Harvard Library will hold and digitize a collection of former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s personal and professional archives in partnership with the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development, the University and center announced on Thursday.
Under the agreement — the first of its kind for the University — the Harvard University Archives reading room will temporarily hold Sirleaf’s papers for 25 years, after which they will be returned to the center in Liberia.
Sirleaf — a Class of 1971 graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School — started her 12-year tenure as Liberian president in 2006, becoming the first democratically-elected female chief of state in Africa.
“I’m pleased that the digitization will enable researchers from anywhere in the world, including Liberia and Africa, to access my papers and help them carry out their work — whether they are seeking leadership positions, studying history, or looking to write a book on me or another African leader,” Sirleaf said in the press release.
Assuming her role in the wake of Liberia’s Second Civil War, Sirleaf channeled her presidential efforts into consolidating peace, engendering further economic and social development, and implementing reforms in governance and the rule of law. Her incorporation of women into the peacemaking process, fortification of women’s rights, and promotion of freedom of speech earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.
“The papers especially need to be preserved and available for women – in Liberia, in Africa, and elsewhere – to follow the history of my life. We hope they will provide inspiration for future generations,” Sirleaf said.
Sirleaf’s collection will be shipped to Harvard later this year, where an Ellen Johnson Sirleaf papers archivist will be appointed to spearhead processing efforts for the following two years. By 2025, the materials will be accessible for research and digitized versions will be publicly discoverable online.
“We are thrilled that President Sirleaf has chosen to partner with us in bringing her legacy to the world,” Martha J. Whitehead, the Harvard Library vice president and University librarian, said.
The materials arriving at Harvard chronicle Sirleaf’s career and personal life from the 1960s to the 2010s, including her time at the Kennedy School and as the incumbent president of Liberia. The archives include her personal letters and emails, speeches and public addresses, records of her activism, the Liberian peacemaking process, her presidential campaigns, and her work with international development organizations.
The collaboration deviates from the Harvard Library’s traditional stewardship practices, marking the Library’s evolving collections approach centered on access rather than ownership of materials. The stewardship agreement between the EJC Center and the University is the first of its kind for the Harvard Library, according to a Harvard Library spokesperson.
Whitehead called the agreement “an important advance in how Harvard Library is enabling discovery of, access to, and preservation of world knowledge.”
Referencing the University’s collections developed over the past four centuries, the Harvard Library spokesperson said the library’s reservoir of materials is persistently evolving to support modern academic programs and research. The Harvard Library aims to take part in a global information network where cultural groups can retain sovereignty over their heritage and research while maintaining as much broad public access as possible, the spokesperson added.
“We are intent on seeing communities in all parts of the world empowered to share their local research resources broadly while retaining their ownership, a significant shift from collecting practices of past centuries,” Whitehead added.