As in the Scheub collection in Wisconsin, multiple efforts have been made to digitize and make available on the web various cultural collections of Africa; however, as with the Scheub collection, African-based access to these materials is often unavailable. The internet offers an ideal platform for the dissemination of this material – the long ignored accomplishments of a varied and populous continent – by providing a space for “new scholarly debates . . . collaboration and knowledge exchange across cultural and linguistic borders” offers a virtual ‘bridge’ across nations and cultures (Rajan, 2007). What these successful platforms have in common are most often extensive Western sources of funding.
– In 2008 Aluka, an “international, collaborative initiative building an online digital library of scholarly resources about Africa” became part of JSTOR, and then ITHAKA, the online library giant. Aluka has 112,955 objects, and 101 contributors from 31 different countries (16 of which are African) of multimedia items presented in different disciplines: African Studies, Art, History, Archaeology, Geography and Labor Studies in a fully searchable interface. Aluka is based in Princeton, NJ and is subscription based, however nonprofit institutions in Africa are invited to access with no charge.
– DISA is a national collaborative initiative of South Africa aimed at building a digital resource for scholars of South African studies. DISA is funded largely by the Mellon Foundation.
– SierraLeoneHeritage.org is an online platform funded by University College London, the University of Sussex and the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council. The focus of this digital archive is the ‘object diasporas’: that is, the material culture of Sierra Leone no longer in Sierra Leone (Basu, 2011). The goal of this project is to build a bridge between those heritage collections outside of Sierra Leone and those people within it by creating a digital platform for engagement to “reanimate” these objects.
How is the WDL Different, or the Same?
As noted previously, while the WDL accepts contributions from any institution, the majority of those represented are from the Library of Congress, and the most represented area is Europe (Emery, 2012). The World Digital Library cites, in its mission, the desire to support UNESCO’s mission of building capacity for cultural heritage preservation in developing countries; particularly in the formation of more centers of digitization, which could be utilized to generate content for the WDL as well as other projects. Collaborations involving developed countries, international heritage organizations, global charitable foundations and postcolonial regions are burdened with socio-political and economic difficulties. One of those difficulties is that the heritage in question may belong to multiple communities (local, national or border-spanning) and the Sierra Leone initiative does well at acknowledging the diasporic aspect of culture (tangible and intangible) and the need to bridge these communities. Next, and related, there is the conflict over what is considered heritage, what is preserved and represented in institutions as such, and who owns it (this clash is represented well in the influence of South African interests in the Timbuktu manuscripts). Also inherent in the difficulties of these projects is the need for these materials to remain local to their origins (this difficulty is also represented well in the Timbuktu example); though Timbuktu is clearly a dangerous place for these precious manuscripts to remain, the avid attention with which they have been protected by locals indicates their geographic specificity. Finally, and most importantly, there is the difficulty that most of these digital, collaborative, cultural projects involve the interests and funding from former colonial powers that only recently released these countries from under their firm control.
It appears as though the monetary support, technological expertise and preservation strategies offered by the developing world to these African cultural initiatives is necessary, as much of this culture (tangible and intangible) is under dire threat. The threat, however, is ironically due to the very saviors of the culture today: it is the enduring legacy of colonialism that has left many of these countries with inadequate infrastructure to complete the business of preservation of their own cultural heritage. What is needed, therefore, is more of a dialogue between these stakeholders, the local and the global, the host communities and the supporting entities, for these projects to not only be sustainable but, also beneficial to the cultures in question. In his influential article from 1982 Hugh Taylor notes how archives may act as “powerful sites of conflict and negotiation over heritage possession.” (Dong, 2011) and this has been no different in the digital world.
In order for world digital libraries and archives to accurately preserve and represent the cultural heritage of the developing world the stakeholders in these projects must become more aware of the need for balance between the global and the local, the precarious nature of heritage possession and management, and the historical precedents of the representation of heritage for the sustainability of these collaborative projects.