Posted to the Ethnos Project by on May 30th, 2011

Before you begin reading the essay, you may wish to listen to Betsie Greyling talk about the Ulwazi Programme in this video:


Africa and African libraries and information centres are poorly equipped to make a meaningful contribution to the current global digital knowledge economy. The lack of management systems for indigenous knowledge perpetuates the low local content on the Web, retards buy-in from local communities into digital resources and inhibits digital skills development. Afro-centric Libraries and Information Services should include provision of indigenous knowledge resources. The paper discusses a model for community participation in establishing a digital library of indigenous knowledge. It focuses on public libraries and aims to create a virtual resource that is in step with the global information society while at the same time empowering citizens through preservation of indigenous knowledge and through development of digital skills.

The model creates a platform using existing library infrastructure from where the project is carried out to communities. A multi-pronged approach uses community workers to collect oral and visual material, community members are taught how to add local content to the World Wide Web at the local library, and the library acts as moderator and custodian of the indigenous knowledge resource. A proviso of the model is free public Internet access at the library and the use of social Web 2.0 technology. People of all social and age groups are employed to steer the programme at ground level while volunteer contributions to the database is encouraged. This provides the potential for collaboration from the whole community.

The model will provide a virtual library resource of local indigenous knowledge, freely accessible to all members of the community. Availability of local content on the Web will enhance use of digital resources. Improved digital skills will result in economic empowerment of communities and be instrumental in poverty alleviation.

Ultimately the model will enable communities to manage their own indigenous knowledge in an economically viable manner. Global exposure of local communities will attract international economic, scientific and cultural interest. Virtual indigenous knowledge resources in African Libraries will play a pivotal role in the current global digital knowledge community whilst democratisation of the societies will progress through provision of knowledge.


Digital information and communication technologies have revolutionised the ways in which knowledge and technical know-how travel around the world. The extent to which information requirements are met by the Internet throughout the world is reflected in usage statistics. According to the latest published figures 70 % of the population in North America use the Internet; usage in South America is 18 % whereas in Africa Internet penetration is 3.6% (Internet World Stats 2007).

Apart from the problem of accessibility, the global trend of using the Internet for preservation and dissemination of information causes a dilemma for the African information community. Amidst this world of plenty in terms of information and knowledge, the African local content on the Web is very low, because of lack of capacity to record, transfer and disseminate information. The result is that Africa and the library and information centres in Africa are at a major disadvantage in the current knowledge economy and are poorly equipped to make a meaningful contribution to the African Renaissance. Buy-in to digital resources by local communities remains low because of the paucity of local content which contributes to the failure of digital skills development.

A model is proposed whereby online indigenous knowledge resources are established as an integral part of local Public Library and Information Services. Web 2.0 technologies are used to create a collaborative online local indigenous knowledge database. The community assumes ownership of the database, while the library focuses on custodianship of the information resource. Community participation ensures the collecting, recording and preserving of local knowledge, and ultimately accomplishes knowledge sharing, skills development, job opportunities and empowerment within communities. The library provides database management, training and support.

Why do we need to preserve Indigenous Knowledge

Indigenous knowledge is part and parcel of the culture and history of any local community. Development agencies “need to learn from local communities to enrich the development process” (World Bank, 1998). Indigenous knowledge also affects the wellbeing of the majority of people in developing countries (Ngulube, 2002). Some 80% of the world’s population depend on indigenous knowledge to meet their medicinal needs and at least 50% rely on indigenous knowledge for food supply (Nyumba, 2006). Indigenous knowledge is indeed the cornerstone for building an own identity and ensuring coherence of social structures within communities.

Because indigenous knowledge is mostly stored in people’s minds and passed on through generations by word of mouth rather than in written form, it is vulnerable to rapid change (Sithole, 2006). Development processes like rural/urban migration and changes to population structure as a result of famine, epidemics, displacement or war may all contribute to loss of indigenous knowledge. Even in remote areas the powers that push global or just non-local content, i.e. television, advertising, etc., are much stronger than those pushing local content (Nyumba, 2006). Indigenous knowledge faces extinction unless it is properly documented and disseminated (World Bank, 1998). This crisis can be averted by employing the model as set out below.

A model for community participation to preserve Indigenous Knowledge

The foundation of the proposed model is a triangular approach with three cornerstones, i.e. the public library, the community and current information ICT technologies. Together they shape the outcome of the programme and are inter-dependent upon one another. The model was originally developed to suit networked public library systems such as exist in the metropolitan areas in South Africa. These networked systems consist of multiple branch libraries in urban, peri-urban and rural areas, and a good IT infrastructure with free public Internet access. The model is fully adaptable and the programme can be run equally successfully from a single library, as long as there is Internet available in the area.

Information and Communication Technology

Developments in information and communication technologies over the last few decades have prompted a shift from collection development to collection management in libraries (Rowley, 2003; Lwoga & Sife, 2006). The recent emergence of Web 2.0 technologies has enabled large-scale collaboration in the creation of data online (Farkas, 2007). Furthermore the high degree of flexibility in the latest social software allows a dynamic environment which can be easily adapted to serve specific community needs.

The proposed model for the preservation of indigenous knowledge is built around an online database using Open Access social software technology. The database is created as a wiki, which is a Web page that allows users to easily modify content. It is an excellent tool for collaborative writing and for creating and editing shared documents (Farkas, 2007). A wiki can be viewed by anyone who has an Internet connection and changes to the content can be made by anyone with editing privileges. The ultimate example of a wiki is the Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia that has recently taken the world by storm ( Wikis are people-centered, they promote discovery, creation and sharing of knowledge (Grand, 2006). Ultimately they promote lifelong learning through community information provision.

Wiki software can be downloaded from the Web. Database set-up takes into account user needs at all levels of the society and can be expanded as new needs arise. The database is organized into different pages and the community’s own branding is added. In accordance with Mosimege (2005) it is indexed using folksonomies rather than brief descriptors normally used in standard taxonomic databases to avoid compromising the holistic nature of indigenous knowledge. Content is added in plain text, so there is no need to learn HTML. WikiMedia software supports any language and different media can be used to record information, i.e. text, sound and images. The website is hosted off-site to afford free access to all members of the community. Off-site server hosting with regular back-ups and downloads takes care of risk management, and new software releases and enhancements are supported by the development agency with seamless transitions to the end-user. Website ranking is enhanced by linking to relevant local authority and/or national websites.

The Library

The individual’s right to free and equal access to information and knowledge is a fundamental democratic principle (Hedelund, 2006). As part of social services, public libraries are well positioned to insure free and equal access to information and knowledge. By virtue of their focus on preservation and dissemination of information, they are ideally situated to facilitate the management of knowledge (Snyman & Van Rooi, 2006) and to provide opportunities for individuals in local communities to acquire the information necessary to make informed decisions.

The traditional view of the library’s role is to provide access to information resources by building up book collections. This restricted mindset is located in a time when books and documents were synonymous with ‘information’ (Myburgh, 2006). In order to meet the social obligation of the library today, the contemporary library has to provide access to information also from the oral, digital and any other media in which it is supplied. The use of computerized information systems can be effective as a system of conservation if they support the maintenance and transmission of knowledge within those communities that developed the knowledge (Mosimege, 2005).

Whilst libraries elsewhere in the world have been preserving indigenous knowledge for many years (e.g. Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (Smithsonian Institution, 2007); New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for research in Black Culture (New York Public Library, 2007)) the situation has been different with African libraries. Libraries in Africa were originally designed to serve colonial interests, stocking books of primarily foreign content (Omole, 2002). With the coming of independence to many African states, transformation did not reach the libraries (Sithole, 2006).

The prohibitive cost of documenting indigenous knowledge compels libraries to establish public/private partnerships to achieve their goal. Among the notable successes in Africa are the telecentres in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania which provide rural and peri-urban areas with access to ICT’s through support of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Canada’s International Development Research Center (IDRC) and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) (Kaddu & Nyumba, 2005). Richardson (1997) however argues that due to poor connectivity, inadequate infrastructure and human resource limitations, most of the centres provide very limited services.

Community oriented programmes in libraries elsewhere in the world include the Nepal Rural Community Library programme where a self-supporting community library system had been established, providing access to computers and the Internet (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2006). The libraries now develop local content which is used to share information across villages. In Chile the BiblioRedes Programme is meeting the communities’ need to preserve and promote local history by providing computers with Internet access in four hundred public libraries countrywide (Pacheco & Abbagliati, 2006).

The proposed model is in step with global goals as constituted in the African Charter for Popular Participation (United Nations, 1990), the United Nations Social Development Plan (United Nations, 1995) and the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (United Nations, 2000). It is also underpinned by the three guidelines for libraries as set out in the South African national policy document for Indigenous Knowledge Systems. The policy states the need for “a new model of library service in order to:

  • Facilitate indigenous and local community information access based on their own identified needs;
  • Provide opportunities for indigenous and local communities to actively record and share their contemporary history, culture and language with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples; and
  • Use new technology creatively to support Indigenous and local community development.” (South Africa. Department of Science & Technology, 2005).
  • The model proposes to use existing public library infrastructure as a platform from which the knowledge management programme is launched. It is planned to launch a pilot programme in Durban, South Africa, using the well established public library system. In the greater Durban area eighty five branch libraries, spread out over urban and peri-urban areas across the city and the rural areas surrounding the city, all have internet connectivity through the municipal network. In accordance with the model the library serves as the hub for the program and has various roles to fulfil.

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About the Author: Betsie Greyling

From 1984 to 1988 Subject Librarian (Natural Sciences) at the Main Library of the erstwhile University Durban-Westville, now merged into the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

From 1989 to 1997 employed in the Department of Geology at the same University as a researcher in the field of Palaeontology, obtained an M.Sc. in Palaeontology in 1993. In this period publication several research papers on Cretaceous marine invertebrates from Zululand and Angola and was awarded research associate of the Durban Natural Science Museum.

In 1997 appointed Acquisitions Librarian of Inner West Libraries and held this position until 2003. Then appointed to the present position as Senior Systems Librarian of the eThekwini Municipal Library Service. In this position project management of several IT related community programmes within the library environment. The latest initiative involves an indigenous knowledge programme for the Durban area.

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