Selected Internet Sources for the Study of Africa

By Kagan, Al | African Research & Documentation, September 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Selected Internet Sources for the Study of Africa


Kagan, Al, African Research & Documentation


The following comments, analysis, and guide grow out of publishing two editions of a reference book and teaching a course on the Bibliography of Africa for the past nineteen years at the University of Illinois, Urbana/Champaign. The course is required for all Masters students in African Studies.

Two major issues have emerged with compiling the following guide to the best online sources for the study of Africa. The first is the fast growth of digital sources, and the increasing need to have access to the Internet to do research on Africa. The second is the uneven mix between open access and fee-based access to these online resources, and therefore the growing gap between rich institutions and scholars and struggling organisations and individuals who are at a disadvantage in accessing knowledge.

The following discussion and analysis is, of course, based on my own knowledge and evaluation of sources in all formats, and my own selection of titles in the universe of materials available. The major exception is that my predecessor at the University of Illinois Library, Yvette Scheven, shared authorship with me on the first edition of our reference book. It was Yvette's pioneering work in developing the bibliography course that served as the basis for all this work.

Regarding the guide, other African Studies bibliographers would undoubtedly select somewhat different materials, but it is likely that there would be a consensus regarding the inclusion of most of these titles.

The Growth of Online Sources for the Study of Africa

Yvette Scheven and I published the first edition of the Reference Guide to Africa: A Bibliography of Sources1 in 1999. The work included eight chapters by format (Bibliographies and Indexes, Current Events, Primary Sources, etc.) and seventeen subject/disciplinary chapters mainly in the humanities and social sciences (cultural anthropology, history, politics, literature, etc.). Standard chapter headings (with appropriate variations) included Research Guides, Surveys, Bibliographies and Indexes, Atlases, Periodicals, and Selected Subject Headings. It is telling that there was a need for special chapters on Internet Sources and Current Events, and that only one of the Current Events periodicals was then available online.

Of 944 entries, only about 60 were available online, mostly databases but also 20 examples of electronic mailing lists and newsgroups. Excluding the listservs and newsgroups, there were 40 sources online, 38 CD-ROMs, and 2 floppy disks. There was almost complete overlap between the sources available online and those available on CD-ROM. Therefore only about 6% of the entries were online, and if we exclude the listserv and newsgroup examples, we find that only 4% of the rest of the entries were online.

I published the second edition of the Reference Guide to Africa2 in 2005. This time there was no obvious need for chapters on Internet Sources and Current Events. By this time in the rich countries, students and scholars were using the Internet every day, and there was no need to explain concepts such as "Electronic mail" and "Telnet." And most students and scholars were already getting news online.

The second edition now had only six format chapters and seventeen subject/ disciplinary chapters. Of the 793 entries, 215 were online, 39 were available in CD-ROM, and there were still two floppy disks. Again, there was almost complete overlap between the online and CD-ROM sources. As opposed to a handful of titles in the first edition, now about three-fourths of the periodicals listed were online. The percentage of entries now online jumped to about 27%, but excluding periodicals, about 17% of the rest of the entries were online.

I have been compiling a continuing list of important sources for the study of Africa since the publication of the second edition in 2005. That list includes 133 titles, of which 74 are available online, which is about 56%.

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