Past and Future

Looking Back

From the outset, AODL’s focus has been on providing free access to digital cultural heritage materials about geographically distinct places in Africa. Driven by a belief that “much of what Americans know about Africa is either erroneous or inadequate,” Michigan State University's African Studies Center, MSU Museum, and Matrix set out to develop a digital library of historically and culturally diverse materials from and about a variety of African communities and countries. After more than a dozen years of collecting and curating, AODL houses resources representing 24 African countries [9 in West Africa (Mauritania, Mali, The Gambia, Senegal, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Cape Verde), 3 in East Africa (Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania), 7 in Southern Africa (Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia, Namibia, Zimbabwe), and 2 in North Africa (Morocco, Libya)]. The Exploring Africa educational curriculum provides information about all 54 countries in Africa.

AODL collection development grew out of mutually beneficial partnership agreements between Michigan State University and international heritage institutions, including several in West and Southern Africa (see complete list here: URL to institutional collaborators). Early AODL projects sought to create networks of technologically savvy staff at institutions in the United States and in Africa invested in creating open access digital collections of African heritage materials. This capacity building took the form of training workshops, technical assistance, and colloquia geared toward discussing emerging issues and concerns among heritage professionals in various countries.

An important legacy of these early AODL projects, as demonstrated by the South African National Cultural Heritage Training and Technology Program, was a fuller understanding that adequate time and resources must be invested in the development of meaningful partnerships and agreements to create a sustainable digital library. We have found that this front-end investment fosters trust, strengthens reciprocity, empowers partners to mutually determine collection policies and priorities, results in the creation of well-described resources, and yields future collaborations.

Since 2000, AODL partners have come to understand the opportunities and challenges of contributing to a long-term digital library endeavour. AODL has built a track record of (a) developing agreements to ethically use and provide access to African heritage materials, (b) establishing good practices for digital capture and metadata creation, and (c) investing in infrastructure (both technical and human) to sustain and advance the library.

Going Forward

As we approach the 20th anniversary of AODL, we continue to expand our collections, especially in the area of African language materials and within communities that are not currently well-represented in the digital library. As in the past, we will leverage established partnerships and build new ones to collaboratively identify and prepare resources for inclusion in AODL. Further, we will share AODL materials, specifically metadata, through APIs and other export and exchange protocols.

To promote discovery and use of resources within the AODL platform, we will build on years of meaningful standards-based metadata creation to develop robust federated search and browse features across all AODL projects. This functionality will help AODL users, experts and non-specialists alike, to find resources that meet their needs. AODL partners within MSU will continue to support legacy projects like Overcoming Apartheid and seek funding to improve or extend the impact of our curricular materials. Finally, we intend to expand AODL in new directions with user-generated content like "build your own collections," annotations and comments, and crowd-generated metadata enhancements.