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Why African digital repositories for storing research writings are so important

By Robert Molteno, trustee board member of the IAI, email:

Universities worldwide are taking digitisation of some segments of their holdings very seriously. A more recent development has been for individual universities to start building digital repositories which can store the scholarly writings of their staff, as well as theses submitted and accepted for higher degrees by their students. In some cases, an even more ambitious process is being undertaken – the digitisation of all past theses submitted as part of the degree requirements of the university concerned.

More and more African universities have decided to build their own digital repositories. In this section of the International African Institute website, you can see which African universities have started down this road, and you can visit each repository on-line and explore its holdings. Two things are immediately striking, as of early 2016. While nearly half of all African countries have some universities that now have digital repositories, over half do not. And when one looks at any particular country, it is striking how many African universities have not yet got repositories up and running.

It is important to remember that digital repositories can only make contributions to the scholarly process if certain conditions are met. A repository has to be well organised, searchable, and operate in accordance with Open Access principles so that it is accessible to anyone using the Internet. Effective use of repositories also needs scholars in any particular African country or university to have effective access to desktop or laptop computers, adequate broadband width, and dependable power supplies.

Where these circumstances obtain, repositories in African research institutions have the possibility of transforming the visibility of African-authored scholarship and placing such scholars at the heart of research and debate on issues affecting the continent in every field of scholarly endeavour. In particular, as more and more African universities build their own repositories and a culture of scholars making use of them takes hold, we can look to the following developments: