AFRICA: Call for digital library and archive

An African digital library and archives programme must be set up urgently as the continent lacks a comprehensive system for accessing and storing information, an international conference held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, heard last month. It suggested that the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) champion the initiative as the continent is lagging behind in the global drive to build digital libraries and archives.

The First International Conference on African Digital Libraries and Archives, held under the theme "Connecting Africans to their own Resources: Developing policies and strategies for Africa's digital future", was attended by researchers and academics, librarians, archivists, curators, higher education institutions and policy-makers, among others.

A statement released ahead of the conference said African countries had not engaged in any significant dialogue on strategy and policy for preserving and accessing its resources in digital form. As a result, African content was being undertaken by non-African organisations without widely accepted protocols and agreement on issues of ownership of intellectual property rights, local African access rights and long-term sustainability.

The conference heard that many African think-tanks and knowledge centres generated a wealth of information that was inaccessible to policy-makers. "This is due to the fact that no systematic storage and retrieval system exists," the UN commission said in a statement afterwards. "Consequently, policy-makers are not making optimal use of existing knowledge to improve policies and development prospects."

The conference called on the Economic Commission for Africa, in partnership with the African Development Bank and the secretariat of the New Partnership for Africa's Development - an implementation arm of the African Union - to spearhead formulation of comprehensive policies, a strategic framework, and a 'road map' for digitising knowledge and developing libraries and archives in Africa.

The UNECA statement added that the digital programme should showcase indigenous knowledge, both to ensure that it is adequately preserved and to make it internationally known and thereby possible to integrate African knowledge - in the arts, agriculture, medicine and other fields - into global technologies.

The conference also identified, as a key priority area, the need to develop an integrated open access information platform for Africa. "The system, once developed, will permit the sharing of knowledge across partnering countries and promote the establishment of a continental digital library-portal mirrored in all African countries," said UNECA.

Governments and institutions were urged to ensure sustainable funding for archiving and disseminating information.