University of Namibia) and, during the 2010 football world championship in South Africa, the exhibition “Fields of Play: Football in Cape Town” (2010, together with the District Six Museum). The exhibition «Kaboom! African Comics in Focus” (2015) was shown together with students from the University of Basel. The exhibition «My very first question to you. An acoustic portrait of journalist Ruth Weiss and liberation politics in southern Africa” was shown in Basel, Cape Town, Lusaka and Bayreuth between 2014 and 2018.