Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Digitization of Africa's Documentary Heritage: Aid or Exploitation?

Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Digitization of Africa's Documentary Heritage: Aid or Exploitation?

Article excerpt


Less than a decade ago, digitization was a "hot topic" at library conferences such as those of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA). Today it is taken for granted that large research libraries will be engaged in digitization projects and that this is an appropriate activity for them. Professional newsletters routinely report on the launching and progress of huge digitization projects, such as those of large national libraries. Of these the American Memory project of the United States Library of Congress is probably still the best-known and most impressive (United States, Library of Congress, 2003). In professional meetings, the focus has shifted from the technical problems of digitizing various types of media to those of metadata, bibliographic organization, long-term preservation, and access.

Subsequently, the digitization of documentary heritage material continues apace, and a rapidly increasing amount of digitized heritage material, reflecting the richness and diversity of the world's cultures, is being made avail - able to scholars, students, and the general public, provided they have access to the Internet. Such access cannot be taken for granted, however. In the developing world, and in Africa in particular, access to personal computers and the Internet is not nearly as widespread as in wealthier countries. A significant question arises: If the documentary heritage of a developing country is digitized, will the people of that country be able to access it?

The idea for this paper first arose in the late i990s when one of the authors, then the director of a research library in South Africa, was urged by an entrepreneurial American library professor to digitize South African "treasures" and put them on an Internet web site so that they could be accessible to the world. Given the fact that a relatively small proportion of the South African population has access to the Internet, one must ask: Who would actually be able to use this material? Although the costs of the digitization project would have to be carried by under-resourced South African institutions, it seemed likely that the products would be used by American web surfers and their ilk in other wealthy countries rather than by South Africans. Arguably, the resources devoted to such a project might be better utilized for the microfilming of South African material such as newspapers, many of which are threatened due to poor preservation conditions and lack of funds for microfilming. The American proposal was not necessarily in line with South African priorities.

Such a situation could be compared with tourism in poor countries, where opulent facilities and modern infrastructure are provided for the use of wealthy tourists, while members of neighboring communities have to do without electricity and safe drinking water. More recently, colleagues in a West European country also proposed a project to digitize South African heritage material. Yet, the project would be structured in such a way that the communities whose heritage it is, receive some tangible benefit. The analogy is that of responsible tourism, in which care is taken that some of the income from projects flows into the communities for sustainable development. Here we encounter issues of power relations between the developed and the developing world. Pickover and Peters (2002) have pointed out that digital technology is not ideologically neutral and poses social and political as well as technological challenges:

Digital technology in itself can be seen as a form of cultural imperialism. This is because: English is largely the language employed on the Web...; morality is being displaced; and American culture on the Net is an overwhelming influence. Furthermore, the lure of financial aid has spawned a new form of imperialism reinforcing the digital divide, as countries in the North loot the intellectual property of an African heritage in the name of preservation. …

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