Rhodes University immortalises knowledge through digital archive project

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Environmental Learning Research Centre's project coordinator, Robin Ferguson
Environmental Learning Research Centre's project coordinator, Robin Ferguson

By Nwabisa Moyo


Digital archives are an essential aspect of the educational sphere. They serve as a form of immortalising knowledge, which can easily be lost if time is not taken to ensure its survival. The Rhodes University Library, in collaboration with the Environmental Learning Research Centre (ELRC), recently presented an initiative to ensure that knowledge is stored and packaged for years and years to come through a digital archive project.

This project was presented on the second day of the recent Open Science Colloquium under the theme "Climate Justice through Open Knowledge", which took place at The Amazwi South African Museum of Literature.

According to the ELRC's project coordinator, Robin Ferguson, "The digital archive project is a pioneer - a true frontier project." She explained that it aims to make the works of the ELRC locally and internationally visible and accessible as a "global south" educational knowledge commons to facilitate the synthesis of the work of many scholars. The project aims to amplify the uptake and sharing of global south scholarship by diverse scholars in different ways, including for teaching and research purposes. The rationale for the digital archive is to advance and extend the quality, grounding and impact of scholarly contributions of the ELRC collective, spanning over 30 years. That being said, the sustainability of the digital archive lies in all future research generated by the ELRC scholars will be deposited, and therefore, archived in this knowledge commons.

SARChI Chair in Global Change and Social Learning Systems, and Distinguished Professor Heila Lotz-Sisitka explained how the digital archive project is critical, as it attempts to "build knowledge of environmental learning and research in Africa, and how to deal with the people-environmental interface". It is especially vital in Southern Africa because most of the  'grey literature', materials that is produced outside of the traditional commercial or academic publishing  have not been published or categorised to make this vital component of research output more discoverable and accessible globally.

This project will cover research and knowledge bases from various interdisciplinary fields, including research from agriculture, climate change, and many other areas which resonate with readers. In addition, the project embraces a high-level interaction between theory and practice. It produces knowledge products by publishing books for teachers and making animated educational videos, including work from 'grey literature' such as student theses.

The first phase of this project looks at numerous research keywords, defining them in the context of the ELRC research and attaching a scholarly work to it for the library to co-create a controlled vocabulary with definitions of these terms.

The decolonised work seeps into this vocabulary, as it is a Southern African-controlled vocabulary that understands the work of Southern-African scholars. The controlled vocabulary holds great importance as it closes off the existing gaps evident in scholarship on a global scale. It achieves this by making Southern African work discoverable internationally, as only an alarming 16% of the scholarly work is currently discoverable and accessible in this way in the global north.

The second phase of this project is centred around creating an interactive interface, which allows the work to be co-created by different scholars. The digital archive will be sustained by embedding the project into the Rhodes University Library. In addition, the list of the co-created keywords/subject terms compiled by the ELRC will insist scholars to attach the most relevant subject terms to their work. These subject terms will play the role of bringing exposure to the African results published under this archive via the relevant ranking search results generated by search engines such as Google and Google Scholar. The bodies of work will also be added to multiple collections and sub-collections, granting these works significant amounts of exposure. As stated by Prof Lotz-Sisitka, the project works to "generate knowledge as Africans, for Africans, by Africans."

Through this project, African works will be immortalised in history, and the names of African scholars will be carved into people's minds globally.


More on this project can be found here:

New digital library to make 30 years of environmental learning and research resources accessible for all