Guide to Using Web Resources for the Study of Africa

” … don’t limit your searches to the Web – most of the world’s knowledge still remains in print.”- Richard Berkman

Use the Web as part of a comprehensive, integrated research strategy that includes the collections and services of the library, as well as its databases.

With the Library web site as the gateway, the Web is a path to print and other “conventional” resources. Start with the African Studies Library home page.

Access other library catalogs

Other library catalogs

Links to library catalogs in the Boston area and around the world. One of the most extensive library collections on Africa is at Northwestern University

BU Library guides and e-resources

A quick guide and gateway to electronic resources available in the Library collection and to Web resources on Africa nationwide and worldwide. BU

Indexes. Databases available through Boston University Libraries. Access may be limited to the BU community.

EJournals and other full text resources available from Boston University Libraries. Access may be limited to the BU community.

Research Guides have been developed by BU librarians to help you get research started. Among those useful for African studies are:

Online Facts and Desktop Reference are compilations of handy reference tools, arranged by broad topic. You can browse the tables of contents of many journals without coming into the library: H-Africa, TOC

A list of tables of contents of Africanist journals, and articles in non-Africanist journals on the Web site of a major Africanist scholarly electronic discussion list.

Useful e-resources on Africa

Quarterly Index of African Periodical Literature

Provides an online index to articles indexed in print format in: Quarterly Index to Periodical Literature, Eastern and Southern Africa, 1991-1999 and in Quarterly Index to Africana Periodical Literature 2000- (Z 3508 Q38). The Library of Congress Field Office will provide paper copies of articles via postal service

African Periodical Literature Bibliographic Database

The site consists of two bibliographic databases covering Africana periodical literature (Bibliography of Africana Periodical Literature Database) and African Women’s literature (African Women’s Database). You will also find a comprehensive bibliography on women travelers and explorers to Africa (Women Travelers, Explorers and Missionaries to Africa: 1763-1999: A Comprehensive English Language Bibliography).

Electronic Journal of African Bibliography A refereed journal of bibliographies and articles about library and archival collections.

African Research Central

A site [currently down] providing links to archives and other collections of primary research materials. Not all sites have actual documents online -most are only guides to the collections. Supplemented by print guides to archives in ASL reference.

Cooperative African Microform Project

Click on CRLCatalog for Africanist holdings of the Center for Research Libraries. CAMP is a group of Africana libraries which cooperatives purchases commercially filmed archives and newspapers, or arranges for the filming of important bodies of documentation.


H-Africa is the Web site of an academic electronic discussion group with logs of discussion topics, book reviews, and links to other sites, including an expanding “family” of related lists.

Portals to more information

Africa South of the Sahara

A well-maintained site, arranged by country and topic.


Another good site with access both by country name and broad topic.

Africana at the MSU Library

A comprehensive compilation of Africa-related sites, in alphabetical order.

African Governments on the Web

A compilation of official government Web sites for each country, as well as a selection of more general informational resources.

Africa Index

Primarily a news service, with additional information sites.


The “original” mega-site for African studies. Their country specific pages remain very useful, although no longer comprehensive.

Accessing news (past & present)


The African Studies Library subscribes to several African newspapers . More and more news about Africa is available on the Web, so that paper subscriptions (which are difficult to manage) have been cut back in recent years. Some good sources are:


ASL also has a substantial collection of back files of newspapers on microfilm, and participates in projects providing BU researchers with access to many more titles: Center for Research Libraries A searchable database of the foreign newspaper collections of the CRL. Includes the extensive holdings of CAMP. Newspaper holdings may be borrowed via interlibrary loan. AFRINUL is the union list of African newspapers in all formats held by U.S. libraries (will eventually expand to include libraries worldwide). Under construction at the Center for Research Libraries.

Using a Search Engine

Search engines take the terms you type in the search box and match them with words somewhere in the text or underlying code of Web pages. The quality of the results will depend on where the engines look for matching words (do they look at the top page only? the top three? Headings only? full text?) and how the developers of the pages have used words in their text and coding. Part of the behind-the-scenes code of Web sites is “metadata”, tags that can apply the equivalent of subject headings to Web sites. If the developers use these tags, it is much more likely that a search engine will capture their site and include it in your results. As we will see in a few minutes, this can be very good – or really bad, depending on the skill or intentions of the site developers. There are many search engines available for the Web. Some, like Yahoo, are mainly commercial, and cater to the general public. One that has a good track record for academic research is:


is a very useful search engine that searches nearly 2 million web pages. Its main page is simple, with no flashing ads (at least so far). Even if you know how to search, it’s always helpful to take a minute and look at the “search tips” pages. This can help you refine your search, and alert you to changes since the list time you used the search engine. Important features are: Google automatically returns web pages that contain all of the search terms you use, so there’s no need to use the Boolean operator ‘and’. Certain common words, such as “where” and “how”, are ignored. If you are searching a phrase that contains common words, enclose the phrase in quotation marks, and no word will be ignored. For instance, if the phrase “it takes a village” is entered without quotation marks, Google ignores the words “it” and “a”, and yields nearly three million results. The first (most relevant) do contain the desired phrase, but later ones just contain the words “takes” and “village” somewhere in the document. When the search phrase is enclosed in quotation marks, it yields 47,200 results, and all will contain the exact phrase. No search engine will interpret your question. It will only find the words you are looking for. If you are looking for the origin of the proverb “It takes a village to raise a child”, you can add the word “origin” to the phrase “it takes a village”. However, the results will not answer your question. Some will clearly be sites where the word origin appears anywhere, not necessarily referring to the phrase. Others will simply say it is “an old African proverb”, and leave you with no more information than you had before.

Evaluating what you find

One should look for the same validity and authenticity in Web sources that one should look for in print sources. Who is the author? Who is responsible for publishing the information? When was the text written? Are sources of factual information properly and clearly cited? With a book, most of these steps are fairly easy. How can we do it for a Web site?

Africa South of the Sahara provides a list of Web sites that advise on evaluating sites found on the Web.

The five basic criteria are: Accuracy; Authority; Objectivity; Currency; Coverage.

Every Web site should contain enough information about itself to address these criteria, although it is not always clearly evident. Often when you have used a search engine, the link puts you in the middle of a site, and few sites put their credentials on every page.

Take one of the sites in our Google search for “Great Zimbabwe” as an example: (
This is an attractive page with a brief but apparently academic article about Great Zimbabwe. There is a short bibliography, and the authors’ names are posted at the end, with their e-mail addresses. The page is dated (1996). There are a number of navigational links on the page. Following these, we learn that the authors of the article are undergraduates at North Park University, a church-related college in Chicago.

This site provides a great deal of information about itself, making it easy to determine if the article on Great Zimbabwe is appropriate to use as a source in your own research. By this time you have probably decided that this is not an authoritative academic article you want to include in your research. However, the bibliography contains some books that are worth reading – but you could have reached those more quickly through a library search. Caveat Web-surfer. Read critically, no matter what the medium

Citing Web Sources

The Online Facts on the Mugar Web site has a comprehensive list of guides to citing electronic resources. The APA guidelines can be used as a good general principle:

  1. “Direct readers as closely as possible to the information being cited; whenever possible, reference specific documents rather than home or menu pages.
  2. Provide addresses that work.”

“At a minimum, a reference of an Internet source should provide a document title or description, a date (either the date of publication or update or the date of retrieval), and an address (in Internet terms, a uniform resource locator, or URL). Whenever possible, identify the authors of a document as well.” Specific instructions for MLA, Chicago, and other citation styles are provided at the several sites, including Citation Style Guides for Internet and Electronic Sources the University of Alberta’s site, and Online! A Reference Guide to Using Internet Resources.

Notes and Bibliography

Berkman, Richard. “Internet Searching Is Not Always What It Seems.” Chronicle of Higher Education,July 28, 2000, p. B9.

Berkman is the author of Find It Fast: How To Uncover Expert Information on Any Subject (Harper Collins, 2000).

Brandt, D. Scott. “Evaluating Information on the Internet.” Computers in Libraries, May 1996, p. 44-46.

Tate, Marsha, and Jan Alexander. “Teaching Critical Evaluation Skills for World Wide Web Resources.” Computers in Libraries, November/December 1996, p. 49-55.

Walsh, Gretchen. “The Ambiguous Adventure Continues…Research Africa on the Internet.” A regular feature of the Africana Bulletin published by the African Studies Center, Boston University.

Zell, Hans M. The Electronic African Bookworm: a Web Navigator. Oxford: African Books Collective, 1998. AFR ST ZA 4226 Z45 1998