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Recent Developments in African Scholarly e-Resources

Peter Limb
Africana Bibliographer, Michigan State University


In African Studies in general and more gradually in Africa itself, new digital projects promise new access to scholarly resources and new opportunities for partnership with the Center and its members. The Center and other scholarly networks have a close interest in digital, as well as microfilm preservation, and the prospect of new digital projects in Africa or those that combine these two approaches is an exciting development warranting exploration.

These initiatives often involve a high degree of cooperation among partners, a wide range of formats—from archival collections and ephemera to scholarly journals and audio-visual material—and most are committed to the Open Archives Initiative. The Center, for example, is involved in the Political Communications Web Archive Project to preserve websites in Africa and elsewhere. CAMP and the Africana Librarians Council (ALC) are exploring digital initiatives, for instance in the AAU/ARL Global Resources Program’s African Newspapers Union List (AFRINUL), a database of holdings maintained at the Center. The eGranary Digital Library based at the University of Iowa aims to provide e-resources off-line to African institutions lacking adequate Internet access. The African Online Digital Library aims to provide a fully accessible online repository of multilingual, multimedia materials, with partners at Michigan State University and in Senegal stressing that “digitizing projects must respect the rights of individuals, cultures and nations who own the materials.” An example of their innovation and quality of material is “The history and culture of Futa Toro, Senegal and Mauritania,” which provides audio clips of interviews by historian David Robinson in Pulaar language, linked to scrolling English or French transcripts. There are interesting digital projects elsewhere. The French Bibliothèque Nationale’s Gallica Project has digitized many rare books on pre-colonial Africa and the Museum of Central Africa in Belgium is digitizing historical photographs.

In Africa, emerging models are more often a combination of commercial and open access. The first viable African commercial Web site presenting hard-to-obtain ephemera is Kwetu.Net (“Our home” in Swahili) in Kenya, with full-text reports, papers and some Masters theses obtained from national partners. An ambitious, continent-wide venture, in which the Center is involved, is the Database of African Theses and Dissertations of the Association of African Universities. The use of e-journals is growing in Africa, aided in part by the underwriting of “free” e-journal provision by donors, but also involving local experimentation. The latter trend is most pronounced in South Africa, the most technologically advanced African country. South African company Sabinet Online offers a package of 155 full-text South African (and a few West and East African) journals at a price reasonable for local subscribers, with a subsidizing overseas price likely to attract only wealthier research libraries. NISC South Africa has developed sophisticated, if rather expensive, databases such as African Studies and South African Studies that index African journal literature. These African-based (if at times foreign-controlled) databases provide better searchability of African journal content than Western databases, a major achievement suggesting that solutions can be found in Africa, particularly when working with overseas partners.

Stable and successful journal web-storage projects such as JSTOR—now with a suite of high-quality Africana journals—and decreasing digital storage costs suggest that digital preservation will gain significance. The Digital Imaging Project of South Africa, funded by the Mellon Foundation, is modeling itself partly on JSTOR to become self-sustainable. DISA has digitized 38 hard-to-locate anti-apartheid periodicals and provides full-text searching. An extensive second stage will digitize archival materials and link up with another Mellon initiative, Aluka, that is developing national committees in the U.S. and Africa and which has identified three initial areas of digitization: liberation movements, botany, and heritage. Aluka's mission is to “build and support a sustainable, online database of scholarly resources from the developing world, beginning in Africa.”

Recent African digital initiatives such as DISA, Kwetu.net, and DATAD all involve a high degree of cooperation among partners. For example, DISA is a cooperative venture among South African librarians, archivists, and scholars across universities and other institutions that has developed digital skills but also drawn on overseas funding and expertise. By developing effective partnerships based on mutual benefit in the interests of all researchers, such projects maximize their potential and help librarians and scholars share expertise and resources.

The financial and technical problems facing African journals are immnse. The African e-Journals Project at Michigan State University aims to improve accessibility, visibility and viability of African journals. Participants achieved only modest progress but gained visibility and valuable experience. Back issues of several leading journals will be online by Fall 2004 and two journals are publishing in Project Muse, with an interesting by-product being a database of journals. African Journals Online based in England has a model that is inexpensive to set up and maintain. It has promoted African journals and helped develop technological skills through mentoring and workshops on digitization, and in 2004 plans to allow uploaded full-text and shift the project to Africa. Both projects face problems of long-term viability in Africa and a highly competitive global publishing market little interested in Africa.

Pan-African institutions such as CODESRIA and OSSREA have made good progress in digitizing issues of their journals. In agriculture, the Essential Electronic Agricultural Library (TEEAL) developed a CD-ROM library available to developing countries and Access to Global Online Research in Agriculture (AGORA), a portal is providing free access to over 500 major agricultural journals to public institutions in countries with an annual per capita income of US $1,000 or less. Launched in October 2003 under the auspices of FAO, AGORA involves collaboration of public and private partners, including major Western publishers, USAID, and Cornell University Library.

To provide long-term solutions to the deep-seated crisis of publishing in Africa wide international collaboration and the further development of Africa-based resources and competencies are necessary. In all these projects, the future may lie in the combination of open archive with not-for-profit models to not only improve access to scholars globally but also to ensure sustainability of the resources themselves.