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Bridging the digital divide - Digital libraries - Case for Zimbabwe

05 May 2020 at 08:13hrs | Views
"If you can't visit the Web, the Web can be brought to you. "

The challenges that face  ICT development in Africa have to be tackled at the same level at which they occur .The digital divide gap is set to widen even further if we don't take it upon ourselves to come up with specific solutions for our specific challenges.

Zimbabwe boasts the status of being the most literate country in Africa. But the way things look on the ground nothing suggests our ability to sustain that status from an ICT point of view at least. The world is a global village and adoption of practical and relevant ICT policies by Africans for Africa is the only way the digital gap will be addressed.

African countries basically face a number of hurdles in order to roll out effective computing technologies to the general population. Rollout issues and challenges do include ;

(i)   cost of computers and equipment (forex)
(ii)  inadequate access technologies (telephone lines & wireless)
(iii) poor international bandwidth
(iv)  regulation
(v)   ICT illiteracy on decision and policy makers
(vi)  brain drain
(vii) skilled manpower

With this in mind it is therefore pretty obvious that lack of access technologies and cost of equipment remains the greatest stumbling block for effective national ICT roll out.

Digital Library

The digital library concept discussed below must be viewed inter alia a rugged national ICT policy. The full benefits of the concept can not realized if  not viewed a national ICT perspective. It can be part of a national ICT portion of the whole game plan.

It is a cost effective way of empowering ordinary people with information on their finger tips. We are no longer in the stone age. Let not the power utility (ZESA) outages distort the reality of where we are and where we seek to go. I know some readers will naturally ask a valid question like - " ..but we have electricity outages in Zimbabwe , how will that digital library function ? ". It is that kind of thinking that we need to eliminate from our minds. The fact that our nation is facing the worst economic trauma in history does not relegate us to stone carving and caveman kind of life.

Lack of information is one Africa's greatest foe. Don't we have abundant fertile land and are importing food at the same time ? Do we not have thousands of farmers who don't know what to grow , how to grow it and when to grow it ? Do they have access to information on how to create a simple water well , powered by a mule to siphon water to water their vegetables ? Again lack of information is dangerous. This is just one example on why the provision of accurate information to farmers is not an option but a must , if the land is to be put into any good use. I am no agricultural expert , but I sure know how to populate a digital library with solid instructions on how to design an irrigation system with complete diagrams and measurements !

The concept of a digital library is NOT a new concept.

NUST university based in Bulawayo , has already deployed the first e-library in Zimbabwe using Greenstone software. On this digital library items like past examinations papers , e-books , NUST forms , Zimbabwe health issues etc have been put together by the Nustone team .The digital library is accessible by internet.

This document seeks to discuss ways in which to bring such digital libraries to places with NO internet connection !

Here I seek to provide information on the adoption of digital libraries in Zimbabwe. Bear this in mind when going through this document that I am not discussing a new technology but an existing one that you probably use on a daily basis .

Why an eLibrary ?

As I have summarized above , one of the greatest challenges that face ICT progress in Africa is lack of adequate telecommunications infrastructure to carry data especially to the remotest parts of the country and the cost of owning a PC. So , this is a known factor that is not bound to change over night. Availability of Internet depends to a great extent on the form of telecommunications link. Communication links include technologies as a dial up (telephone line)  , satellite (VSAT) , broadband and wireless (3G,Wimax) just to mention a few.

The cost of ownership for these links is generally prohibitive for many. For the few who can afford these connections at times have to deal with very slow download speeds when accessing resources hosted across the oceans on another continent.

Having deployed more than 40 internet cafes in Africa , I can confidently say that the cyber cafes have indeed gone a long way to provide basic email and internet access to people and individuals alike .But normally internet cafes operate as a business unit to make a profit. This means  that the cost of internet access at a cyber café , can be a hindrance itself to information access.

So a digital library addresses some of the obstacles and challenges faced by ICT practitioners in deploying ICT solutions because digital libraries remove the last mile telco link problem by bringing relevant digital content where users are. Also , developing countries are able to tailor make their information needs based on their own assessment of their such needs.

Contents of a Digital Library

eLibraries is a concept of bringing the internet to the users. An eLibrary systems can be seen as a form of the internet itself. When you download some page from a website , you are connecting to a computer (server) physically connected through a communications link (telephone line)  to a publicly addressable resource (IP address) like website address.

A digital library will also include copies of specific web pages from the WWW onto a server that will serve those documents and pages to an end user freely and instantly. Anything that can be converted into an electronic format. An digital library is a fully cross-searchable portal containing millions of different electronically formats resources like web pages , acrobat documents , audio files and even videos in all diverse areas that may include -  maps , procedures , recipes , school syllabus , anatomy , physiology ,  agriculture , irrigation techniques , hiv and aids info , history , literature , application forms , chemical formulations , research papers and more. The list is endless. Also note that these resources can be in document form , image form , audio form and even video !

Electronic production and distribution

If you decide to populate the library with your own content , then you must make sure you have publishing resources like software , audio recorders and video recorders if need be. Publishing tools include popular Adobe software amongst many others. Standard publication formats include but not limited to - pdf , word doc , power point , flash and mainly html which is the web page format.

This implies heavy use of digital converting hardware and software to collect and capture items for the digital library. For example images and documents that are already available in various archives can be stored in digital format - gif images and or pdf files. Use of open source (free) tools like Open Office could become very handy in collecting and compiling digital info for publication in the digital libraries.

The content of the digital library on a site rests with the owner or authorities of the site. By site I refer to things like a school , college or institution. In the case of a college the college authorities decides on what is relevant to their own curriculum. By the way the digital library does not replace the internet and its purpose is not for instant messaging and chatting but to serve useful and usable information to the user.

Tutorials and online training

Self paced tutorials - diverse tutorials that end with user exercise and tests could be a great way to test students for specific proficiencies in various areas. Multiple choice questions can used used to screen or grade users and the test results posted immediately after the user completes the exercise or test. This does not involve extreme programming skills , but simple and free educational software that is installed on a server. You create your own questions and the answers that go with it.

e-Resources for the blind and deaf

Learning aids for the blind and deaf - the same eLibrary is used in conjuction with other learning aids to "serve' audio files for the deaf based on a curricula developed specifically for this interest group. For the blind the eLibrary is used to serve web pages , and documents video material that the user can interact with in real time based on a specific curricula designed for this special interest group.

By the way , the world wide web already contains billions of such resources for FREE. What the digital library does is to bring these resources to you by copying them to a server before serving them to your organization / institute. About 90% of these  resources can be reproduced for educational purposes with NO copy right infringements as long as the source is quoted.


For schools the eLibrary could contain a complete syllabus as authorized by the local examination body (ZIMSEC) . Local textbook writers and authors could then publish their books on CDs/DVDs that could be uploaded (copied) to the eLibrary server. I know there are copyright issues involved and well we have lawyers do cover that area !

Let me delve deeper. Let me take a typical secondary school in Zimbabwe. Using this eLibrary an "A" level student is able to view complete images of the human anatomy for her biology lessons. The images are already available. Its not a questions of re inventing the wheel , it's a question of availing these resources to those that need them.90 % of these educational and informational resources are available for FREE with no copyrights infringement if used for that purpose (educational).

For remote areas that have electricity this is ONE of the many ways teachers can augment their teaching efforts. As you know text books have a finite life. After so many perusals a text book meets its fate. Digital resources do not rot. They don't get dirty. Nor do they tire because of over reading. This concept does not replace textbooks - but enhances their use by putting the material online and allowing users to pull pages from the server to their desktops in a milli second !


For medical students full and complete medical journals and resources could be simply installed on a huger server and accessed by trainees. As I said the material that goes onto the server is material approved and authorized by the owners of the site. In this case the Medical School. Its that simple. Trends and statistics of HIV/AIDS management resources can be made available on a digital resource that will NOT require the user to have internet access per se. Prevention  , treatment methods , resistant trends and specific patterns can include the HIV/AIDS module resource.


For agricultural institutes like Esigodini , Chibero , Mlezu , Kushinga Phikelela , Zimbabwe college of forestry etc , the same concept could be used to serve the informational needs of these institute. As an example the same digital resources publicly available for agriculture can be unified, optimized and made relevant to the training needs for agricultural practitioners. Again there is no shortage of digital resources that address affordable irrigation technologies. There are thousands of resources FREELY available on the internet. What's needed is to localize those resources and install them on local digital libraries on site as stipulated and mandated by the owners of the site. In this case the relevant agricultural authority in Zimbabwe. Its that straight forwards no re-invention of the wheel.

The use of the digital library could prove very useful by ALL government ministries in an effort to disseminate accurate and usable information to policy implementers to start with. This is a cost effective method of equipping teachers and trainers alike with resources to carry out their functions.

The good news is that, a digital library is a FULLY autonomous system independent of other systems. An eLibrary is a stand alone system that can be loaded with specific information as chosen by its owner. This is good because, as the owner you do not risk your users using the library for other things than it's designed for. Its NOT for chit chatting , myspacing , facebooking , youtubing or casual social interactions that attract many a youth to the internet. The digital library is for serious delivering of accurate and usable information as prescribed by the owner.

Cultural heritage preservation

eLibraries can play a crucial role in preserving our cultural and historical heritages. Oral , written , art  and video formats of historical events preserved in electronic formats are available at wire speed to present and future generations. Folk tales - ‘Ngano" or "inganekwane quickly come to mind. I am sure there are some complete audio files of such folk tales somewhere for electronic preservation.

Africa is a continent that has very rich in diverse and varied cultures. So it goes without saying that preservation of such heritage is crucial. National History Museums could find the use of such digital libraries very appealing since it offers the ability to store historical records in non volatile electronic form. We all know the effect of time on accuracy of oral tradition. After 3 generations the original event or story can suffer up to 30 % distortion. No such distortions exist in electronic formats.

Africa should be able to tell its history with its own mouth .That way distortions will be avoided.

Questions, comments and requests on digital library specifications and costs - most welcome.

Robert Ndlovu © 2008
New York , USA .

Source - Robert Ndlovu
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