open access

“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 We were aware, for example, that a great deal of useful research in Africa is – and will likely will remain – unpublished in formal channels (book series and journals), but that increasingly institutions and libraries in the continent were making it available via repositories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.

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.

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

“We consider the Little Free Library movement to be very inclusive and we don’t want there to be barriers for anybody who wants to be involved”: Interview with Margret Aldrich, of Little Free Library

Margret Aldrich, Media and Program Manager with Little Free Library and author of The Little Free Library Book, speaks with us about book sharing, community building, and why open access isn’t just about the Internet anymore.

(Archivoz) Can you tell us a little of the history behind Little Free Library?

The very first Little Free Library was built by a man named Todd Bol in Hudson, Wisconsin in 2009. Todd built his library as a memorial to his mother, who was a schoolteacher and loved to read. He built this little box for books and constructed it to look like a one-room schoolhouse and put it in his front yard. As he started to see how his neighbors reacted to it—they shared books, they stopped and had conversations with each other—he really wanted to share with the rest of the world the idea that books can bring people together. The Little Free Library nonprofit organization was created in 2012, and now in 2019 we’re celebrating a decade of sharing books. There are more than 90,000 registered Little Free Libraries, in all 50 states in the U.S. and 91 different countries.

(Archivoz) How did you become involved with the Little Free Library movement?

I’ve always been a book person. I worked in publishing for about 10 years as an editor and then I shifted to magazine publishing. I wrote about Little Free Libraries when I first became aware of them back in 2011 and subsequently ended up writing a book about the global movement. Afterwards, the nonprofit organization asked me to join the team. I do media relations. We get a surprising amount of media attention around the world. I work with our partners, like the Children’s Book Council and the New York Times Learning Network. We’ve even done projects with Disney and Sony. I also run a program called the Action Book Club, which combines reading with community service.

(Archivoz) What are your thoughts on calling it a movement? What, in your mind, is the ultimate goal of Little Free Libraries as a movement?

Ultimately, our goal is to increase book access and build community. I do consider it a movement, for a couple of reasons. It’s really people-driven. Every single person who has a Little Free Library is called a Steward and we consider them volunteers for the Little Free Library movement because they’re giving their own time to better their communities. There is something universal about this phenomenon, from New York to Iowa farmland to Pakistan or Australia and Japan: the love of books, the love of reading and the desire to share books with others, and a real need to connect with people and give back to one’s community.

(Archivoz) From my explorations here in Corvallis, it appears that not every little library is a Little Free Library. How does it feel to have so many imitators out there?

When we count our 90,000, those are only the registered libraries. We know that there are many, many more that aren’t registered, and we’re okay with that. We’re all doing the same good thing: everybody’s trying to create greater access, share books with others, and do something good for their communities. We do love it when people register with us, though, and we would implore you to do so because we want to count you, we want you to be part of this global community, we want you to add your Little Library to our world map so that people can find you. We also do a lot with steward services: we help people out when they’re getting started or when they want to learn more about how to engage their community, and we do lots of fun things like book giveaways and author interviews.

(Archivoz) What is the most creative Little Library you’ve come across?

One that I saw this year that was amazing was in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. A woman named Sharalee Armitage Howard had this huge cottonwood tree in her front yard, 110 years old. It was dying, and the city said it had to come down. She ended up leaving a very tall stump, and inside she created a walk-in Little Free Library. It has interior and exterior lighting; it has bookshelves inside. It’s really pretty magical.

(Archivoz) You mention in your book that some people have done more with their Little Libraries than just share books—e.g., seed exchanges, geocaching. Do you have a favorite “extracurricular” use?

It’s interesting to see how a Little Free Library can reflect the personality of a neighborhood or of its steward. I do love when people do seed exchanges in the springtime; it’s an excellent community service. There’s one man who uses his Little Free Library as a record exchange. Instead of books, he shares albums. In one neighborhood it may be about connecting with your neighbors and building community, and in another neighborhood, if there are no libraries or bookstores nearby, it really becomes about public access to books.

(Archivoz) You have written about the movement’s anti-tech appeal. A post on the nonprofit’s Linked In site refers to encountering a Little Free Library as an “analog moment.” Why is this important?

You almost can’t get more analog than a Little Free Library. It is literally a wooden box filled with books: you open the door, look inside, find something you like and take it home with you. In a time when Amazon tells us what we’d like to read and Netflix tells us what we’d like to watch, I think people respond to that very slowed-down, tactile experience. However, as analog as a Little Free Library is, the movement itself has been very driven by technology. We never would have spread to South Korea or Sudan or Iceland without social media. It’s been phenomenal to see how people sharing photos of their Little Free Libraries has helped create the movement. We have a private Facebook page for registered stewards where they can connect with other stewards across the country and around the world. So, you can connect with your community and your neighbors with the Little Free Library itself, but you can also connect to the wider, global Little Free Library community with technology.

(Archivoz) “Open access” is a bit of a catchphrase right now in the library and archives profession, but it tends to be used in reference mainly to academic publishing. At a time when many public library systems face political and budgetary crises, amidst debates about the benefits of late fees, charging for library privileges, etc., in what ways does the Little Free Library speak to the issue?

As a nonprofit organization, we see ourselves as an ally to public libraries. We work with hundreds of public library systems, and often they will use Little Free Libraries as community outreach tools. I know of a library in Florida that puts Little Free Libraries at the beach, and they include information about their programs inside. Also, if you lack the resources to start your Little Free Library, we have the Impact Library Program. It’s a donor-driven program; we supply Little Free Libraries to applicants at no cost. We consider the Little Free Library movement to be very inclusive and we don’t want there to be barriers for anybody who wants to be involved.

(Archivoz) How does one go about becoming a Little Free Library steward?

You can go to Little Free and find out how to get started there. You can either build a Little Free Library of your own if you have the skills and the ideas, or you can come to our site and get one that’s already constructed. If you purchase one, it’s already registered; you just have to add it to the map once it’s up. If you build your own, we would love for you to register with us and we’ll send you the charter sign to put on your library. We try to keep it as rule-free as possible, so that it’s not only meaningful, but a very fun thing to do as well.

Header Image: Little Free Library, Corvallis, Oregon (photo by editor)
Additional images: 1) Little Free Library, Stavelot, Belgium (used by permission of Llarina González Solar); 2) Little Free Library, Soave, Italy (used by permission of Llarina González Solar); 3) Little Free Library, Corvallis, Oregon (photo by editor); 4) Little Free Library, Corvallis, Oregon (photo by editor)