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.