Creation of Digital Libraries in Mauritius: Challenges

During the last few decades, the library and information landscape in developed countries has changed drastically. One of the major drivers of this cataclysmic change is the application of ICTs in processing, handling, manipulating, storing and disseminating information. Providing access to information 24/7 round the clock is a reality in our digital era. Digitization projects have mushroomed throughout the world and this phenomenon is bringing a revolution in the information sector. The World’s Digital Library, the Gutenberg Project, Google’s Digitization project, the Library of Congress Digitization Program and many other programmes are well under way. World famous national libraries and big cultural organizations are major players in the field of providing access to electronic sources of information on a global scale. Small nations of the size of Mauritius do not have the ambition to play a big role on the world stage in face of the British Library, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France or the Library of Congress. However, national libraries of small smart countries can contribute in the global movement of free flow of information and knowledge, and to ease the transfer of information from developing countries to other more developed nations. By doing so, they may play a more active role of information producers, rather than being merely information consumers.

At local level, a few digitization projects has been conceptualized by the AUF at the Reduit university campus. Other institutions such as  the University of Mauritius, the MSIRI, the Mauritius Institute of Health and the National Library have plans to develop their own digital collections. However, the movement of digitization of locally produced materials seems to be really very slow.

Challenges:

  • Preservation & Conservation of national heritage materials.

It would be appropriate here to distinguish between ‘preservation’  and ‘conservation’. Preservation is “concerned with maintaining or restoring access to artifacts, documents and records through the study, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of decay and damage” while ‘conservation’ “refers to the treatment and repair of individual items to slow decay or restore them to a usable state.”  (Wikipedia). In this context, preservation is meant to describe all actions, processes and methods to preserve for posterity the national heritage materials.

  • What to preserve?

Countries of the size of Mauritius cannot compete with big players in the field and will have to preserve only indigenous materials. Digitization of heritage materials may help in the preservation of these materials. If the physical documents cannot be conserved beyond a certain time due to its inherent properties, digitization may at least preserve the contents of the documents. There is no other alternative than to preserve the digital contents to make them available for research and scholarship.

  • Provide enhanced accessibility to authenticated contents.

A paper document is bound to be physically located in one place and the user of that document has to be at the same place for consultation/reference to take place. In many instances, the user has to travel kilometres to consult the required document. Providing online access, 24/7, round the clock will enhance accessibility to users and that also free to all. Rapid Internet connection together with appropriate  ICT equipments may enable a multi-user approach for scarce documents if they are digitized. Digitized versions of rare and old documents/ manuscripts may be made available to users, thereby preserving the original one to avoid usual wear and tear. The digital divide and digital illiteracy have also to be addressed by libraries offering.

  • Seamless flow of information

Information is often scattered throughout various places and centres. Which library holds what material is not known to users who, in some instances are unaware of the richness of the holdings of libraries. Online accessibility to the holdings of libraries may even be enhanced by a centralized database (Union Catalogue) .

  • Training & Education of library personnel.

Technical expertise is scarce in the field. There is urgent need to have fully qualified personnel, with skills and competencies to collect, build and manage digital collections. Tailor-made training programmes and even well-structured formal courses have to be mounted to train people to manage and maintain digital libraries. Expertise in metadata creations, competencies in evaluating digital imaging, quality control, etc will have to be developed; capacity building with use of ICT (distance learning, online courses, etc) may equally help.

  • Equipments and tools

Heavy-duty scanners and other hardware will be required.  Back-up services along with a disaster recovery centre for all digital contents have to be ensured. Acquisition of all the hardware and provision of back-up service along with a disaster recovery centre have to be catered for.

  • Standardization of practice

It is forecasted that various institutions in the educational, cultural, scientific, research and law sectors will eventually undertake digitization programmes. Each institution may adopt its own norms and use its software, whether proprietary or open source.  There is need to ensure compatibility of software used by all the institutions to be able to share information. It is critical to ensure inter-operability of systems to facilitate resource and information sharing among institutions involved in digitization programmes.

  • Unsolved Copyright Problem

For public domain documents (out of copyright materials), the problem of copyright does not arise. Digitization of such materials does not present any problem.  For copyrighted materials, digitization is a big problem. The Google digitization project and various cases entered in court by authors and association of publishers are indications of the legal complexities of the situation.

For digitally born documents also, there seems to be difficulties to enforce copyright and intellectual property regulations. In case of violation of copyright, especially by users who may make unauthorized use of digitized documents, who is held responsible? Other issues are related to the digital content: who owns what? Is it the service provider who purchases access rights from information brokers or the information broker who also archives past issues of journals? This problem is also linked to the preservation of digital contents. Traditionally, libraries had this preservation role but nowadays they do not have ownership of digital contents; they only buy access. There is presently no legislation to make the preservation of digital content binding on these vendors. There is real big risk for loosing in the long run much of the digital contents.

A strategy to provide a common access to all digital materials on Mauritiana has yet to be crafted and implemented. The viability of such a project will have to be brainstormed among stakeholders and a common platform should be developed to provide access to provide electronic contents and services from all sectors – health, education, libraries, cultural and scientific institutions.

P. Hauroo

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