Limbo

A small update on our biggest blocker in seven months.

The ground zero of this project is the first night I first wrote down my thoughts about it. December 2019. It took 42 minutes – that part was easy. It was a one-and-half pager that stated what the problem was, what we needed to do, and how we would do it. 

Find them. Digitise them. Create a home for them on the internet.

“We’ll archive a newspaper per day from January 1st 1960 till December 31st, 2010.” The next question was whether these newspapers even existed. We answered that in March 2020 when we found all 18,000+ newspaper days across three libraries.

Then the pandemic hit, and the lockdown happened. I spent it alone – and beyond its dangers – one of the perks of solitude is the abundance of introspection. As the weeks passed, I knew more and more that archivi.ng had to happen. So I wrote the first dispatch and shared it with a few friends. 

When this project began to take on more life, I shared a substack draft with a few people to hear their thoughts. One of them tweeted excitedly in the middle of the night. It’s when it officially went live, at least publicly. 

It got a lot of love, and love is great for momentum. People wanted to donate money, and they did. People wanted to volunteer, and they did in the hundreds, at home and abroad. People wanted to make intros, and they made some great ones. 

We got some enthusiasm from Big Tech, a bank, and even a government-run archive. It was all great, but there was one caveat: they couldn’t engage without us becoming a legal entity. That’s reasonable, so we began working towards registering as one. Another reason that registering is essential is because of the steep initial costs. For example, newspapers are large-format paper. Scanning without destroying them will need large format scanners that cost as much as $15,000. No one is touching that kind of money without any solid paperwork.

We hired a lawyer, and began registration as a not-for-profit entity, "limited by guarantee". We chose this because while we wanted to run a not-for-profit, we also wanted to be enterprising, for sustainability-sakes.

Revenue generation means that we can wean ourselves off dependence on donations. All revenue generated could then go into the tireless work of expanding the archives beyond one paper a day. There’d be magazines, photographs, footage, and everything else created at a time when we couldn’t document online. 

So, we sent our application to the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC), a lawyer in tow. And the crawl began. 

I put together a small team of people to cover particular problems. People were sending us their money, so someone had to worry about it. OCR – the process that makes the newspaper text editable and searchable – is a lot of machine learning and code Jedi stuff. Someone had to worry about it. How the archive would work and how it’d be functional to everyone needed someone to worry about it. Doing the daily leg work and chase required an owner, and it got one. 

The goal was to ensure that the project wasn’t an individual burden, especially since most of us still had our jobs. It had its flaws, but it helped.

By September 2020, we began to visit more archives, have more conversations, and gather more enthusiasm. Not much mattered without a legal ID.

By October, we whipped up a roadmap for what a good year would look like and everything we could do. But, the CAC crawl was still on. 

By the end of 2020, we’d missed a chunk of the deadlines we set for ourselves. On the CAC end, the crawl was still on. 

There have been many reports of a slow process at the CAC since the pandemic hit early 2020. To make matters more complex, registering a Limited by Guarantee requires consent from the Attorney General’s office. 

By February 2021, our application reached the AG’s office for consent. Almost a month later, we got a response – a query in fact – some legal-speak about the objectives not aligning with an LBG entity. We rephrased it and sent it back. And then, we waited. 

September 1991

On one of our visits to a government archive in Lagos, **we stumbled on a Vanguard Newspaper from September 1991. We didn’t think there was anything spectacular about this month, but we grabbed it anyway. 

Vanguard’s September 1991 has 30 days in print and a total of 600 pages. 

The priority window for the first phase of the archivi.ng project is January 1, 1960, to December 31, 2010 – 612 months. But we had one month in our hands. So, we pretended, for a moment, that this one month was all that mattered, not our 612 months. 

To digitise a newspaper, we need a scanner that can capture hi-res images fast. For example, many flat-bed A2 scanners will scan about two pages every 5 seconds. If we scan September 1991, with all its 600 pages, it will take us about 30 minutes to finish. 

But we didn’t have a scanner – we still don’t, because registration is crawling. We pretended, for a short while, that the only scanner in the world was my battered phone. So we photographed, page by page. 

By the time we reached September 10, about 200 pages in, a little over two hours had passed. That's enough time to scan four months worth of newspapers. And our images? Well, they were decent, but a scanner would have done way better and faster. 

The most prominent conversation in September 1991 was state creation. In the last week of August, the Head of State, General Babangida, announced the creation of new states. He created nine new states, bringing Nigeria to 30 states. There were all kinds of debates; from the “can the government afford it” debate to the “who gets what” debate. 

There were consequences, sometimes violent; like “9 killed in Akwa Ibom” consequences. Or “Split Jos LG A Ticking Bomb” consequences. 

A September 1 article asked; New Nigerian States: Can Nigeria Afford The Cost? In the article, a Lagos-based economist said, “The cost of a 30-state structure Nigeria will jump by 70%. Next year, about 150% in two years and about 500% in five years.” 

The economic consequence today? There's a Stears article published in 2021: Why Nigerian States Are Broke. It's written by another economist, Tokunbo Afikuyomi. 

I think about the kind of story he’d write if he had more access to information. Why do we have this many states in the first place? Why were they created? What were the immediate consequences of their creation? 

So, for a moment, we pretend that September 1 is the only day that matters from 18,000+ days. We also pretended only one story from that day counts. So, we OCR’d it. 

Optical Character Recognition extracts the text from the photographed newspaper pages and makes them an editable text. 

We used the tool in this video:

The next stage is to make it accessible to everyone by making a home for it on the internet.  Making a blog is easy. So we made one and put up our one archivi.ng article.

It’s minuscule, compared to 700k+, but it’s one.

Archived Article 1 Of 700,000

It’s equal parts cathartic and frustrating. We can do this; we can take a thing from a dusty corner of a library and make it more accessible by way of the internet. We just can’t do it at scale yet. 

The ginger is intact, but so is the frustration that registration began seven months ago and still crawls to this day.

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