Report on Africana Digitization Workshop

--Contents-- Writing

Report on the "Workshop on the Politics of Digital Initiatives Concerning Africa"
For the ALC Roundtable:
African Writing, African Publishing, African Repositories: Globalization & Beyond
ASA Meeting, New York, October 2007

by Al Kagan
African Studies Bibliographer and Professor of Library Administration
University of Illinois Library


As some of you already know, the Center for African Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign sponsored a small invited workshop on August 4-5, 2006, which we titled "Workshop on the Politics of Digital Initiatives Concerning Africa." More about the workshop and articles developed from the themes discussed can be found in the latest issue of Innovation: Journal of Appropriate Librarianship and Information Work in Southern Africa (no. 34, June 2007). Innovation is published at the University of Kwazulu-Natal Library at the Pietermaritzburg campus. The workshop was funded by Title 6 grant money from the U.S. Department of Education.

Sixteen invited librarians, academics, project directors, and foundation representatives from the United States and South Africa with knowledge and experience in African digital projects came together to informally discuss key themes organized into five panels. We also paid attention to the relevance of two ALC and ASA documents in relation to these issues: the "Archives-Libraries Committee Resolution on Migrated Archives" (1977) and the "Guidelines of the African Studies Association for Members' Ethical Conduct in Research and Other Professional Undertakings in Africa" (2005). These are reprinted in Innovation, and the Ethical Conduct Guidelines can be found by using the search box on the ASA website.

Over the last decade, numerous foundations in the United States, including those forming the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa, have provided unprecedented support for the revitalization of African universities and their libraries, especially through digitization of African materials and the development of associated information technologies. North American and European institutions, some in partnership with African institutions, have also undertaken a range of library and archival projects, many focused on digitization. The workshop was aimed at considering the practical and methodological challenges encountered. As opposed to almost all digital workshops and conferences mainly concerned with technical issues, we were particularly interested in the political context for these projects, and the relationships between the US donors and their African partners. The Digital Imaging South Africa (DISA) project was seen as particularly important because of South Africa's role within the African continent and WiderNet's e-Granary Project was discussed as an innovative model. In developing the workshop, we were hoping (and we still hope) that it would prepare the way for a larger international conference to be held in Africa. Perhaps we have made some progress in developing a conception and framework for this larger endeavor.


The workshop was framed by the key questions raised by Michele Pickover (Curator of Manuscripts, Historical Papers at the William Cullen Library, University of the Witwatersrand) in her 2005 article on the politics of archives in South Africa.1 These questions were distributed to the participants when they were invited to facilitate thinking about what we were trying to accomplish. Let me add that Michele Pickover also participated in the workshop. She asked:

In his summary of the issues discussed, David Easterbrook noted the following recurring themes:

"Technology, funding, selection, free accessibility, partnership models, power/political relationships, priority setting, who decides, who benefits, who carries out the work, how used, how organized, what is included..."2

I think David captured the direction of the argument by continuing:

"Clearly technology is driving a great deal of what is happening, and in this setting where technology prevails, we are often so very focused on the technology that the purpose-the ultimate goal-of digital projects becomes less important than the technology. Considerably more attention needs to be given to the question of what is being digitized, who is participating in the decision making process leading to the projects, how the digital information will be used, by whom it will be used, how will it be formatted, and how will it be made accessible. While much discussion even on these topics can be consumed by technological considerations, the balance must be shifted to create a new relationship in the process. New models of engagement by all parties concerned are required if the prevailing patterns are to change."3

Premesh Lalu of the History Department at the University of the Western Cape gave the keynote address, titled "The Virtual Stampede for Africa: Digitisation, Postcoloniality and Archives of the Liberation Struggles in Southern Africa." He addressed different kinds of issues than are normally addressed in the United States, and especially at librarians meetings. Much of what he said contrasted with the technocratic views routinely voiced in the United States. Lalu addressed three themes: the political economy of digitization, the ethics of repatriation, and the intellectual stakes. He reminded us that colonial power had a knowledge base, and that knowledge can again be used to rewrite history. Globalization reinforces the old pattern of the intellectual division of labor: the Western producers vs. the African consumers of knowledge. Combined with the legacies of the Cold War, this makes for particular conditions for the writing of Southern African history. The framing and selection of the documents for digitization must address these historical perspectives. There is a danger that the dominant political forces will control this process. Recalling Pickover, Lalu went on to call for an ethics of repatriation; a moral framework that mandates locating projects in the countries of provenance and mandates local control. As opposed to digitizing whole collections, African digitization projects are often more selective both for financial and political reasons. Instead of making all materials digitally available, Lalu asserts the need to bring people to use the physical archives. Lalu's radical vision immediately provoked much debate.

Now I would like to broaden out the context a little more in noting some of what I said at the first workshop panel. I commented on my very recent experiences (July 2006) at the SCECSAL meeting in Dar es Salaam (Standing Conference of East, Central, and Southern African Library and Information Associations). My talk was titled "Knowledge Management" or "Library Colonialism?" and was fundamentally about agenda setting. The theme of the SCECSAL conference was "knowledge management" which seems problematical and possibly inappropriate for Africa where such a large proportion of people lack any library services whatsoever. It seems to me that the conference organizers where overly influenced by Western librarians and by trying to be on the cutting edge of the profession. "Library colonialism" was the theme of one of the papers given. The juxtaposition of these themes seemed an interesting starting point. I noted that I refused to connect the theme of my pre-conference seminar paper on progressive librarianship to the conference theme of knowledge management. I instead talked about the role of library associations in civil society. This topic may seem a long way from digital projects but the issues around agenda setting are just the same.

Library colonialism is also alive and well in the" American Corners" program that I witnessed first hand in Tanzania. This is a U.S. State Department initiative to put American books, videos, and computers in libraries around the world. One such "corner" opened at the State University of Zanzibar Library during the SCECSAL conference. A colleague and I went to see it and found that it was quite controversial. Three institutions previously rejected this project: the Zanzibar Public Library, the Zanzibar Archives, and the Zanzibar Department of Education. No corner was available in the existing library, so a separate room in another part of the campus had to be appropriated for about two hundred books, fifty videos, and seven computers. Furthermore, one of the three professional librarians on staff had to be reassigned to this new space. Whose agenda indeed? The library not only lost control of collection development, but lost control of how to use one-third of its professional staff!

Michele Pickover wrote that "the real challenges are not technological or technical, but social and political. A passive stance leads to library colonialism, but library activism leads to real professional accomplishments. African libraries and library associations involved in digital projects are subject to the same pressures described above. Inappropriate agendas, pressure to accept the wrong materials, and pressure to reallocate resources for the wrong reasons are the common threads in this discussion. Library colonialism is alive and well.

Digital Imaging South Africa Project

To bring the discussion down to a specific level, let me now say something about the Digital Imaging South Africa (DISA) project. Christopher Saunders (History Department, University of Cape Town) explained that the Mellon Foundation funded the DISA Project in 1997. DISA decided to digitize material on the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. In the first phase, it digitized some forty anti-apartheid journals. It then obtained a second grant from Mellon to digitize primary materials, including archives, on the same broad theme. With the establishment of Aluka, DISA agreed to become its South African partner, digitizing material in South Africa. Some members of DISA have seen Aluka as interfering and not sufficiently sensitive to local issues, but the value of the partnership is recognized. DISA has taken a decision on principle not to digitize whole collections, but to select materials.

Tom Nygren, who directs the Aluka Project, also addressed these issues. He noted that DISA is part of Aluka, which itself is part of the Ithaka project, a new nonprofit organization promoting innovation in higher education, funded by the Mellon, Hewlett, and Niarchos Foundations. Tom Nygren said that they have shifted their model. Aluka started by just creating digital resources but is now emphasizing a network-oriented model that encourages participating institutions to contribute collections to the Aluka platform. The new network approach fosters institutional buy-in and local decision-making. They have learned that they need to listen to partner priorities, especially capacity-building as an end in itself. They have had to learn patience and be flexible about launch dates. Aluka has two main assets: its technical platform and the energy of the network. They have also changed the access model. The initial plan was that resources would be free to African partners only for their own country materials. Now all educational institutions in Africa will get free access to all content in the digital library. Aluka is developing a business model for greater access and long-term sustainability.

Never the less, stresses and strains do remain. Premesh Lalu asserted that local archives must own projects, and that there could be dire consequences of failure for African institutions. He explained that projects can fail for the following reasons: using an encyclopedic approach instead of quality selection criteria; ignoring statutory bodies, maintaining unequal relationships between funders and grantees; not fostering interdisciplinarity by engaging a range of academics and documentation specialists, lacking the legitimacy gained from primarily academic considerations, and not making the project politics explicit.

Further discussion highlighted the following concerns:

Decisions and Follow-up

In the end, the workshop participants made the following decisions:

  1. We will write a summary report for distribution in journals such as CODESRIA Bulletin, African Research and Documentation, Africana Librarians Newsletter, College and Research Libraries Newsletter, IFLA Regional Section on Africa Newsletter, and the IFLA National Libraries Section newsletter. We will also distribute the report to African publishers, the Association of Research Libraries Global Resources Project, and other area studies organizations.
    Done but no responses.

  2. We will establish a listserv for continued discussion of these issues.

  3. We will ask the ASA Board of Directors to include digital projects in an expanded revision of the "Guidelines of the African Studies Association for Member's Ethical Conduct in Research and Other Professional Undertakings in Africa" (adopted June 23, 2005).

  4. The Digital Imaging South Africa (DISA) project has drafted guidelines for their strategic alliances. When these guidelines are finalized we will help publicize them and bring them to the attention of the Association of African Universities (AAU).
    The DISA guidelines were not finalized, therefore no action.

  5. We will edit one or more special issues of journals with wide African readership on these topics. We already have an offer from Innovation: Journal of Appropriate Librarianship and Information Work in Southern Africa.
    Published in June 2007 issue (no. 34) received in August.

  6. We will explore including these topics in the forthcoming Dakar meeting on African archives.
    The meeting was in New York, no action.

  7. We will ask DISA to approach the IFLA Regional Section on Africa to host a paper at their 2007 Durban meeting.
    Not done because no DISA action.
DISA Developments

I was able to sit down in August with Premesh Lalu in Cape Town and with Michele Pickover at the IFLA conference in Durban to follow-up on DISA developments. It is instructive that the political issues around the project have not yet been sorted out. The Mellon Foundation temporarily froze funding because further content was not forthcoming from the South African National Archives, ANC, and National Heritage Council. Minutes from the September 5th meeting show that funding is flowing again. Aluka was unhappy that its views were not represented at a May 2007 workshop at the National Heritage Council. The DISA Committee Chair and one other member of the Committee resigned. This general unhappiness was evident not only in South Africa, but at an Aluka regional meeting in Botswana in April 2007. The questions revolve around the public consultation process, what the DISA product will ultimately look like, and who will have access and at what cost? The latest version of the draft DISA document on guidelines for strategic alliances notes the "...escalation of foreign interest in South African research and heritage material, resulting in agreements which do not necessarily benefit local institutions adequately." South African agencies are very wary of the commercialization and privatization of public information. There is debate around copyright clearances, and especially around the ability to make available materials that have a low risk of copyright infringement. Finally, the contractual obligation to provide content has resurfaced the issue of digitizing whole collections.


The DISA experience shows that it is crucial to put the political questions up front in working on digital projects in South Africa, and by extension other countries in Africa. Our Illinois workshop was part of the beginning of putting these issues on the table for a wide professional discussion. I hope that this report has helped further this process.

1 Michelle Pickover, "Negotiations, contestations and fabrications: the politics of archives in South Africa ten years after democracy," Innovation, no. 30 (June 2005): 10. return

2 David Easterbrook, "Summary Of Issues: Workshop on the Politics of Digital Initiatives Concerning Africa, 4-5 August 2006, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign," Innovation, no. 30 (June 2005): 1. return

3 Michelle Pickover, "Negotiations, contestations and fabrications: the politics of archives in South Africa ten years after democracy," Innovation, no. 30 (June 2005): 8. return

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