Digital Libraries in Ghana

Report on Digital Libraries in Ghana


An Overview of Digital Libraries in Ghana

During the summer of 2008, I spent three months in Ghana conducting research on digital libraries.  My goal was to assess the current state of digitization projects in the country to understand how and why they are being established.  Through interviews with nearly a dozen librarians and archivists, I discovered that these projects are incredibly diverse in terms of their scale, scope, and objectives.  And in many instances, Ghanaian librarians have skillfully devised innovative methods to carry them out.  In this article, I will describe three major digital library projects currently underway in order to highlight differences in objectives, funding, technological capacity, and international collaboration.

George Padmore Research Library on African Affairs

The first library I visited was the George Padmore Research Library on African Affairs in the Ridge area of Accra.  In 2007, librarians at the Padmore initiated a digitization project to preserve the Bureau of African Affairs files, a collection that contains many valuable historic documents relating to Kwame Nkrumah’s presidency. Currently, these materials are in critical condition and are in danger of being lost within the next decade due to poor preservation methods.  Additionally, these materials are not available anywhere else in the world.

While librarians are very committed to preserving these documents in digital format, they have encountered a number of financial and technological obstacles and have not been able to accomplish as much as they would have liked.  The most challenging obstacle has been the lack of funding. Padmore librarians have not been able to secure any financial support from either the Ghana Library Board (its parent institution) or international organizations.  As the Padmore Library does not own any of the necessary equipment for digitization (such as digital cameras and flatbed scanners), librarians must rely on transporting the documents across town to use equipment owned by another library.  It is not surprising then, that over the past two years, Padmore librarians have only been able to digitize 6 of the 300 binders and boxes that comprise the collection. 

What I found most interesting about this project is that librarians are using Microsoft Publisher to save and store their digital files.  This raises many concerns about interoperability in terms of how users worldwide will be able to access and make use of these materials.  But it also raises a number of questions regarding Microsoft’s role in marketing and distributing its software in Africa.  Over the past decade, Microsoft has aggressively donated software and Windows computers in hopes of gaining a larger future share of the market over its competitor, Linux, a low cost, and often free, alternative. 

University of Cape Coast Digital Library

Perhaps the most impressive example of a digital library in Ghana is at the University of Cape Coast Library.  Funded by a World Bank grant, this digital library is intended to support the information needs of approximately 23,000 distance education students completing coursework at study centers located in each of the country’s ten administrative regions.  The objective of this project is to provide students with online access to locally produced scholarly materials.  Initiated in 2005, the project has made substantial progress toward digitizing a variety of university publications, including departmental journals, conference proceedings, speeches, and university bulletins, as well as teaching materials, such as faculty lecture notes and course syllabi.  Additionally, all theses and dissertations at UCC have been digitized. 

While this is an excellent example of how locally produced knowledge can be harnessed to improve education, it is important to point out that these materials will not be openly accessible to users outside the university system.  Registered students and faculty members will be able to login with their university username and password, but others will be required to purchase materials on a pay per download model (similar to databases like Emerald).  This raises interesting issues regarding the trend of the commoditization of information in Africa; or at least the perception among African librarians that Westerners should pay for access to their digitized content.

In particular, there were two things that stood out to me about the UCC digital library.  First, the librarians were greatly committed to using open source software.  Open source offers African libraries a number of advantages in terms of quality, flexibility, and cost efficiency.  With open source, libraries can modify their software and implement special features that meet the needs of particular communities (particularly in terms of linguistic differences). Further, libraries in the developing world often do not have the financial resources to purchase proprietary software, which is costly and must be upgraded periodically.  Secondly, while I was visiting the UCC library, I observed a number of training sessions in which librarians from other parts of Ghana as well as abroad were learning about the digitization process. It was encouraging to see that UCC librarians were eager to serve as a regional model in terms of sharing their experiences with other libraries in order to help them create their own digital libraries. 

Gramophone Records Museum and Research Centre

The last organization I visited was the Gramophone Records Museum and Research Centre (GRMRC) located inside the Centre for National Culture in Cape Coast.  Founded in 1994 by Kwame Sarpong, the GRMRC contains an impressive collection of Ghanaian music dating from the late 1920s to present.  Currently, there are over 20,000 albums in the collection, including 78 rpm shellac discs, 45 rpm and 33 1/3 rpm vinyl discs, and compact discs.  In 2002, Mr. Sarpong received funding from the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology to digitize 500 albums under the project, “Ghana’s Highlife Music: a Digital Repertoire of Recordings and Pop Art.”  Some of the albums, including the accompanying artwork, are now available online at: http://www.fondation-langlois.org/html/e/page.php?NumPage=97

One significant challenge of this project has been resolving copyright issues.  Mr. Sarpong is currently working with the Copyright Society of Ghana, a professional body tasked with collecting and distributing royalties to copyright holders, to reach agreements in order to make these materials available online.  But until these agreements are reached, the online portion of the project is at a standstill.
Lastly, it is important to point out that all materials are currently hosted on the Daniel Langlois Foundation website.  And given the number of high resolution images and large audio (not to mention the embedded JavaScript), it is questionable whether many individuals in sub-Saharan Africa will be able to access this website.

 

Conclusion

In conclusion, there is still a lot of research that needs to be done on digital libraries in sub-Saharan Africa.  To quote Olayinka Fatoki, Librarian at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria:
“Digitization efforts in Nigeria and indeed Africa seem almost insignificant at present; but the foundation for its ‘explosion’ is being laid.”* I believe this statement is true also for Ghana.  Over the past decade, Ghanaian libraries have made substantial progress toward automation and digitization now offers new opportunities for collecting, organizing, and disseminating locally produced knowledge. 

Summer Tritt, M.L.S.
Librarian for History and Political Science
Government Documents Coordinator
Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne

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*Fatoki, O. C. (2007). Digitisation of  library materials in Nigeria: Issues and considerations for Information Professionals. African Journal of Library, Archives & Information Science, 17(1), 15-21.