The politics of publishing in African studies are controversial and problematic. This is the dilemma: foreign researchers are able to obtain more funds than African-based academics to conduct often very innovative research projects. In order to obtain tenure, and therefore more research funds, these professors publish in western university presses (or Palgrave and Routledge, which is a different story). Western presses choose not to sell their books on the African continent because the market is deemed “unprofitable.” African Universities seek to make themselves look more “respectable” in the eyes of western donors, so they encourage their faculty to publish “internationally” in order to obtain tenure and raise the standing of their departments. With less prestigious alma-maters and sites of employment, as well as less research funds, many of these African-based academics fail to get enough material published abroad, most obtain tenure through university service and teaching. Even if they do publish abroad, the materials are still subject to the dilemmas elaborated upon above. A Namibian academic publishing with Indiana University Press will still not have his or her book available for sale or distribution (beyond the author’s own copies) in Namibia.
This is reflective of fundamental inequalities in knowledge production and access to knowledge about the African continent. Because of the dynamics of tenure, sales, copyrights, and access to research funds, knowledge about Africa remains securely in Euro-American hands. In a cruel ironic twist, African-based faculty apply for fellowships to research about their own countries in the Michigan State University library.
My digital project, titled Namibia Digital Repository, is tied to these issues of democratizing knowledge. Since January, I’ve been digitizing old books, film, and miscellaneous publications on or from Namibia. Most of these items are out of print and orphan copyright, otherwise I’ve received permission from the perceived copyright holder. Far too much Namibiana materials simply cannot be accessed in Namibian libraries and institutions for issues relating to cost. The goal of the project is to make available full-text books and full-length film in an easy to navigate Omeka repository that won’t bog down low-bandwidth connections prominent in Namibia.
The project will produce a digital library of (out of print, or copyright free) Namibia-related materials published across the globe. Importantly, the site does not only accumulate existing digital materials on the Web; I am actually spending countless hours digitizing books, film, photographs, etc. Accompanying the Omeka repository will be several “exhibits” giving insight into Namibian history/historiography. In time, scholars, librarians, and students will be able to add their own materials to the repository, subject to the approval of the moderator (me), of course.
The Omeka interface works very simply, I’m able to put in bibliographic data, Dublin Core style, in a very simple way. A central aspect of the project is its “no-nonsense” component; I want things to be cited easily, and I want that information to be clear and straightforward. Furthermore, the absence of flashy graphics and interface is purposeful; I want this site to be accessible on even the slowest connections, which, although decreasing in number, they are still prevalent throughout Namibia.
I will also be manually creating accounts for interested contributors, who have of course been vetted by me beforehand. Even though I know that I will be doing the bulk of the work involved, I want this project to be collaborative.
I have currently archived 172 items in the repository, spread unevenly across 18 collections. Some of the largest so far are the “Out of Print Books on Namibia” and the “Documentary Films on Namibia” collections. The current one that I’m building is the “Dissertations” collection. Although within history and anthropology, many dissertations are published either as monographs or articles, many slip through the cracks, and these are the ones that are often the most interesting. Take for example Brigitte Lau’s dissertation, which I recently archived, titled “The Emergence of Kommando Politics in Southern Namibia, 1800-1870.” This is a revolutionary Master’s thesis, which remains one of the strongest studies of Southern Namibia to date. Her untimely death in 1996 prevented the head archivist from publishing her thesis in full, although some segments were modified and reprinted in her book Southern and Central Namibia in Jonker Afrikaner’s Time, published by the National Archives of SWA/Namibia in 1987 (This text is archived as well). My project seeks to take some of the groundbreaking, but lesser accessed texts for digitization. And as I have already mentioned, this project is a labor of love; long hours must be spent standing in front of a scanner in order to make this possible.
Finally, I realize that many may find my repository to be a bit controversial because of copyright issues. I have made distinct efforts to only archive out of print texts, or by authors who have since passed (such as the late Brigitte Lau and the late Maija Hiltunen). Otherwise I have sought individual permissions. I’m sure, however, that in time there will be entries that slip through the cracks. This is a “risk” that I’m prepared to take. Digital projects should not be apolitical – merely alternative means of displaying existing knowledge – they must challenge the ways in which knowledge is produced, distributed, and accessed. While my repository cannot do all of this on its own, I hope it is a step in the right direction.
To access the beta version of the site, click here.
Bernard C. Moore