Digital project heralds new dawn for African libraries

Digital libraries can open up more ways for research, teaching and broader public discussion in Africa hopes Dr. Siro Masinde, who works as the Regional Coordinator for Aluka, a non-for-profit initiative that is building a digital library with emphasis on primary source materials from and about Africa. Africa has its own rich natural and cultural heritage as well as traditional knowledge and information systems that have been passed on from generation to generation. Most of it has not been documented in permanent ways so that there is inherent danger of distortion and complete loss of old manuscripts or archaeological remains. Furthermore, these materials are practically inaccessible to most researchers, scholars and students. Reuben Kyama and James Waititu report from Nairobi.

By Reuben Kyama and James Waititu, Nairobi, Kenya

For Jennifer, a Kenyan student of cultural heritage, accessing scholarly resources for her academic projects always presents an anxious moment. To conduct research, she must travel far to locate libraries with relevant contents.

Even when she locates one, the library is either crowded; lacks adequate, updated or broad materials; and the data is hardly well organised – taking her weeks to access, read and extract useful information.

It is a frustrating exercise that slows learning, compromises performance and even forces her to regret having chosen to study the subject! And Jennifer is not alone. Many students in African universities are also faced with similar agonising experiences.

This is because for decades, many institutions have operated traditional libraries that fail to satisfy the expectations of modern learners. Indeed, the thought of venturing into quality research is a daunting one.

Hopefully, this depressing situation is now set to change with the arrival of an ambitious new ICT idea that is billed as offering the possibility to revolutionalise research radically, improve learning and place Africa on the digital path.

The concept, known as the digital or electronic library, was introduced in Africa last year by Aluka, a non-profit making entity. Aluka has its roots in the United States and is a project of Ithaca, an organisation that also runs two online resources – JSTOR and ArtStor. Aluka is a Zulu word that means “to weave”, reflecting Aluka’s mission to connect resources and scholars from around the world.

This digital library is designed to be an international collaborative initiative that establishes an online digital library of scholarly resources from and about Africa. It is funded by a consortium led by the Mellon Foundation, which supports higher education institutions to deal with the emerging technologies. The library involves collections stored in digital formats – as opposed to print or microform – and is accessible by computers.

Dr. Siro Masinde Photo by Reuben Kyama

According to Dr. Siro Masinde, the Regional Coordinator for Aluka in Africa, the arrival of the digital library marks a major turning point for the learning community, and its quick growth reflects how more people are viewing its importance. “Its introduction has drastically changed our way of thinking, and a great deal of information can now be accessed at the click of a button – making academic and research work easy and more exciting”, he says.

Dr. Masinde, 43, indicates that the library project is currently working with over 100 contributing archives, libraries, museums, herbaria and universities. He explains that by aggregating the widely dispersed and difficult-to-access materials online, Aluka opens up new opportunities for research, teaching and broader public discussion. He hopes that more people will join the web platform and enjoy its potentials and benefits.

At this initial phase, the Aluka’s digital library boasts over 300,000 digital objects on Africa plants, the struggle for freedom in southern Africa, cultural heritage sites and landscapes. This is set to grow as it focuses on more topics and disciplines.

“Africa’s historical materials are widely dispersed; others are in physical nature or poorly documented. Unless they are digitalised, we stand to lose great heritage that would otherwise benefit both the current and future generations”, Dr. Masinde told the eLearning Africa Newsletter recently at the National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi, where he spearheaded Internet infrastructure development and digitisation of the vast plant collection.

He says they are focusing on primary source materials that are very crucial so that local researchers and scholars can easily access them, help to stimulate creativity and be able to produce original ideas, write papers or books. “The inaccessibility of certain aspects of these materials is what we are dealing with”, he points out, saying the progress is quite encouraging despite numerous difficulties.

Besides the content development and web hosting service, the digital library team is also investing in capacity building of partner institutions by providing them with relevant skills and funds to acquire new software and equipment to promote their digitalisation projects.

“Technology is growing at rapid speed, and we appreciate new ideas and opportunities to learn to enable us catch up with the rest of the world”, adds Dr. Masinde, who reveals that he was inspired into research because of ‘wanting to know and understand the known and discover the unknown’.

The scientist says that unlike traditional libraries, the digital ones have the potential to store much more information, have no physical boundaries and offer round-the-clock availability, multiple accesses, a structured approach through catalogues, easy information retrieval and secure and rapid exposure to a global audience. Copies of the original items can also be duplicated or preserved without affecting quality.

However, he regrets that Africa is still lagging behind in terms of power, computers and poor communications links that are essential for digital library operation. The issue of intellectual property rights and copyrights on materials also hampers the work: They seek permission from owners of objects or scholarly materials before putting them online.

Dr. Masinde says they are eagerly waiting for completion of the ongoing under-the-sea optical cable project to bring the power of high-speed broadband connectivity to Africa. He urges the African policy makers and leaders to take the lead in embracing ICT and give it more urgency and priority.

“New technology can really frighten, but it’s better for us to embrace it to help solve problems, enjoy limitless opportunities and spur growth in all spheres of our daily lives”, he notes eloquently.

The Kenyan scholar fondly comments on the great amount of knowledge that he gathered after attending the second eLearning Africa conference in Kenya last year. He is looking forward to attending the next conference on ICT for development, education and training in Ghana in May this year, where he will present the Aluka project to the eLearning community in Africa.

“The meeting is an excellent melting point for eLearning family to gather, share experiences, exchange ideas, encourage one another, get exposure to new technologies and shape the future of ICT in Africa”, he concludes.

Dr. Masinde, a former Senior Research Scientist and Head of the East African Herbarium has over thirty publications in scholarly journals and has participated in local and international forums. He has been an external examiner and a visiting lecturer at local universities in Kenya and abroad and is a member of various professional societies.

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