Digitization of archival collections in Africa for scholarly communication: issues, strategies, and challenges.

Author:Asogwa, Brendan Eze


Experience and observations have revealed that most archives and libraries in Africa today are filled with materials recorded in analogue formats and the traditional or analogue librarians and archivists are those who are still carrying out the tasks of acquiring, organizing, and preserving the print documents and helping the readers in locating the information they need.

In developing countries this picture has rapidly changed due to the influence of advances in computer technology. The physical materials are gradually giving way to electronic print, and online public access catalogue (OPAC) is obliterating the needs for users to physically visit the library or archives buildings to access their collections. Traditionally, librarians and archivists have been analogue information providers for centuries, but today they have the opportunities to use modern technologies to provide quicker, accurate and more sophisticated services to users. Since then, archiving of digital materials as well as creating digital archives is an emerging practice of today's archival profession. This is made feasible by technological advancement which provides greater opportunities and challenges to librarians, archivists and information professionals. Technology has made information which was traditionally provided in paper prints to be digitized, preserved and made available and accessible to users in electronic format.

The proliferation of electronic information; the dwindling budget for acquisition of library stocks; the desire to access materials in remote locations; the quest for collaboration, partnerships and resource sharing; and the ever increasing cost of preserving analogue materials, and so on , are some of the forces that prompted digitization of archives and records. Omekwu (2009) aptly observed that the transient nature of many web resources calls for practice that ensure that information of instrumental value is accessed, acquired and archived electronically for reference and research purposes. This paradigm shift from traditional medium to electronic format has tasked modern archivists, especially with regard to digital preservation, accessibility, copyrights and the issue of intellectual property rights. In view of this development, for archivists and librarians in Africa to keep afloat with this modern trends, they need to be prepared to embrace the new technology.

Background of Digital Libraries/Archives

It was Scholler (1984) who reveals that Thomas A. Edison that invented phonograph more than 120 years ago, and in 1899the Academy of Science in Vienna founded the phonograph-archives which was the first archives of the world.

Hughes (2004); Mutula & Ojedokun (2008) reports that the foundation of modern archives (the Internet, electronic libraries and archives) was laid in 1945 when Vannevar Bush envisioned an automated system that would store information. Bush articulated a system known as a memex machine which he envisaged would allow a user to view stored information from several different access points and look at several items simultaneously. In 1950 Dauglas Engelbert "hypothesized that computers could be used to automate symbol-handling tasks, and thus help people think faster and better about more complex problems"(Mutula & Ojedokun, 2008).

The idea of Bush and Engelbert inspired and motivated Ted Nelson to coin the term hypertext to describe a system that linked bits of knowledge in ways that people think. Since Bush anticipated the notion of scholars having access to infinite quantities of information at the desktop, "it has led to a sea change in the accessibility, affordability and ease of use of computing and networked digital information" (Hughes, 2004). Right from then, the evolution of digital libraries and archives in the 1990s is tied to hypertext searching and advances in computer technology. Since the evolution, many digital library projects such as that of the Association of Africa Universities(AAU), the Rhodes University in South Africa, the University of Nigeria Nsukka, and the African Digital Library (ADL), are some of the digital library projects being implemented in Africa.

In addition to using technology for administrative and academic purposes, digitized collections can be made accessible in a reformatted/refined way which allows faster browsing simultaneously on the Internet by millions of users in different and remote locations. As is becoming the emerging practice of archivists, electronic preservation, and the best way to make archival resources available and accessible to users, has been the greatest worries of modern archives professionals.

Contemporary Issues and Problems

Information emanating from governments, institutions, organizations, scholars as well as private individuals are increasingly appearing online and being demanded electronically thereby creating a new environment and challenging to library and archival profession. It is placing greater pressure on information professionals and the urgent needs to be abreast with developments in the global archival environment.

The issue is that as Witten & Bainbridge, (2003) correctly observed "new strategic vision and economic models are emerging" and modern archivists are operating in a context of new social, political, economic, and technological milieu which impact on institutions, administrators, archivists, librarians, genealogists, historians, lawyers, and scholars' needs and the uses they make of archives. This therefore, changes the mission of the archivists and their priorities for service delivery. It touches on the economy of archival institutions and changed or brings about changes associated with the context and nature of the resources that librarians and archivists have in their collections and therefore, affects their attitudes and priorities for collection development, storage and use. It changes the technology of the archival institutions which simultaneously changes the tools and systems with which archivists work with and, therefore impinge on the frameworks and tools by which their services are delivered. The political change which links together all the above process of making choice about policy, priorities, and resource allocation, is not left out either.

The implications are that all the forces for change in the politics and government in Africa, are influencing the internal management dynamic of museum, archives and their parent's institutions. As the information future of technology is abysmally unpredictable, it affects the way and manner information is created, managed, processed, archived and made accessible for scholarly communication.

In view of this shift in paradigms, the use of "technology has become a fundamental part of the institutional mission of archives, museums and libraries" (McKay,2003). Technology and its impacts on archives and libraries is one example of the rapid and pervasive changes that has affected work, life and scholarly communications today. It is making computer-based archiving system an imperative for many operations in memory institutions (Smith, 2000). In addition to the use of technology for administrative purposes and scholarly communications, more institutions are developing digitization initiative, and hundreds of libraries, museums, history, and archives have launched projects designed to digitize their collections and place them on the web (University of Illinois Library 2001).

Purpose of the Study

This paper examines and discusses

  1. How information technology answers the questions of what, why, how and the gains of digitization project in Africa.

  2. The rules or principles and basic approaches Africa should know about digitalization of their archival collections.

  3. The gains or reasons why cultural institutions in African and the developing world should digitize and preserve their archival collections in digital formats.

  4. And the challenges facing African archivists in their efforts to digitize their cultural heritage collections.


Literature review of current issues and developments in archives, archiving, preservation, and digitization was carried. This made the author to have an added insight into some of the basic concepts, issues, and techniques that might have made a better comprehension of the paper ambiguous. The ideas and knowledge obtained from reviewing the literature was used in discussing the concepts, issues, strategies and challenges of digitalization in the archival profession.


Digitization is "the process by which analogue contents is converted into a sequence of 1s (ones) and 0s (zeros) and put into a binary code to be readable by computer" (Hughes, 2004). It is the transformation of analogue information from whatever form and from whatever support to digital code using computer technologies. This may "include electronic snapshots taken of a scene or photographs, films, manuscripts, printed texts and artworks scanned from documents" (Cornell University Library, 2001). Digitization process converts archival materials from formats that can be read by people (analogue) to a format that can be read only with the help of machines (digital). It is a process of taking a physical object (analogue contents), and taking photographs of or scanning the item and transferring the photographs into a digital medium. It is also a process of archiving born digitals into the institutions collections.

The concept of digital archives may therefore be referred to as both collections of electronic resources consisting of 'born digital'(i.e. archival materials which originally was not intended to have analogue equivalent) and, 'made digital' (i.e. creating digital files of archival collections by conversion or scanning the analogue materials such as texts, audio, visual, graphics, animations and other documents) generated in the day-to-day administration of an institution that are made accessible through the aid of...

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