KEY TAKEAWAYS

• Carnegie Corporation of New York helped establish a master’s program at the University of Pretoria in South Africa that trains Africa’s next generation of librarians in new technologies that they can bring to their institutions

• The program has graduated 103 librarians in Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, and Eritrea since it started in 2011

In the program, students learn about open content and open-access literature, techniques for digitizing historical materials, and tools to enable scholars to access information more readily

Equipping information professionals in Africa with these skills gives them ownership over their countries’ histories and expertise

 

 
A cohort of library and information science professionals gather in Pretoria, South Africa, for the University of Pretoria Carnegie Capstone Conference. Held in March, the conference celebrated the graduation of 103 students from an innovative master’s program at the university, aimed at training the next generation of librarians in Africa in advanced information and communications technology. Claudia Frittelli, program officer for Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Higher Education and Research in Africa program, stands at the back centered just in front of the patio umbrella. (Photo: Courtesy Claudia Frittelli)

For years, the Buganda kingdom archive at Makerere University in Kampala was a decidedly low-tech affair: a cache of boxes in the Africana section of the main library. There, visitors could flip through the delicate pages of the books and papers that survived the rise of the Republic of Uganda in the 1960s, when tribal kingdoms were officially abolished and most materials were lost or destroyed.

Each visit to the archive posed both an opportunity and a threat: the chance for scholars to build and share knowledge about the kingdom, as well as the danger of erasing that source of historical understanding forever. It’s all too easy for original artifacts to become damaged or destroyed through repeated contact with curious hands.

“The demand for these archive documents is increasing exponentially, which puts them at risk of rapid deterioration,” said Patrick Sekikome, an academic librarian at Makerere University. “There is usually only one copy of each document in the archive, which means that once damaged, the archive has suffered a loss that can never be remedied. This might lead to more gaps in a very valuable historical collection.”

Each visit to the archive posed both an opportunity and a threat: the chance for scholars to build and share knowledge about the kingdom, as well as the danger of erasing that source of historical understanding forever. It’s all too easy for original artifacts to become damaged or destroyed through repeated contact with curious hands.

 

In order to prevent such a tragedy, Sekikome led an effort to digitize the collection. His goals were two-fold. He wanted to prolong the lifespan of the original materials and he sought to make the documents more accessible to scholars in Africa and beyond. Together with library staff, he donned white cotton gloves and scanned hundreds of documents, coding each item with detailed metadata. The team then created digital files, which are now available for immediate download from anywhere in the world. Items are retrievable through a next-generation online repository. They have also created future-proof versions of these documents in a digital archive.

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The Buganda digitizing project was the culmination of Sekikome’s degree work in the master’s in information technology program at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. This innovative program is designed to train the next generation of library leaders on the continent. Students do the necessary research, learning how to apply advanced information and communications technologies to expand access to materials, to accelerate research and scholarship, and to foster collaborations around the globe.

“It’s really quite something to put a heritage collection online, to be made accessible for people who thought they would never be able to have access to these specific documents,” said Martie van Deventer, a research associate in the Pretoria program. “Previously, such collections were totally inaccessible to those who did not know that the collection existed or did not have the means to physically travel to where the collection is.”

New Skills for New Technologies

New broadband access and low-cost digital tools like smartphones and mobile applications hold great promise for African libraries and universities, enabling students, scholars, and researchers to take deep dives into the rich histories of their countries, to explore and enrich postcolonial identities, and to create the sort of cross-boundary scholarship that can propel the continent’s interests forward.

But technology itself isn’t enough to unleash that potential. What else is needed? Tech-savvy librarians.

“If you are building strong postgraduate education, you need good information professionals,” said Claudia Frittelli, program officer in Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Higher Education and Research in Africa program. “Academic librarians who are themselves participating in new forms of knowledge-sharing are better equipped to inform and engage researchers in low- or no-cost communications, in networking, and in joint research to increase their visibility, relevance, and research productivity.”

The Pretoria program was established with the Corporation’s support in 2011. In the years since, it has graduated 103 librarians from Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda (the five countries in which Carnegie Corporation of New York operates), as well as from Kenya and Eritrea. In addition, and as a complementary effort, 308 library professionals, from the same countries, have completed a four-week certificate course where the practical, hands-on skills were taught. Together, these two programs have resulted in the formation of a network of knowledgeable middle managers and librarians who have gained experience in working with modern technology and who now know where to access either online help or a peer who has already overcome similar challenges.

“Academic librarians who are themselves participating in new forms of knowledge-sharing are better equipped to inform and engage researchers in low- or no-cost communications, in networking, and in joint research to increase their visibility, relevance, and research productivity.”

— Claudia Frittelli, Carnegie Corporation of New York

The program introduces students to the wide world of technology-rich information science, including open content and open-access literature, techniques for digitizing and creating research-friendly repositories of historical materials, and tools that help researchers access information more readily.

The aspiring librarians then put that knowledge to use through a range of hands-on projects. Students have built several new online collections of research materials, such as a repository focused on healthcare research in Ghana and electronic theses and dissertation collections in Uganda. Some have already implemented simple low-investment, high-impact digital tools at their own institutions, including library Facebook pages, shared Google Docs, wikis (websites that allow for collaborative editing), and online “ask a librarian” support.

Many have also written new policies and several have been promoted to more senior roles at their institutions, developments that are in line with the program’s explicit goal of helping libraries advance into the digital age. As leaders, the program’s students are wrestling with many of the challenges and tensions that are endemic to the digital age, such as protecting academic integrity while allowing research findings to flow freely.

One of those challenges was cast into sharp relief during a program trip to the U.S., when graduate students visited the Mortenson Center for International Library Programs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The visitors were shown the electronic database of the university’s master’s theses and doctoral dissertations, which stood in contrast to a common practice at African institutions of only keeping paper copies of doctoral dissertations and not making digital copies available. Marlene Holmner, a senior lecturer at Pretoria’s School of Information Technology, recalled that the first reaction of the visitors was, “Anyone can copy the document now, why would you do that?” But the students also learned about solutions to that potential problem. They were exposed to low- and no-cost plagiarism detection services like turnitin.com.

“These are the types of ‘soft skills’ that become important: ‘Actually, it can’t be plagiarized because of turnitin.com!’ So, they started to understand that the work was protected, and they realized that they could safely upload the work,” Holmner said. “We created a culture of compliance to ethical behavior, and now plagiarism is one of the main topics we teach in our information literacy classes.”

Supporting Scholarship and Identity

Such efforts serve the broader purpose of strengthening African-led scholarship, complementing a longstanding commitment by Carnegie Corporation of New York to promote higher education and build human capital within academic institutions in Africa. Building librarians’ skills and, therefore, their institutions’ capacities to house and provide access to relevant heritage collections promotes more sophisticated scholarship — which in turn supports a deepening mastery and ownership of local histories and expertise.

“This gives many more people access to elements of their African identity and culture,” said Frittelli. “Previously, it would be a library in the U.K. or the United States that would have digitized these materials, and Africans themselves would not have had access to them.”

For example, one of the program’s students established an online collection of artifacts from the long struggle for self-rule in Eritrea, which gained independence in 1993 after decades of Italian colonialism and a 30-year war with neighboring Ethiopia. That project involved gathering a motley and largely hidden collection of photos, documents, voice recordings, and other artifacts from makeshift storage sites, including caves, as well as consulting with Italian experts on how best to digitize them, according to van Deventer.

“In the past, collection managers would have struggled to educate themselves to ensure sustainable digitization projects,” she said. “The world has opened up for them … and also for those of us who are now able to access these hidden treasures.”