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Dr Buhle Mbambo-Thata: a viewpoint from South Africa

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The nature of African librarianship

Having held two key jobs in African librarianship, in two different countries, and also as chair of the IFLA Standing Committee of the Africa Section, Dr Mbambo-Thata has a unique perspective. The nature of African librarianship in the twenty-first century preoccupies her, and UNISA has hosted a couple of lectures on the topic, for example on standards setting and the integration of indigenous knowledge with technology.

She uses the analogy of an elephant:

"If an elephant must be eaten, it can only be effective if you eat it in small parts and African librarianship is an enormous enterprise".

African librarianship is different, she believes, reflecting different user contexts and sociology, which in turn necessitates different service models. The economic situation of most students, for example, prohibits them from working totally virtually, so the university needs to provide them with intermediary facilities.

It may be, I suggest, that as similar conditions prevail in other parts of the developing world, there are also similarities in service models. Dr Mbambo-Thata agrees, pointing out that the Indira Gandhi University in India also uses the branch/regional centre model.

Oral culture

Perhaps what is more uniquely African is the respect for oral culture:

"We often find students huddled together, consulting one another before they consult books."

This obviously affects the way they learn, and interestingly contrasts with the Chinese respect for the teacher, as well as resonating with collaborative learning styles favoured in the West.

I suggest that comparisons between the developed and the developing world may become even more muddied in a negative sense because the credit crunch tended to hit the West more severely. South Africa, on the other hand, was on the periphery of the credit crunch, thanks largely to a law that limits credit.

Education is also ring-fenced in South Africa as part of the drive to transform the nation after years of deprivation, and spending has actually increased. So universities may not experience cuts this year, or layoffs, but there will still be a need to develop systems that are sustainable and cost effective: "diamonds are not forever".

Institutional repositories and open access

African readers may have different needs, but in one respect librarians have a very similar preoccupation to those in the West: how to manage the vast amount of knowledge that is being created.

Paradoxically, Western knowledge workers are more concerned with the oral and informal knowledge that lies embedded within organizational practices and culture. That which African librarians such as Dr Mbambo-Thata are keen to capture, on the other hand, is the more formal research being created by master's and doctoral students.

Institutional repositories are a positive development here: they offer public access to Africa's research:

"African universities can now occupy spaces on the Internet as opposed to being consumers of the Internet".

And not only universities: national libraries, such as Timbuktu National Library and Bibliotheca Alexandrina, are creating their own repositories and archives. In South Africa, the National Library and the National Archives have a constitutional mandate to collect and preserve government information.

In addition, a number of the continent's academies of science insist that the research they fund should be openly available, in open access journals, and/or in subject repositories which are intra-university. These are registered with the open access databases, such as OpenDOAR, and so are searchable via Google.

Dr Mbambo-Thata believes it's a moral issue: without open access, you would have the situation that African research institutes and universities would fund research which would then not be freely available on their continent.