THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Digital scholarship blog

20 August 2019

Innovation Labs and the digital divide

Guest posting by Milena Dobreva-McPherson, Associate Professor Library and Information Studies UCL Qatar with contributions from Tuesday Bwalya, Lecturer, Library and Information Science Department, The University of Zambia (UNZA) and Fidelity Phiri, Visiting Researcher, UCL Qatar.

Can you recall seeing an interesting digital cultural heritage object from Zambia lately? If you search the Europeana Collections portal, you will find some 2500 digital objects coming from European heritage institutions. Alongside these items, you can enjoy the sound recording of a grunting and splashing Hippopotamus captured on 2 July 1985 on Luangwa river in Zambia. This object was aggregated from the British Library’s sound collection

Digitisation efforts of various Zambian institutions date back to 2002; for example, at the National Archives of Zambia (which does not have its own website at the time of writing this post), finding digital content originating from Zambian institutions is currently a challenge, unless you are visiting these institutions in person. One possible reason is that institutions in Zambia digitise for the purposes of internal collection management, preservation, and on-site use, like many other organisations. A rare exception is the digitised collection of the records of the United National Independence Party (UNIP) of Zambia, which was created in 2007 in collaboration with the Endangered Archives Programme of the British Library. While it cannot be accessed on any Zambian digital platform, it is available on the website of the British Library.

Is this situation (of very little accessible digital material online in the archives) common for all cultural sectors? Let us have a look at museums. In this domain, the Livingstone Museum was the first to carry out digitisation activities in 2009. The National Museum Board of Zambia, an umbrella organisation for 5 national and 2 community museums, also has an online presence with digitised images. However, trying to explore the Photo gallery or Audio/video files in the Multimedia section on the website returns the ominous 404 Page not found error although the Board definitely has plenty of objects to share. 

Certainly, one could argue that the poor institutional online digital presence is to be expected in a country within the Global South where a digital divide still exists.  After all, even finding data to assess the scale of this digital divide is a challenge, and the body of publications on digital divide in Africa had been quite limited with some 100 identified works over 12-year period (2000-2012). There is also a lack of recent estimates on the state of technological use in museums. Back in 2002, Lorna Abungu suggested that "[a]t present, out of 357 known museums throughout the African continent (including the Indian Ocean islands), only seventy-five have – on an institutional level – at least basic Internet access for e-mail." 

And, while tackling the digital divide is one of the big challenges of the Global South, when we look at it specifically from the digital cultural heritage perspective it has a global effect. Those within the divide are not able to use modern information and communication technologies to their full advantage. This is one of the reasons digitisation is either delayed or caters only for on-site use in Zambia, for example. But for those on the other side of the divide it results in impaired access to the digital heritage currently being accumulated in the regions affected by the digital divide. This is why the users searching for the sounds of hippopotamus splashing will have a chance to discover them only if they are deposited in a collection on the other side of the divide. 

To foster a change within this current situation of a lack of accessibility to the digital cultural heritage of Zambia, UCL Qatar joined forces with the National Museums Board of Zambia to deliver a day-long workshop on Innovation Labs in Cultural Heritage Institutions which was hosted on 1 August, 2019 by the Livingstone Museum. You can read more about this event , in a 'Reflections from the First Sub-Saharan African Workshop on Digital Innovation Labs in Cultural Heritage Institutions' blog post.

Fig. 1. After discussing how to overcome some of the disadvantages of the digital divide: Participants in the Innovation Labs in Cultural Heritage Institutions which was hosted on 1 August, 2019 by the Livingstone Museum
Fig. 1. After discussing how to overcome some of the disadvantages of the digital divide:
Participants in the Innovation Labs in Cultural Heritage Institutions which was hosted on 1 August, 2019 by the Livingstone Museum

There was a clear message from Mahendra Mahey, of British Library Labs that innovation in user engagement can start small, with the use of open source tools and popular web platforms. This event provided useful insights on the questions newcomers to the Innovation Lab community have to ask. In September, a Book Sprint to develop the first guide for setting up, running and maintaining a Digital Cultural Heritage Innovation Labs will be held in Doha, Qatar. 

Here are some of these interesting questions for the wider labs community:

  • Keeping in mind how the level of technological innovation is different on both sides of the divide; what should an innovation lab within the divide offer? Incremental innovation to the state of technology around or advanced innovation to match the global leaders?
  • How much can open platforms support innovation for these labs?
  • Can the route of using predominantly open tools and platforms for innovation labs be used also as a way to enhance open science in the Global South? 

Until a shift in the digital access happens, we will continue browsing some digital content on Zambian heritage coming from other cultural heritage organisations outside Zambia, beyond the digital divide.

Dr Milena Dobreva-McPherson, Associate Professor Library and Information Studies at UCL Qatar Dr Milena Dobreva-McPherson, is Associate Professor Library and Information Studies at UCL Qatar with international experience of working in Bulgaria, Scotland and Malta. Since graduating M.Sc. (Hons) in Informatics in 1991, Milena specialized in digital humanities and digital cultural heritage in the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, where she earned her PhD in 1999 in Informatics and Applied Mathematics and served as the Founding Head of the first Digitisation Centre in Bulgaria (2004); she was also a member of the Executive Board of the National Commission of UNESCO. Milena’s research interests are in the areas of innovation diffusion in the cultural heritage sector; citizen science; and users of digital libraries. Milena is a member of the editorial board of the IFLA Journal - Sage, and of the International Journal on Digital Libraries (IJDL) - Springer and a member of the steering committed of the three biggest conference series in digital libraries, IJDL, TPDL and ICADL. Consultant of the Europeana Task Force on Research Requirements.  

Mr Tuesday Bwalya, Lecturer, Library and Information Science Department, The University of Zambia (UNZA) Mr Tuesday Bwalya, Lecturer, Library and Information Science Department, The University of Zambia (UNZA). He holds a Master’s Degree in Information Science from China. In addition, Mr. Bwalya has received training in India and Belgium in Library Automation with Free and Open Source Library Management Systems such as Koha and ABCD. His research interests include free and open source library management systems; open access publishing; database systems; web development; records management; cataloguing and classification.

Fidelity Phiri, Librarian at Moto Moto Museum and a visiting researcher at UCL Qatar Fidelity Phiri is currently employed as Librarian at Moto Moto Museum and a visiting researcher at UCL Qatar. He has worked for National Museums Board of Zambia since 2001. He  holds a Bachelor's degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Zambia. Fidelity  also graduated in April 2019 from UCL Qatar and  is a holder of a Master’s degree in Library and Information studies. His research interests are in bibliometrics studies and digital humanities/units  that provide access to digital collections.

Acknowledgements: We would like to thank Fred Nyambe for the photos and Dania Jalees for the editing.