Academic journal article African Research & Documentation

Digitisation at the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies: A Consideration of Processes and Outcomes

Academic journal article African Research & Documentation

Digitisation at the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies: A Consideration of Processes and Outcomes

Article excerpt

From its inception, the goal of the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies at Northwestern University has been to collect as comprehensively as possible materials from and related to Africa, regardless of subject. Due to this comprehensive collection policy, the library contains many materials that are not readily available at other institutions in the United States, Europe or Africa, as was made evident by last year's SCOLMA presentation on materials on sport at the Herskovits Library.2

Starting in the mid-1990s, the Herskovits Library began to consider digitising portions of its unique resources, not only to better serve its local community of researchers on the Northwestern University campus but remote users as well, regardless of location. Along with increased availability, such digitisation would support broader access to primary resources in African studies, leading to expanded research as well as enhanced teaching and curriculum enrichment, especially for undergraduate students. By 2012, the Herskovits Library had completed several digital initiatives, with others in process or in the queue, for formats including books, audio-tapes, maps, photographs, and posters. Supported by Northwestern University funds, external granting agencies, and consortial arrangements, the projects to date have provided opportunities to develop methodologies for completion of digital projects, strategies for priority setting, models for rights negotiations, and experimentation with inter-institutional cooperation. At the same time, the organisational structure within the University Library has evolved to sustain the institution's digital work to date and support its expansion across subject areas and disciplines.

This presentation will review the processes that have made digital content of Herskovits Library collections accessible and the development of an institutional framework for sustained digitisation, providing specific examples drawn from several digitisation projects leading up to the development of Northwestern's institutional repository. The presentation will also comment on examples of digital projects in which the digital format of Herskovits Library holdings are made accessible from a source other than Northwestern University - for example, through ALUKA or the Center for Research Libraries. The presentation will offer examples of the impact of Herskovits Library digital projects through both use statistics and anecdotal evidence on research, teaching, and publishing output, and summarise projects in progress and plans for future digitisation.

Formally established as a separate library in 1954, the Herskovits Library traces its origins to the arrival of Melville J. Herskovits at Northwestern University, the first anthropologist appointed to the faculty in 1927. Herskovits established the Program of African Studies at Northwestern in 1948 with a grant from the Carnegie Corporation, and convinced the Northwestern University administration to create a separate library of African studies committed to comprehensive acquisitions in perpetuity. More information about the Herskovits Library can be found on the library's website at


In 1994, the Northwestern University Library Preservation Department began to explore digital technology as an aspect of its work. The Preservation Department was not only focused on digitisation and the Herskovits Library, but on Northwestern University Library's unique collections in the broad perspective. The Preservation Department's focus, however, was on digital technology and what the library system could learn from projects in the area, and how such projects could advance the library's strategic objectives in serving the university. For us in the Herskovits Library, our first job was to make a convincing case for inclusion of our resources in the initial projects.

A part-time position in the Preservation Department-Digital Technology Librarian-was created in 1995 to initiate exploration of possible digital projects; in 1996 the position was filled and work began. …

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