Africana Librarians Council

The BU African Studies Librarians are members of the Africana Librarians Council. This page contains information about the Africana Librarians Council and the role they play in Africana Librarianship through collection development and preservation, cataloging and access and finally, assistance to libraries in Africa through book donations.

Working Document of the Africana Librarians Council (Pending approval of the membership)

Opportunities and Challenges in Africana Library Service: A Framework for Cooperation and Development

The Africana Librarians Council (ALC) is a constituent organization of the African Studies Association (ASA) whose purpose is to advance the study and understanding of Africa by developing and maintaining the services and collections of libraries and archives, and by addressing issues concerning Africana collections and librarianship. Its goals and objectives are outlined on the Web site. ALC’s membership is open to all ASA members with an interest in Africana librarianship, and consists mainly of professional staff of libraries with Africana collections.

ALC meets twice a year: in the fall at the annual meeting of ASA, and in the spring at the home institution of an ALC member. The schedule includes meetings of the Cataloging Committee; the Bibliography Committee; the Book Donations Committee; and a meeting to discuss cooperative activities and projects. The latter is convened by the coordinator of library cooperative projects funded by HEA Title VI, and is open to all ALC members as a forum for reports and planning.

The Cooperative Africana Materials Project (CAMP) is a joint effort by research libraries throughout the world and the Center for Research Libraries (CRL) to promote the preservation of publications and archives concerning the nearly fifty nations of Sub-Saharan Africa and to make these materials in microform available to researchers. CAMP acquires expensive microform sets and authorizes original filming of unique research materials in North America, Africa, and Europe. CAMP meets twice a year, in conjunction with the ALC meetings. Between meetings, communication channels operate through the Web sites and listservs for both ALC and CAMP.

This report describes the activities of ALC (including the Title VI group) and CAMP in five areas of concern for the Africana library community:

  1. Collection development
  2. Access, including cataloging, bibliography and indexes, and document delivery
  3. Reference and bibliographic instruction
  4. Preservation
  5. Advocacy and capacity building for Africa

A brief list of the challenges and concerns for each area is followed by a description of current, past, and planned projects. Some of these activities were developed cooperatively; others are the initiative of individual institutions or persons. In a sense, however, all are cooperative, done for and with the support of the entire Africanist library community. When access is enhanced through cooperation, each participating library’s collection is correspondingly enhanced; more information is available to researchers; and efforts to preserve fragile and ephemeral materials are strengthened. Cooperation thus builds the capacity of U.S. libraries to support the study and research of Africa. Cooperation and liaison with libraries in Africa can similarly build capacity in the African institutions.

One benefit of compiling this report has been the identification of areas where ALC might devote more attention. Another benefit has been to highlight how effective the group has been, despite its constraints. The major constraint is time and resources that members can devote to these projects. The configuration of staff and the resources deployed for the support of African studies in the libraries of institutions with African studies programs vary widely.

Responsibilities of African studies librarians in terms of collection development, cataloging, and collection management also vary greatly. These factors affect the contribution in kind (staff time, computers and other equipment, etc.) of libraries to Center-initiated projects, as well as the kinds of projects that librarians themselves might initiate, and the extent to which librarians can participate in cooperative projects of the ALC.

Collection Development

Identifying, selecting, and obtaining books, journals and other print and electronic materials dealing with Africa, published or produced in Africa or elsewhere.

The Challenges:

  • Limited budgets overall, whether for purchase of materials, personnel, or travel.
  • Rising costs of library materials, especially electronic resources.
  • Inconsistent ability of the publishing and book trade infrastructure in Africa to respond to orders from the U.S.
  • Emphasis in many libraries is on electronic resources when much Africanist scholarship – especially that produced in Africa is available only in print. Indeed, there is much information generated in Africa which is not under bibliographic control, and thus enters our collections by chance, if at all.

Cooperative Activities in Collection Development:

To cope with the difficulties encountered by all libraries in obtaining publications of all kinds from Africa, U.S. libraries, both individually and in cooperation have:

  • Initiated and kept up active communication and cooperation with African publishers and vendors, particularly the African Publishers Network (APNET) and the African Books Collective.
  • Encouraged and patronized non-African vendors (e.g., Library of Congress field offices, African Imprint Library Services, Hogarth Representation, etc.) to keep up acquisitions of African materials while still supporting development of the African book trade infrastructure.
  • Undertaken centralized holdings of cooperatively purchased materials, most importantly the Cooperative Africana Microforms Project (CAMP) collection of commercial and original microforms at the Center for Research Libraries (CRL).
  • Experimented with distributed responsibility for acquisitions from particular countries, including the Farmington Plan of the 1950s and 1960s, and the Africana Librarians Council “Small Countries Project” of the 1970s and early 1980s. Both of these projects were eventually dropped because they did not adequately meet local needs, were unwieldy, costly, and generally less effective than hoped.
  • Supported the Joint Acquisitions List of Africana, published by Northwestern University’s Herskovits Library of African Studies from 1962 to 1996, with microfiche cumulations. For many years, this was a major tool for selection, cataloging, and reference.
  • Developed the Dissertation Project, wherein each U.S. Title VI Institution established a partnership with one or more African universities to establish a plan to acquire African dissertations by purchase and /or exchange and thus increase exposure of African scholarship in academic circles worldwide. This project has encountered several obstacles which, while delaying the acquisition of dissertations, have had the beneficial effect of opening up much-needed consideration by African universities of fundamental issues of intellectual property in regard to dissertations.

Conjunct with this project is a Rockefeller/Ford initiative growing out of ALC discussions of the importance of dissertations done in Africa. The Database of African Theses and Dissertations (DATAD) undertaken by the Ford Foundation’s Program for Information Access and Connectivity (PIAC) would make available worldwide a database of African dissertations, with potential for expedited document delivery when issues of intellectual property are settled.


The ways in which libraries make information and resources available to their users. With today’s tight budgets and rising costs for materials, most libraries use access as a strategy to expand their services to users beyond the materials they may physically “own”. There are several types of access:

The description, according to uniform conventions, of works owned by the library in a database searchable by numerous methods, making the collection accessible to users.
Indexing and Bibliographies
The provision of access to the contents of journals, volumes of collected essays, and other materials.
Document Delivery
Over the last two decades, libraries have been increasingly better able to share resources electronically. Researchers at one institution can consult the catalogs of hundreds of other libraries, and use resources that those libraries have made available for general use. This has made possible the strategy used by so many libraries to deal with budget constraints: access rather than just ownership. Bibliographic access via electronic catalogs aids research to a great degree, but the citation without the full text of the material is of little use.

Challenges in Cataloging:

  • Backlogs of uncataloged materials. Most libraries have backlogs ranging from moderate to overwhelming in size. Libraries share cataloging entries via national networks such as OCLC or RLIN. If the Library of Congress or another library has cataloged an item, other libraries can use that record to speed processing of their own copy.
  • Original cataloging. Many Africana titles are uniquely held and require original cataloging. Original cataloging of Africana often requires specialized knowledge of languages and subject matter. African studies is a broad interdisciplinary field, and expertise in all subjects and all African languages is rare among catalogers, even in Africana libraries.
  • Institutional priorities. Libraries prioritize their backlogs for processing, usually using criteria such as user demand and level of difficulty to catalog. Africana may be scarœ and often is given low priority.

Challenges in Indexing and Bibliography:

  • Incomplete coverage in major resources. The major indexing and abstracting resources, both electronic and print, tend to neglect a large segment of Africanist journals, conferences and edited volumes. This is particularly true of material published in Africa.
  • Few specialized resources. There is no comprehensive electronic and indexing and abstracting resource for African studies. There are several print indexes, which overlap to some extent. These are cumbersome to use, especially for students who have become accustomed to the speed and ease of electronic indexes.
  • Cost and market. Both electronic and print indexes are costly to produce, and the relatively small market for Africana reference works makes a major commercial product unlikely. Many recent bibliographies have been compiled by generalists, with little regard for quality.

Challenges in Document Delivery:

  • Responsibility. Each library must support the curriculum and research of its primary constituency, and not depend on other libraries for basic resources.
  • Cost. Whatever the means, access costs money – sometimes as much or more than ownership.
  • Time. Interlibrary loan, the standard means of collection sharing among libraries, can take a long time.
  • Availability. While many libraries are coming to depend on full text electronic access to journals and other resources, much Africanist scholarship is still available only in print.

Cooperative Activities in Cataloging:

Africana Subject Heading Funnel Project
Subject headings are the standardized terms used in libraries to provide access to the topics covered in any work in the collection. One of the serious problems impeding the cataloging of Africanist materials is the discovery that no approved Library of Congress subject heading fits the material covered in the work. Although the Library of Congress List of Subject Headings (LCSH) contains thousands of subject headings which have been carefully researched and defined, there are still lacunae and errors. The Africana Subject Heading Funnel Project allows catalogers who identify new subject headings to prepare the research and definition, and to channel their input through a single editor who submits the recommended headings to the Library of Congress. This quality control means that hundreds of new Africanist subject headings have been added to LCSH, and researchers have better access to library collections.
Language Codes
Cataloging records include a three-letter code designating language. Not all African languages have separate codes; many are covered by general codes for the larger language group. Separate codes are given only to languages with a sufficient number of published works cataloged in library collections. ALC undertook a survey of holdings of African language materials in U.S. libraries to provide documentation for the need to expand the language codes to include more African languages. This project led to the addition of new language codes to the system and served as the model for other area studies librarians. The language code provides searchable access by language field.
Revising Classification Schemes
Classification is the method of assigning call numbers to books and journals so that they will be placed on library shelves in the same area as other works on the same subject. The major classification schemes used in the United States, Library of Congress and Dewey, each represent an attempt to organize the universe of knowledge. Such systems frequently reflect concepts and ideas which can become outmoded and need to be changed. Africana catalogers have taken the initiative in providing expert advice to the Library of Congress in revisions of both the Dewey and LC classifications schemes. They also led the way in involving African librarians in the process. This activism was most dramatically successful in apartheid-era consideration of classification of southern African geography and history, but has been vital for all parts of Africa and all subject areas.
Cataloging African language materials
One of the problems that makes cataloging of African language materials so frustrating is the difficulty in determining what words on the title page and verso of a book in an unknown language designate essential information, such as the author’s name, title of the book, publisher and place of publication, and what words are extraneous to that core description, such as honorifics, phrases indicating “edited by”, “with an introduction by”, etc. Often this problem delays the most basic of access to these works, since without a verified core description they cannot be added to the library catalog database. The Cataloging Committee of the ALC has compiled a directory of persons with expertise in African languages who are willing to translate title pages and provide some help with subject headings. The committee is also working on a glossary of commonly occurring title page terms in selected African languages. This is a project where Title VI language programs might provide vital assistance. The Cataloging Committee has also contacted African publishers to suggest that they include translations of the title page whenever feasible.

Cooperative Activities in Bibliography and Indexing:

To provide researchers with the tools to help them make fullest use of the materials in library collections, U.S. librarians, both individually and in cooperation, are:

  • Alerting readers to useful reference works on Africa through the African Book Publishing Record annual list of Africana reference books.
  • Encouraging excellence in bibliography and reference works through the Conover-Porter Award, a biennial prize awarded by the African Studies Association for the best bibliography or reference work published in the previous two years.
  • Providing cooperative reference assistance via the ALC electronic list, including response to queries on H-Africa, Af-Lib, and other scholarly electronic discussion lists.
  • Facilitating access to Africanist information on the World-Wide Web through the official ALC Web site, and the Web sites maintained by ALC members.
  • Providing access to Africanist information through individual bibliographies compiled and published by ALC members.
  • Supporting the work of institutions and individuals developing Web-based indexes. Primary among these are the Quarterly Index to Periodical Literature: Eastern and Southern Africa and The West Africa Database developed and maintained by the Nairobi Field Office of the Library of Congress; the Electronic Journal of African Bibliography, an electronic journal of bibliographies on a wide variety of African topics, founded by our late colleague, John Bruce Howell and maintained by the University of Iowa; the African Periodical Literature Bibliographic Database, African Women’s Bibliographic Database and other online databases (, developed and maintained by Davis Bullwinkle, director of the Institute for Economic Advancement Research Library of the University of Arkansas-Little Rock.
  • African Database Connection (ADC): The African Database Connection addresses the problem of access to articles in African journals and other information resources that are not covered by the major U.S. indexing services. A project developed by the Electronic Resources Task Force of the ALC in conjunction with libraries in Africa and Europe, ADC will consolidate existing indexes to Africanist research materials developed at U.S. African, and European libraries; develop a mechanism for easy access to these dispersed and disparate services; identify bodies of information still in need of indexing; and encourage further indexing project to address these lacunae.
  • Union List of African Newspapers (AFRINUL). A major grant from the Association of Research Libraries, with support of the Mellon Foundation, is currently funding the ALC and CRL/CAMP to develop a unified listing of African newspapers held in libraries in the U.S. and worldwide in all formats (paper, microform, and electronic). This union list will enable researchers to find holdings of any newspaper in a single search, rather than depending on OCLC (which does not include holdings information), or searches of individual library catalogs. Other search strategies can provide useful lists of newspapers published in an individual country, by a political party or other group, in a particular language, etc. This list will also aid collection maintenance at participating libraries, and will facilitate identification of newspapers needing preservation in microform or digital formats.

Cooperative Activities in Document Delivery:

Interlibrary Loan and Informal Networks
Interlibrary loan (ILL) is one of the oldest forms of library cooperation, and has not yet been eclipsed by advances in the technology of document delivery. ALC maintains an informal network via its electronic discussion list that facilitates identification of needed material and often speeds document delivery.

Reference and Bibliographic Instruction

Assistance with research and informational questions about Africa, and help in using the library and its constituent systems.

The Challenges:

  • Information technology is changing rapidly, and the ways that researchers can find information is changing with the technology.
  • Librarians are the mediators between the researcher and the information, whether that mediation is a one-to-one transaction, a classroom situation, or the array of guides and tools that librarians create for self-service research.
  • The rise of an often false sense that the Internet supplies all needed information. Much Africanist information and knowledge remains available only in print.

Cooperative Activities in Reference and Bibliographic Instruction:

Courses in Africana bibliography are offered by a few institutions. Al Kagan surveyed ALC members for his presentation at the 40th anniversary conference, and discussed the four courses presently taught in his paper.

ALC members share research guides and other instruction materials at meetings, through institutional Web sites, and on the listserv.


Acquiring and preserving, in one’s own collection or a central depository, unique and important materials, including archives, papers and letters, field notes, etc., and the preservation of the content of fragile materials by microfilming, digitizing, or other means.

The Challenges:

  • Many of the records essential for the study of Africa are in grave peril of destruction, whether by result of political upheaval and acts of war, the ravages of environmental conditions, or simple discarding or loss.
  • Collecting, preserving, and making these materials accessible for research takes time, money, space and effort. In many cases it also takes considerable negotiation with administration of archives and/or national governments.

Cooperative Activities in Preservation:

To ensure the preservation of vital Africana research materials, and to facilitate access to them by researchers, U.S. librarians work together in:

Cooperative Africana Materials Project (CAMP)

CAMP is a consortium of research libraries with significant interest in Africa, headquartered at the Center for Research Libraries (CRL). CAMP uses the pooled membership dues to undertake filming of unique resources and to purchase major commercial microform sets of Africana. CAMP and CRL have recently agreed to administer several cooperative projects, including the Senegal Archives Project; the Union List of African Newspapers (AFRINUL); and the African Database Connection (ADC).

Senegal Archives Project

The first Title VI cooperative effort, this pilot project set the precedent for effective cooperation between African archives and U.S. libraries for preservation of the historical records of Africa. Following considerable negotiation with the National Archivist, Dr. Saliou Mbaye, on policy and procedural issues, as well as the discovery and resolution of technical and logistical problems, the initial body of material has been filmed. The file “Justice indigene 1838-1954: sous serie 6M”, selected at the request of U.S. Africanist researchers, is now available from CAMP for scholarly use in the U.S., and an archival copy resides at the Archives du Senegal. The precedent set by this project makes possible further projects in Senegal and serves as a model for cooperation with archives elsewhere in Africa.

Advocacy and Capacity Building

Thinking, speaking, and acting to support Africana librarianship, the provision of information about Africa, and the development of publishing, book trade, and library infrastructure in Africa.

The Challenges:

  • Limited time, money, and staff to add this component to regular duties on an ongoing basis.
  • Communication with African counterparts is essential but can be difficult because of distance.

Cooperative Activities in Capacity Advocacy and Capacity Building:

The Senegal Archives Project has built a partnership between the National Archives of Senegal, the Title VI African studies libraries, the Cooperative Africana Microform Project, and the Center for Research Libraries. This partnership has benefited the Archives by providing equipment necessary for ongoing microfilming operations, training for Archives staff, and understanding of global interest in their historical collections.

The Dissertation Project is based on partnerships between individual Title VI African studies libraries and academic libraries in Africa. By highlighting the interest of foreign scholars in the results of research on Africa conducted by African scholars, the Dissertation Project has opened important debates on issues of intellectual property national interest. Beyond these theoretical matters, the design of the project to allow the African institution to determine the manner of payment for dissertations acquired by the U.S. institutions opens numerous options. Payment in kind could mean that U.S. publications, otherwise difficult or expensive to acquire, could be added to the African library collection, or that certain pieces of equipment might be purchased.

The Africana Librarians Council (ALC) of the African Studies Association (ASA) is a forum which is open to librarians and scholars worldwide who are interested in Africana librarianship. The ALC make particular efforts to reach out to Africa colleagues, including the 1997 conference in Columbus, Ohio, the Africana Librarians Newsletter and Web site, the ALC web site, and the ALC electronic discussion list.

In 1997, the ALC held a conference, ‘Africana Librarianship in the 21st Century: Treasuring the Past and Building the Future’, marking the organization’s fortieth anniversary. This event, funded in large part by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, brought together librarians from Africa, Europe and the United States to discuss developments and concerns in collection development, cooperation, and reference and bibliographic instruction. (Africana librarianship in the 21st century : treasuring the past and building the future : proceedings of the 40th anniversary conference of the Africana Librarians Council. Edited by Nancy J. Schmidt. Bloomington, IN : African Studies Program, Indiana University, c1998.)

One major effort in ALC liaison with African colleagues has been the input to revisions of the Dewey and Library of Congress classification systems.

The Book Donation Task Force of ALC has, for over a decade, worked to develop projects which could alleviate shortages of books in African libraries and educational institutions. This has resulted in the publication of a handbook and Directory of Book Donation Programs, and the establishment of the Gretchen Walsh Book Donation Award, proceeds of the ASA Endowment Fund which are used each year to support book donation projects which are jointly designed by African and American institutions.

Page created by Gretchen Walsh. Last updated: November 8, 2001