Why African digital repositories for storing research writings are so important
By Robert Molteno, trustee board member of the IAI, email: robert.molteno(at)googlemail.com
Universities worldwide are taking digitisation of some segments of their holdings very seriously. A more recent development has been for individual universities to start building digital repositories which can store the scholarly writings of their staff, as well as theses submitted and accepted for higher degrees by their students. In some cases, an even more ambitious process is being undertaken – the digitisation of all past theses submitted as part of the degree requirements of the university concerned.
More and more African universities have decided to build their own digital repositories. In this section of the International African Institute website, you can see which African universities have started down this road, and you can visit each repository on-line and explore its holdings. Two things are immediately striking, as of early 2016. While nearly half of all African countries have some universities that now have digital repositories, over half do not. And when one looks at any particular country, it is striking how many African universities have not yet got repositories up and running.
It is important to remember that digital repositories can only make contributions to the scholarly process if certain conditions are met. A repository has to be well organised, searchable, and operate in accordance with Open Access principles so that it is accessible to anyone using the Internet. Effective use of repositories also needs scholars in any particular African country or university to have effective access to desktop or laptop computers, adequate broadband width, and dependable power supplies.
Where these circumstances obtain, repositories in African research institutions have the possibility of transforming the visibility of African-authored scholarship and placing such scholars at the heart of research and debate on issues affecting the continent in every field of scholarly endeavour. In particular, as more and more African universities build their own repositories and a culture of scholars making use of them takes hold, we can look to the following developments:
- As the number of theses submitted by students to African universities and placed in their repositories grows – and in particular, as theses submitted in previous years are gradually digitised – the sum total of accessible empirical information and theoretical knowledge about Africa in every field of scholarship will grow hugely in quantity. Of course, material will vary widely in quality. But quality control is the responsibility of each university awarding post-graduate degrees. And the nature of a library is not to make qualitative judgements about each book or whatever else it holds; the process of judgement is up to each scholar who decides to consult a particular book, article, or whatever.
- Scholars in a particular African country will much more easily be able to find out who else in their country is doing, or has in the past done, research on a particular topic. Scientific advance has always proceeded on the basis of each generation having access to what already exists, and standing on the shoulders of those who came before them, thereby taking the process of expanding knowledge further. Digital repositories in Africa will facilitate African scholars in any particular country getting in touch with one another where they share a similar or related interest. In this way, more effective research networks can be built. Repositories will also help African scholars in one country to know about research on their topic in other African countries.
- As African digital repositories become more widespread and their holdings grow, the younger generation of African scholars and researchers will see the fruits of their work becoming accessible to their colleagues in their own country, in Africa as a whole, and to a global scholarly audience. The positive impact this could make on their morale could be very great. It would go some way to overcoming the present barriers to getting their materials published – the absence of thriving scholarly publishing houses and journals in many African countries, as well as all the obstacles that exist for scholars in African countries getting published by Western monograph publishers and scholarly journals. This device of digital repositories for scholarly writings holds out the prospect for African scholars, and of course the Africanist scholarly community worldwide, being able relatively easily to read one another's work.
- Digital repositories in African universities would help redress the ongoing imbalance in accessible research about Africa authored by African and Western scholars respectively. Across the social sciences and in other disciplines during the half a century since the end of the colonial era, the published record on Africa – both journal articles and books – is still overwhelmingly non-African in authorship. In this regard, Africa remains very different from South and Southeast Asia, China and Latin America. The reasons relate to Africa's political and economic trajectory since Independence. But the world of African scholarship would, if the spread of African digital repositories is carried through successfully and at scale, become seriously less imbalanced as these digital platforms made accessible research produced by scholars working at African universities.