Africa

“Open access electronic resources play a part in today’s research ecosystem, and African repositories are part of this”: Interview with Stephanie Kitchen, of the International African Institute

Today we are speaking with Stephanie Kitchen, Managing Editor at the International African Institute in London, England, about their African Digital Research Repositories project, why digital institutional repositories are important, and how they can effect change in a continent with an increasing focus on sustainable social and economic development.

(Archivoz) Can you give us a brief history of the International African Institute and its mission? How does the African Digital Research Repositories project contribute to this mission?

(S.K.) The International African Institute (IAI) was founded in London in 1926. It is best known for its journal Africa published since 1928 (now in volume 90). Its programmes and agendas have varied through the decades, but the IAI has been concerned consistently with promoting research and knowledge dissemination on the African continent. It was involved in foundational work, for example, on the codification of African languages and linguistic study. It is also known as a founding institution in what is still a central discipline in African studies – anthropology/ethnography. Since the 1980s, its work has largely focused on publishing and dissemination of information, as well as organizing and supporting conferences and seminars. The IAI publishes the journals Africa, Journal of African Cultural Studies, Africa Bibliography as well as several book series.

The African Digital Research Repositories grew from this work – notably the compiling of the annual, now digital, Africa Bibliography – along with growing interest in Open Access resources and online archival research. We were aware, for example, that a great deal of useful research in Africa is – and will likely will remain – unpublished in formal channels (book series and journals), but that increasingly institutions and libraries in the continent were making it available via repositories (often hosted in university libraries). Masters’ and PhD theses done in Africa contain a great deal of important research, often on ‘neglected’ topics. The idea of our modest – entirely internally funded – project was to research and begin to bring some of these repositories together in a way that might be useful to researchers throughout the world, and especially across the African continent. Initially we compiled lists of known repositories by country. It soon became clear that whilst some countries had quite advanced resources–in the North of the continent, in Ethiopia, latterly in Kenya, and in South Africa (including a large institutional repository at UNISA, the country’s long-distance learning university)–around 20 African countries had no known digital repositories.

Number of repositories per African country and percentages. “Other” countries entail those with 0-3 repositories present.

(Archivoz) In what areas is the most important research in Africa being done right now in terms of global impact? How do digital repositories support this work?

(S.K.) I am not sure I am qualified to answer the first part of this question! But African researchers and researchers from across the world working in the continent are contributing to research ranging from macro-economics and international relations, to public health and ecosystems research. Just now, as the IAI along with others in the African continent are trying to highlight via our blog African Arguments – Debating Ideas, social and biomedical research in Africa on responses to the Covid-19 crisis, as well as on earlier pandemics, notably HIV/AIDS and Ebola, is critical to local, regional and international understanding.

Open access electronic resources play a part in today’s research ecosystem, and African repositories are part of this, particularly in areas where local and contextual knowledge is important. Institutional repositories, such as databases developed by the UN Economic Commission for Africa or the African Union or the Repository of the Central Bank of Nigeria, may be key sources for economic, financial and political research.

(Archivoz) What level of participation or buy-in do you see across institutions on the part of faculty and/or students in the development of repositories? How is this participation encouraged/enforced?

(S.K.) Our 2016 study indicated that management of repositories in African universities falls largely upon libraries, where professional staffing generally is modest or lacking, as is training in the interface of repository work with more traditional librarianship. Our 2019 follow-up indicated an expansion of repositories, 48 additional repositories across the continent, in line with our finding that these were being encouraged at the highest level of universities, as well as wider Open Access mandates. We also found that at least 80 per cent of the repositories we surveyed in 2016 had a requirement in place for Master’s and PhD candidates to deposit their theses. In many cases, such deposit is required for degree completion.

Faculty involvement is more difficult to assess. As is the case elsewhere – in Europe and North America, I am unsure about Latin America – repositories are mainly considered the domain of librarians, or library publishing units. That said, faculty in Africa, in subjects such as history, for example, may be engaged in repositories and archives in ways that go beyond their Northern counterparts, since assisting with assembling such resources is essential to the present and future of their disciplines. There are doubtless many examples, but one I experienced personally was at the repository of the Université Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar, where historians and anthropologists were themselves involved in compiling and digitizing theses and memoirs deposited at the University since its founding in 1957, as well as research articles, university publications and rare and valuable works. This involved academics scanning from their own private libraries as well as contacting colleagues around the world to locate missing copies of older studies.

(Archivoz) In an article from December 2016, Robert Molteno states that through the establishment of digital repositories across Africa, “[t]he continent, from being largely only the object of investigation, would henceforth become the primary author of its own understanding.”1 He also states that it will allow African scholars to share their research with “a global audience.” In your mind, does either of these foci—internal vs. external—take precedence? Do they compete with or complement one another?

(S.K.) In a world of mobility, connectivity and expectations that research conform with ‘international’ standards it is of course difficult, if not impossible, to separate ‘internal vs external’ foci. As our Institute has tried to emphasize, African research has always been part of ‘global’ research in many domains, as illustrated through its long-term contribution to knowledge of infectious, or ‘tropical’, disease and public health. Equally, leading African postcolonial intellectuals – Claude Ake, Okot p’Bitek and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, among many others – have prioritized research and knowledge production in their own societies. Following Molteno, scholars such as Francis Nyamnjoh would argue that this is done through, for example, African authors and researchers ‘publishing in Africa’. Development of publishing – including repositories and academic journals – infrastructure in the continent does remain a major task, one that is perennially challenged by often unhelpful or adverse schemes or policies, usually developed outside the continent in ignorance of specific contexts, that may undermine an already fragile and fragmented system. The European Union-driven Plan S, self-evidently Eurocentric and with scant regard for knowledge production systems outside the global North or ‘global science’, is a good (bad!) example of this.

(Archivoz) One element of the African Union’s Agenda 2063 is promotion of a pan-African cultural renaissance. Some African cultural institutions, such as the National Gallery of Zimbabwe at Bulawayo, make an explicit connection between heritage and development, suggesting an archival model that should be as much about access to cultural as to intellectual/academic production. Do you see potential for this sort of “collecting” in the repositories you have studied?

(S.K.) Cultural studies in Africa, including art, film and heritage studies, is a vibrant field at present, as we reflect in our Journal of African Cultural Studies. But among the repositories we’ve studied, there are not too many examples of such institutional practice. The Rare Books and Special Collections Digital Library at the American University in Cairo is one. The repository of the Université Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar discussed above is another. A further example is Archives Africa (National Archives of Madagascar), which bring together a wealth of ‘unexplored records on the history of Madagascar’ under the strapline ‘curating Africa’s cultural heritage.’

(Archivoz) On your website, you mention hopes of at some point creating a greater degree of inter-searchability among the existing African repositories. Given that UN Sustainable Development Goal 17 represents an explicit call for enhanced global partnerships, how important is it that these connections between individual institutions, and between these institutions and the rest of the world, be strengthened?

(S.K.) A recent project, done together with AfricArXiv, developed an interactive map of African digital research repositories. This extended earlier work to include organizational and governmental repositories. It also maps interactions between research repositories, and is aimed at promoting their use and connectivity with digital scholarly search engines and research. I would also draw attention to the recently published research of the LIBENSE network.

Overview of the visual map of African digital repositories. Nodes represent countries with their connections to various types of repositories as distinguished by color code.

One of the striking observations of the African repository landscape even five years ago was its fragmentation, so we hope these initiatives represent some advance. But compare them with the Latin American REDIB repository which lists over 1,100 institutions, 3,000 plus journals and over a million documents. The IAI’s efforts are intended to consolidate and promote known repositories in the continent (including in global search engines) as a service to African studies research resources. This work, we know, has been appreciated by librarians as well as by the repositories themselves, that appreciate the exposure, and new repositories write to us from time to time requesting to be listed. That said, political will and thus resources for trans-continental, or ‘Pan-African’, publishing projects are lacking or difficult to access within the African continent, and in Europe or North America, ignorance of what is needed is often a problem – despite the UN goal you cite.

(Archivoz) At this point, what do you think is the biggest challenge facing African institutions that wish to establish digital repositories of their own?

(S.K.) Impediments should not be technological (as our report showed). Open Access platforms are available, when there is political will and support from heads of institutions. There is also an established and growing consensus of the value of Open Access research resources as a public good throughout the world. Now added to that is the pressure on all institutions to improve online resources (and eventually teaching and research) in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. That said, we observed pressures around resources for IT, staffing, skills, training and lack of networking beyond single institutions. It is hard to see immediate significant improvements in these areas given the effects in Africa of the coming global recession.

Notes
1. Robert Molteno, “Digital Repositories: Making Africa’s Intelligentsia Visible?,” Bulletin of the National Library of South Africa 70, no. No. 2 (December 2016), 170.

Images
Header image created by Elena Urizar.
Additional images from African Digital Research Repositories: Mapping the Landscape (International African Institute and AfricArXIV, March 2020).  Used by permission of the International African Institute. 

 


Interview conducted by: Vance Woods

“Access to information is the heart of any sustainable development effort, and it is therefore imperative that relevant stakeholders invest more in library development in African communities”: Interview with Damilare Oyedele, of Library Aid Africa

We are speaking with Damilare Oyedele, co-founder of Library Aid Africa, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to championing the need for school and community libraries in Africa as a vehicle for sustainable development and a better quality of life for all.

(Archivoz) What was your inspiration for Library Aid Africa?

(D.O.) As a young boy in my community, I did not have access to a library as the schools I attended never had one. As a matter of fact, I never knew anything called “library.” This denied me access to literature, the ability to use information independently, my reading culture was poor and I could not communicate fluently. This presented me with numerous challenges as I failed the national examination twice consecutively due to my poor reading skills.

My first real encounter with a library came upon my admission into an institution of higher learning to study Library and Information Science. I soon cultivated the habit of studying in the confines of a library, and I began to explore the merits a library had to offer. It was an amazing experience for me because, for the first time in my life, I had independent access to information and other intellectual property. This inspired me to create a platform that would facilitate equitable access to information for all.

My journey began at the age of 19, when I was still in school. I took it as my personal responsibility to do something about the dearth of libraries in Nigeria, with a view to expanding this vision to other African countries. I started by writing articles for various Nigerian daily newspapers, and after that I went into broadcasting with the same vision to use television to educate people about the importance of libraries.  Fortunately for me, I was granted an audience via a television series named “Library and You.” It featured documentaries and interviews with authors, librarians, and publishers discussing feasible solutions for resuscitation of libraries. This series lasted for three consecutive quarters in 2016.

I came to realize that the problems Africa faces have to do with the lack of or inadequate access to information. Information and knowledge empowers the mind of every individual. I realised that community engagement and initiatives are sacrosanct. This led to the establishment of Library Aid Africa (formerly known as ‘Library and You’), a not-for-profit organization with the mission to revamp libraries in Africa to increase their societal impact. The organization focuses on access to information through pragmatic initiatives, designed to create awareness and resuscitate libraries in schools and communities.

(Archivoz) How many countries participate in Library Aid Africa, and which ones are they?

(D.O.) Library Aid Africa operates from Nigeria, with partners and volunteer presence in over 10 African countries: Ghana, Namibia, Uganda, South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, Togo, Republic of Benin, Mali, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Liberia, and Rwanda. Over the years, we have been able to build committed partners and volunteers in various African regions who share the same vision with us. Our vision is to resuscitate libraries in schools and communities.

(Archivoz) You have underlined the importance of a grassroots effort. Why is this so important?

(D.O.) We realised that grassroots efforts in rural areas and within communities are essential, as these communities needs development in many dimensions: literacy development, quality education, zero hunger, good health and wellbeing, sustainable cities and communities, and gender equality, among many others. To achieve these, informed literate citizens are essential. Why? An informed mind is empowered, with the knowledge and skills to make informed choices that improve quality of life and contribute meaningfully to the decision-making processes of government. We also seek to mobilize citizens to drive advocacy for library development in their local communities, targeting community integration and promotion of local content and thereby realizing access to information for all.

(Archivoz) Tell us about some of your current and ongoing projects. What is topmost on your action list right now?

(D.O.) One of our topmost concerns is how libraries drive progress across the SDGs and AU Agenda 2063. These sustainable development plans are essential for Africa’s development, and access to information must play an important role if we are to achieve their targets. To this end, we are working with our partners across Africa to drive advocacy, projects and initiatives that will facilitate equitable access to information for all. These projects center on creating local impacts through library set-up and management in African communities. An informed literate mind is empowered to contribute to the attainment of these sustainable development plans. Libraries are eminent beyond comparison in achieving this because they create platforms that provides equitable access to information for all in print and electronic media.

In the past, we have partnered with the National Library of Nigeria to organize a Social Media Library Advocacy Awareness Program, an online sensitization that focused on educating the online community on how libraries drive progress across the SDGs.

More recently, Worldreader, in collaboration with Library Aid Africa, launched its Inspire Us Collection, a collection of digital books leveraging mobile technology and literature to redefine gender stereotypes and boost women’s and girls’ empowerment and assertiveness. The collection, encompassing fiction and non-fiction, include stories that clearly articulate women as protagonists, change agents, and leaders of the future.

Of course I must also mention our #libraryselfie series. This is an online initiative designed to create awareness about the importance of libraries as spaces for reading and learning. We had #libraryselfie2018 last year in Nigeria and we just concluded #libraryselfie2019 across six African countries: Nigeria, Ghana, Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa. We have 18 winners across those six countries, who we will engage as library champions who will drive advocacy for improved library development and usage in their local communities.

(Archivoz) How many public libraries are there in Nigeria right now? How many would you like to see, if all goes according to your vision?

(D.O.) According to the IFLA World Library Map, there are 290 public libraries in Nigeria. A country with a population of over 200 million people! It is apparent that the number of public libraries in Nigeria is quite low, and the numbers are similar across other African countries where we operate. As an organisation, our top priority is to ensure citizens’ access to information. Part of our strategy is to engage relevant stakeholders in the educational and library sectors. Also, through citizen engagement, we plan to set up community centres that will serve as platforms where community members can study, access information both in print and electronic formats, and share experience and knowledge.

(Archivoz) The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are a big part of the work you are doing, as is the African Union Agenda 2063. In what ways can the creation of school and public libraries forward these goals?

(D.O.) The Sustainable Development Goals and Agenda 2063 were designed to make the world we live in a better place for the current generation and generations to come. It is our collective responsibility as citizens to commit ourselves to achieving their targets. The role of libraries in achieving these goals cannot be overemphasized, be they school libraries or public. Why? It’s all about access to information.

For us to achieve the SDGs and Agenda 2063, we must commit to developing informed literate citizens. Libraries by nature carry the responsibility to provide equitable access to information for all. This information empowers people with the skills and knowledge needed to function and participate in creating a sustainable society, to drive progress towards achieving sustainable development, and to co-create sustainable solutions.

Partnerships and collaboration are two of our major thrusts. We work with credible partners across Africa towards achieving these goals. For example, we have the Library Impact Project. This project seeks to facilitate access to information in support of the Sustainable Development Goals and African Union Agenda 2063. It is scheduled for implementation in eight African countries, with the view to achieving 16 outputs in each. The project has three major focuses: access to information, increased skills and capacity building, and advocacy.

(Archivoz) Of all the SDGs, which ones do you most wish to address through the Library Aid Africa initiative?

(D.O.) As an organisation that focuses on equitable access to information for all, our work addresses all the SDGs and Agenda 2063. Access to information is imperative across all the goals. Quality education requires access to relevant information resources for learning and research. Zero poverty requires access to information that equips people with skills that enable productivity. Zero hunger requires access to information to educate farmers and citizens on crop types, seasons, weather forecasting, and new farming techniques and mechanisms. Gender equality demands access to information to empower young girls and women. Access to information is the heart of any sustainable development effort, and it is therefore imperative that relevant stakeholders invest more in library development in African communities.

(Archivoz) Where can our readers learn more about what you are doing?

(D.O.) You can learn more about what we do at Library Aid Africa on our future website and on our social media platforms: Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. You can also contact us via email, at libraryaidafrica@gmail.com.

Header image: Library Aid Africa logo used by permission of Library Aid Africa and Damilare Oyedele.

 


Interview conducted by: Vance Woods