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Digital humanities on the other side of the digital divide

on Tue, 01/31/2012 - 10:10pm
In December, I spent a little over a week in Cameroon participating in a pilot project to digitize materials in one of the country's two national archives. This project was funded by the Endangered Archives Programme based at the British Library. This program is itself supported by Arcadia. While this was my sixth visit to Cameroon, it was the first time I went to do something other than linguistic work.
I personally spent most of time in Yaounde, Cameroon's capital, and Buea, where the archives that the project was focusing on are located. Founded in the 1960's by British scholars (Edwin and Shirley Ardener), the Buea National Archives store all of the British documents concerned with the history of today’s Southwest and Northwest Regions of Cameroon dating back to 1916. Unlike the few earlier sources (German reports, travelers’ diaries, etc.), the British colonial documents cover the whole region and include maps, drawings, pictures, and genealogies, often dealing with little studied areas of Cameroon.
Unfortunately, the Buea National Archives have not been well supported by public sources. They lack proper indoor humidity control systems and funds to provide effective prevention of insect infestation. Not surprisingly, many of its materials show significant decay. The main thing preventing its holdings from truly extensive deterioration are the efforts of a few truly heroic staff members, who make sure the materials remain in as good order as conditions allow.
To an outsider like myself, there is an obvious solution to many of the Archives' problems: Digitize, digitize, digitize. And, in fact, the project did do a lot of digitization. This work was led by Dr. Pierpaolo Di Carlo, who was the coordinator for the work (and who first conceived of undertaking it). Many of the Cameroonians involved in the project were also excited by the prospect of digitizing the materials, and the enthusiasm of these local collaborators was striking (and infectious).
At the same time, there is a real downside to digitization in this case that we are still working on how to effectively deal with. The Buea National Archives are a very important piece of Cameroon's cultural heritage, but, as I just mentioned, they are only very poorly maintained. One of the few ways that the institution can make money is to charge for photocopies of its materials. If we digitize the materials, though, who will pay for photocopies? Of course, most Cameroonians don't have the internet connections needed to look at the high-quality scans that we made. So, they would still need to pay for photocopies even if we put the scans online. The people who wouldn't then need to pay for copies are outside scholars in places like the U.S. and Europe—the users who could most easily afford the modest photocopying charges. Moreover, if outsiders no longer have to travel to Cameroon to look at the materials in the Archives, one of the few clear indicators of their historical significance—the fact that people will travel a very long way just to see them—will disappear, weakening the case locally for their preservation. In this case, it seems that we have met the enemy to preservation, and he is digitization.
Indeed, what at first may appear to be a clearly beneficial activity, digitizing in order to preserve, can quickly take on the same negative dynamics long associated with colonialism when it is not done in a way that is sensitive to local cultural dynamics. (Cameron Neylon wrote about a similar problem regarding attitudes to copyright and open access held by many Western academics and how they may be out of place in rural Africa.) Adding to this problem is the fact that many important materials documenting the history of Cameroon are found outside of Cameroon itself, and these are also not widely accessible to Cameroonians. If a project like mine is taking digital images out, shouldn't it also try to be bringing digital images in? This would be ideal, of course, but, if those materials aren't "endangered", where will we get funding for that work?
Of course, I don't want to be too pessimistic. Our Cameroonian collaborators, as well as the Cameroonian government, were very supportive of the project and would very much like to see the work continue. They recognize the potential for digitization. What we haven't figured out is how to take advantage of all digitization has to offer without disrupting the fragile existing apparatus for preserving the original materials. In some ways this problem is comparable to the question of how record companies or publishers can stay in business in an age where copies are essentially free. The difference here, though, is we aren't talking about the disappearance of companies but, instead, of history.

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