TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr.
Februar 2010

Sektion 8.2. Indigenous Peoples Knowledge Society: Transformations and Challenges
Sektionsleiter | Section Chairs: Adam Fiser (University of Toronto, Canada) and Philipp Budka (University of Vienna, Austria)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

A Model for Community Participation in African libraries to preserve Indigenous Knowledge

Betsie Greyling (eThekwini Municipal Library, Durban, South Africa) [BIO]




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.


1. Introduction

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.

2. Why 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.

3. 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, resource centre or community centre, as long as Internet is available.

4. 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.

5. 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:

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.


The library initiates the programme and enters into a partnership with the community. A program manager is appointed to steer the programme, liaise with stakeholders and spearhead marketing campaigns. Liaison with community leadership feeds into a consensus strategy which informs all aspects of the programme, including the project plan, funding, appointment of local field workers, data selection policy, methodology and mobilization of community members. Expected outcomes and responsibilities of stakeholders are defined and documented. Regular needs assessments and status reports are used to re-direct the programme if necessary.


Within the library a department for digital resources is tasked to manage the indigenous knowledge repository in its entirety. This department coordinates the technical aspects of the ICT component as well as the community component of the programme. Centralised infrastructure such as office space and ICT infrastructure is provided. The logistics of daily administration, marketing, human resources and finances are the responsibility of the library. The appointment of indigenous knowledge fieldworkers is coordinated by the library. Funding and existing infrastructure will prescribe the roll out of the programme. Ideally a field worker is appointed at every library to serve the surrounding community. Community liaison and outreach is maintained through the central office.


The library facilitates database design, set-up and branding, along with free public Internet access at any branch library or other community centre from which the programme is run. Because the knowledge database is hosted on the World Wide Web, remoteness is not a prohibitive problem in gathering information. Information gathering is facilitated among all community members through indigenous knowledge field workers, whether at the library or at homes through outreach programmes. People are invited to share their knowledge, stories, histories etc. by visiting the library where they are offered the choice of either recording the information on the website themselves or allowing the field worker to enter the data. Alternatively field workers visit those members of the community who are not able get to the library, at their homes. Their stories are recorded on site in order to post the information later on the website.

Education and skills development

There are two aspects to the educational role of the library. Firstly the model prescribes the appointment of indigenous knowledge field workers. Because these are the people who are doing the data collection at grass roots level, it is important that they come from the immediate community. This ensures the building of trust relationships and buy-in from the communities. Field workers need to be trained in IT skills, interview skills and audio-visual recording skills. Secondly, the model is structured to encourage community members to join actively in the programme by recording their own data. For people who lack the necessary skills the field workers provide basic computer training and as much support as is necessary. Training sessions are run by the field worker at the library for groups or individuals. In this way digital skills transfer is achieved widely throughout the community.


The library acts as custodian of the indigenous knowledge e-resource that is created. At no point does it act as owner, but takes on the role of moderator of the database. This involves editing and organizing of the data, indexing, creating of folksonomies, hyperlinking, etc. to ensure effective retrieval (Hartman, 2006). Because the WikiMedia software allows input in any language, translation of selective data needs to be considered. To ensure adherence to selection policies and intellectual property rights, the library must review new input on an ongoing basis.

Outreach and marketing

Successful implementation of the model is reliant on community participation, therefore sustained outreach to the community is imperative. Continuous engagement with and mobilization of the community is structured by the library as ongoing outreach activities in various forms, e.g. storytelling forums, cultural events, social functions, exhibitions, historical and educational tours, craft workshops and the like. All sectors of the community are targeted, across all ages and socio-economic groups. These activities are a natural extension of the library’s normal outreach programme so the methodologies are well developed. Regular promotion of the programme is done through the local press as well as posters and leaflets distributed at community centres, health clinics, libraries, schools, shops, markets and other areas in the community where there is high pedestrian traffic. Introductions and presentations at community meetings further serve to market the programme.

6. The Community

Metropolitan areas in Africa are typically surrounded by peri-urban and rural areas, with large populations where there is little coherence in social structures, partly due to the dispersed nature of the living environment and partly due to the poor economic situation prevalent in these areas. It has been shown over the past few decades that top-down social development strategies do not achieve sustained public participation (Korten, 1983, 1990). The current model favours the micro-level approach that acknowledges the dictum that “development is about people” (Coetzee, 2001), and thus adopts a bottom-up approach, with the community as the most important member in this partnership.

The model strives towards inclusivity of every sphere of the community and all members are encouraged to participate and take ownership of the programme. Ultimately the programme is about preservation of community knowledge by the community, and therefore the community is regarded as the owner. The only roles that the Libraries and the ICT components play in this model are that of support as described above. Main role players among the community are the leaders, the programme field workers and the community members themselves.

Community leaders

Leaders from the community play a pivotal role in the establishment and continuation of the programme. Local leaders such as tribal authorities and ward councillors inform the direction of the programme to suit community needs. Their cooperation is indispensable in marketing the programme and mobilizing the community. Protracted engagement of local leaders in discussions around indigenous knowledge issues ensures alignment of targets that are in keeping with current sentiments and promote the sustained community interest in the programme.

Field workers

Field workers from the immediate community are used to drive the programme at ground level. They are known in and have intimate knowledge of the community. Thus they are able to build up trust relationships with and secure buy-in from members of the community. A natural consequence of such practice is the awareness and promotion of the programme that is carried out to the community in an informal way.

Field workers are stationed at community libraries but report to the programme manager at the central library. They are responsible for data-collection, digital skills transfer to community members and posting of the data on the website. They reach out to the community by inviting people to come to the library to post their information on the Internet. They also go out to functions and visit individuals as needed to do recordings which are added to the database later. Where areas are too remote for community members to easily get to the library, the library takes the programme to the villages to record the stories and oral histories on site. Ongoing promotion of the programme highlights advantages and fosters a culture of knowledge sharing.

Community members

The community in all its complexity constitutes the natural resource that forms the basis of the model. Ownership rests with the community and through community participation sustainability of the programme is ensured. Special target groups in the community include the elderly, the youth, cultural groups including artists and crafters, professionals and technologists.

It is widely recognized that the older people in the community carry a wealth of indigenous knowledge, both cultural and technical. The oral nature of most of this knowledge makes it vulnerable to extinction and in that sense the resource is already in a virtual medium, albeit one that cannot be backed up or stored off-site. The model targets the older members of the community to preserve this oral knowledge for posterity through visits by field workers to record their stories, histories, songs, dances and other knowledge.

Young people are invited to play an active role in the preservation and dissemination of their community’s indigenous knowledge. Through liaison with schools in the surrounding area the model encourages high school learners to participate in a rotating panel of students to provide a reference service at the community library in the afternoons. As incentive they are trained in digital literacy skills and information retrieval skills and awarded with competency certificates, free photocopies for their school projects and the like. The project will benefit from this practice, as these skills are continuously transferred back into the community, creating a mesh network of skilled people. Rural schools around the metropolitan perimeter have Internet access facilitated through public donor funding, which opens up the possibility of students and teachers participating in the programme by posting information directly onto the database via the Internet. This in turn creates secondary educational opportunities in the form of digital assignments. The model allows free participation with the necessary checks and balances built in through the moderation process.

Cultural groups are targeted to record past and present cultural life, the arts and crafts of the community, their music, songs, dances and rites. The model is structured to allow volunteer indigenous knowledge champions within formal groups in the community to take the initiative to gather information and post it on the website. The library provides support in the form of photographs, audio-visual recordings, free Internet access and appropriate organization of the online data. The selection of material is left up to individuals and groups, and support is provided to protect intellectual property rights.

The model expects professionals and technologists within the community to share their knowledge with other community members. This may be in the form of tacit or explicit knowledge which can be transferred to the website. Members from formal community structures, commerce and local government departments (e.g. health, agriculture, education, environmental affairs) with local information that belongs in the public domain will be encouraged to make the information available for posting on the database. In the case of published data that emanated from research on local material, the information falls within the scope of indigenous knowledge and as such forms part of the heritage of the local community. Typically at museums, research on local culture and natural history often results in research publications. This is a valuable educational resource for local communities and the information should be freely available to the community at large, albeit at a layman’s level, thus contributing to lifelong education.

7. Results

Community participation in a programme to preserve indigenous knowledge is expected to produce the following outcomes:

A website of local indigenous knowledge will inform local technologies and culture. Improved digital skills will result in economic empowerment of communities and progress in poverty alleviation. Knowledge provision will enable behaviour changes and informed decision making, as well promote the creation of new knowledge within the community. It will stimulate innovative thinking, aid learning and promote indigenous technologies. Formal and informal knowledge levels in the community will be enhanced, leading to an informed society. Ultimately a culture of knowledge sharing between community members will improve social cohesion in the community.

8. Conclusion

By implementing this model communities will be able to preserve and manage their own indigenous knowledge in an economically viable and sustainable manner. Global exposure of local communities will attract international economic, scientific and cultural interest with potential growth in industries such tourism, agriculture and the like. A sustainable people-centred, Afro-centric digital library service will impact on social change and will play a pivotal role in the current global digital knowledge community, whilst democratisation of societies will progress through provision of knowledge. Finally African cultural values will be affirmed in the face of globalisation.

9. References

8.2. Indigenous Peoples Knowledge Society: Transformations and Challenges

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups | Groupes de sections

 Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  17 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
Betsie Greyling: A Model for Community Participation in African libraries to preserve Indigenous Knowledge: In- TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

Webmeister: Branko Andric     last change: 2010-02-12