Home 9 Blog Posts 9 It Wasn’t Raining when Noah Built the Ark

It Wasn’t Raining when Noah Built the Ark

by | May 29, 2024 | 0 comments

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By Ann Okerson Director, Offline Internet Consortium

The longest overwater commercial flight in the world, the UAL purser called it, the 15 hours from Newark, NJ to Cape Town, South Africa.  The flight was a perfect transition to a memorable Fiesole Retreat that took us Global Northerners well out of the worlds we are familiar with.

What changes when you make that long journey?  The sun runs over the northern, not the southern, sky and the stars are fresh and bright and unfamiliar.  The trees at the retreat hotel on the east side of Table Mountain are lush and not quite familiar.  East African tortoises roam the grounds, and at night two Egyptian geese swim in the outdoor pool and tuck into nearby shrubbery for their overnight accommodations.

The social landscape is also subtly distinct from the American.  South Africa has many and serious political challenges, with the indigenous population still economically disadvantaged.  (I learned an unfortunate new word, “loadshedding”, on the first morning in Cape Town when my wakeup call never came; it seems that even Cape Town suffers regularly intermittent, deliberate power cutbacks to keep the whole system functioning.)  There is a subtly different public social mixing of races from what is familiar in the US.  The difference is hard to describe, but one sees the outlines of a more genuinely and comfortably multiracial society than is often on display in the US.  We all have a long way to go, but there are different paths.

This year’s Fiesole Retreat (24th) Cape Town location (first time on the African continent) was intentionally chosen to take advantage of those different points of view — for a two-day program devoted to the challenges of connecting global north and south in support of advancing the future of scholarly communication and scholarship.  Michele Casalini and his team have built a community of practice, comprising loyal long-time members who are joined each year by an enriching regional group attracted by location and theme.  Below are just a few highlights; a full set of slides is being posted to the Fiesole Retreat website: https://www.fiesoleretreat.org/

This year, my role in the community was to pull together the opening session with a series of talks that set the context.  Ujala Satgoor (University of Cape Town) provided an overview of the challenges for including Africa in global scholarly communications systems, followed by Biliamin Popoola (University of Medical Sciences in Ondo City, Nigeria) bringing a researcher’s perspective about publishing for a global readership (or not).  The remarkable Nokuthula (“call me Nox!”) Mnchunu (South African Research Foundation’s Deputy Director of the African Open Science Platform – AOSP) outlined the impressive strategy and infrastructure now being developed to advance South African official scientific and scholarly communications.  Acquinatta Zimu-Biyela (Professor at the University of South Africa) reflected on the theme of decolonization as lived through the South African experience, providing the larger historical and social context in which African libraries’ work has to go forward.

From the initial context-setting, the conference branched into various directions.  One large theme was discussion of challenges of less-advantaged nations and particularly of Africa’s hundreds of diverse languages.  South Africa is, of course, a very multilingual society.  In African nations, concern for the integrity, survival, and contribution of national and regional cultures is strong, and yet English has become the effective dominant language, bringing with it a flood of mass culture from around the world, threatening to swamp local perspectives and priorities.  Giannis Tsakonas (University of Patras, Greece) joined virtually, with interesting statistical analysis to show this paradox.

The conference, however, looked beyond challenges to opportunities, beyond environment to projects and strategies.  Of much interest is the movement towards open access publication in Africa, outlined in a presentation by Bastien Miraucourt (CNRS, France), who works in Africa to make open access monograph publishing a reality.  He analyzed types of communities participating in and served by African publishing.  He made it clear that there are really several Africas, divided by climate and politics.  The string of countries down the east coast of Africa, from Ethiopia and Somalia all the way to South Africa, clearly constitutes one (multilingual) community of nations, while traditional West Africa (e.g., Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone) forms another natural region.  The central spine of sub-Saharan Africa is more culturally and politically challenged, while the Saharan and immediate sub-Sahran regions are divided from Africa farther south by climate and by religion.  The traditional Maghrib on the Mediterranean coast to the north comprises another community of Islamic nations with histories of relatively close ties to their European colonizers.

Miraucourt then outlined the challenges for scholarly publishing in general in Africa, telling for example the sobering story of near-total cuts in publishing and library acquisitions at the huge University of Ibadan in Nigeria.  He believes that it is nonetheless possible to envision building up again an infrastructure and practice of scholarly publishing in Africa, looking to a time when it will be possible to advance strategies of open access.  Presentations by Susan Murray (AJOL – African Journals Online) and Rosalind Hattingh (Sabinet Online) introduced us to numerous African open access journals.

Ros Pyne (Bloomsbury Publishing) offered a different solution:  the new Bloomsbury Open Collections, which now include African Studies in the range of a (so far) limited number of monographs opened by a variant of subscribe-to-open.  Their series has the advantage of having real books now available.  However, the pilot project has yet to meet its first-year funding goal, so there are fewer open access volumes coming available than Bloomsbury had hoped.  The project is also subject to the concern heard in Africa itself, that Bloomsbury are publishing English-language volumes about Africa, written outside Africa.  If the dream is to support creation and dissemination of books from, of, and in Africa, there is still a long way to go.

A major South African cultural heritage challenge was described in a sobering presentation by Mpho Ngoepe (University of South Africa) with the engaging title, “It wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark.”  His theme was the loss of precious historical records in Africa due to absence of adequate archival priorities, policies, and facilities.  He gave accounts of precious records being removed deliberately by departing colonial powerful figures, who didn’t want their misdeeds exposed; and examples of unique documents written by Nelson Mandela – or the autopsy of the late Steven Biko – held by private individuals who then sold them at auction for great amounts of money.  In that context, there is a lot of basic work yet to be done.  “Let’s build the ark,” Dr. Ngoepe concluded, in a metaphor for the entire Retreat.

Attendees could see in the meeting many prospects for a brighter future.  We heard a report from pre-conference attendees at a workshop – run in combination with the retreat- in which young academic library professionals from around Africa joined in a day-long coaching and professional development session.  They were an impressive group, fully worthy of succeeding one day some of the elders of the community, who were also with us at the retreat.  I left the Retreat knowing I had been blessed with a snapshot of a world region where, although many things need fixing, so much is now in motion to build a bright future, hand in hand with the global north.

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