Friday 21 July 2023

Spotlight on: Africa Commons

This year, the judges have selected a shortlist of four for the new ALPSP Impact Award. We also invite ALPSP members to take part in the judging process before the closing date of 31 July. Vote online

The finalists will be showcased in a lightning presentation session at the ALPSP Conference on 13 September, with the winners announced at the ALPSP Conference Awards Dinner on 14 September in Manchester.

In this series, we learn more about each of the finalists.

Tell us about your organization

At Coherent Digital, we create online collections of critical research and learning materials. We contextualize them and provide tools and supporting materials so that they can be used for learning. We add content that's uncatalogued, undiscoverable, uncitable, prone to link rot, and likely to disappear. Where content is in danger of being lost forever, we make sure that it's stabilized, findable, and preserved in a permanent home.

We work with leading authors, publishers, nonprofits, libraries, and archives to amplify their voices—and help them remain sustainable through royalties from licensing.

Our award-winning Commons services make this possible, using machine indexing, AI, and manual techniques to catalog and enrich content at speed and at a low cost. Faculty can upload links or content, which becomes searchable and available within minutes. Over time, we enrich the content and build usage with new features, new links, and more context.

What is the project/product that you submitted for the Awards?

We submitted the project Africa Commons: History and Culture.

Tell us a little about how it works and the team behind it

Africa Commons: History and Culture is a collaborative project to preserve, digitize, and discover African cultural materials. It’s the largest index of African archives in the world. Users can cross-search more than 600 organizations, 4,300 collections, and nearly 450,000 documents in one, uniform site. With permission, we maintain copies of sites we index, so that if an item disappears, we’re able to provide a backup. 

Over the last two years, we have worked with a six-person Africa Commons Board of Advisors, made up of a distinguished group of African librarians from Eastern, Western, and Southern Africa. They have helped tremendously in guiding this project and keeping it relevant to Africa. They are:
Dr. Buhle Mbambo-Thata, (Board Chair), University Librarian, University of Lesotho 
Dr. Stephen Akintunde, Professor, University of Jos, Plateau State, Nigeria 
Dr. Elisha Rufaro Chiware, Library Director, Cape Peninsula University of Technology 
Dr. Perpetua S. Dadzie, Associate Professor, University of Ghana 
Dr. Tandi Lwoga, Professor and Deputy Rector, College of Business Education, Tanzania
Ms. Blessing Mawire, Senior Consultant and Director, Integra Professional Services

To provide some history on this project, we started with this challenge:

  • Africa is home to approximately 17% of the world's population. Yet, research shows that African knowledge is severely underrepresented in digital spaces—making up only 4% of the world's digital knowledge.
  • African archives and their collections are hard to find and access. Finding aids are scarce, and few items are digitized. That puts the materials at risk.
  • Outside of Africa, such materials are scattered across thousands of collections with different indexing and user interfaces. They're hard to find and difficult to search; they can't easily be deployed for learning and research.
To help assist with this challenge: 
  • We select and index high-quality materials from openly available collections across the world and provide a single powerful search that then links users back to the original sites. To date, we have indexed nearly 450,000 items, 600 organizations, and over 4,000 collections. Items include books, magazines, newspapers, historical journals, government documents, film, posters, manuscripts, letters, diaries, ephemera, photographs, art, music, videos, and oral histories. 
  • Where rights permit, we make copies of digital artifacts so that items at risk of disappearing through lack of funds or organizational changes are preserved and safe.
  • We also encourage users to contribute relevant links (if they don't hold copyright) and files (if they do hold copyright). Materials are published for the Africa Commons community minutes after submission.

In what ways do you think it demonstrates impact?

Africa Commons: History and Culture demonstrates impact by helping to make African content more widely available and accessible. Free access is provided to all institutions in Africa as well as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Institutions (outside of Africa) that subscribe or purchase the database directly support future digitization projects in Africa, with 10% of sales go directly toward working with African archives to select, digitize, and make rare collections accessible.

Since its launch in March of this year, 140 institutions worldwide have been granted either free or paid access. 

What are your plans for the future?

Africa Commons: History and Culture is a continually growing database. With the help of our Board of Advisors, as well as the academic community, we will continue to index digitized African content and work with African libraries to help digitize rare archival materials. We will continue to engage with the community of scholars who are using Africa Commons to solicit feedback and increase usage of the database.

Also, three additional digitization projects are already underway: Black South African Magazines, Southern African Films and Documentaries, and Eastern African Magazines, Newspapers, and Films. These three collections are in various stages, and we look forward to completing them in 2023.

About the authors

Elizabeth Robey, Publisher, Coherent Digital
Elizabeth has as worked in academic publishing since 2000, most recently for Alexander Street and ProQuest. She is the editor of many recognized databases, including Mindscape Commons (co-winner of the 2021 ALPSP Innovation Award).

Pete Ciuffetti, Chief Technology Officer, Coherent Digital
In a career spanning more than 35 years, Pete has held senior technical positions at seven different information providers, most of them start-ups or early-stage companies. He speaks at industry events on the use of machine learning in electronic publishing and advocates for accessibility in multimedia. 

More information

Company website:
Project website: 

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