The Summer 2007 issue of African Arts includes a 'first word' column on a promising new online scholarly research resource for Africa. This resource first came to the library's attention in early April, when Aluka announced the roll out of its cultural heritage site component.
[A future post will review the resource and give tips on navigation]
Aluka seeks to attract high-quality scholarly content about Africa from institutions and individuals across the globe ... By aggregating these materials online, the Aluka collections link materials that are widely dispersed and difficult to access, opening up new opportunities for research, teaching, and broader public discussion. One of Aluka’s primary objectives is to provide African scholars and students with access to scholarly materials originally from Africa, but now out of their reach.
Aluka is a project of Ithaka, a not-for-profit organization formed “to accelerate the adoption of productive and efficient uses of information technology for the benefit of the worldwide scholarly community.” Aluka is affiliated with both JSTOR and ARTstor. Work began on Aluka in early 2003.
Aluka's target audience is primarily the "higher education and research community," with most resources selected and pitched to undergraduate students and their instructors. Some resources may have particular application to specialized researchers.
Access to Aluka is open to "any educational, research, cultural, or other not-for-profit
organization that joins Aluka by signing a participation agreement." Outside of Africa a fee is involved. During the 'Preview Period' any institution with access to JSTOR (including this one) has free access to Aluka content.
(There is no indication how long the Preview period will last.) The Preview period will end December 31, 2007.
In addition to the content areas themselves, additional pages highlight Featured Collections (for instance, the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies) and a running list of Latest Additions. There is also an FAQ Page.
At the moment Aluka presents three constantly expanding 'content areas':
- Struggles for Freedom in Southern Africa "consists of more than 180,000 pages of documents and images, including periodicals, nationalist publications, records of colonial government commissions, local newspaper reports, personal papers, correspondence, UN documents, out-of-print and other particularly relevant books, oral testimonies, life histories, and speeches" reflecting the history of the struggle itself: "colonial rule, dispersion of exiles, international intervention, and worldwide networks that supported successive generations of resistance within the region."
- African Plants "comprises scientific data contributed by the African Plants Initiative (API) ... API's long-term goal is to build a comprehensive online research tool aggregating and linking presently scattered scholarly resources about African plants, thereby dramatically improving access for students, scholars, and scientists around the globe."
- African Cultural Heritage Sites and Landscapes "content area links high-quality visual, contextual, and spatial documentation of African heritage sites.The digital library includes photographs, 3D models, GIS data, site plans, aerial and satellite photography, images of rock art, excavation reports, manuscripts, traveler's accounts, historical and antiquarian maps, books, articles, and other scholarly research." [N.B.: Until June 30, 2007, downloading of the the datasets for three-dimensional site models, GIS data, and digital video has been disabled.]
It is this last collection which has the potential to provide the most valuable information for our research community. The collection is organized around what Aluka calls a "cultural landscape." As of April 2007 five cultural landscapes had been identified: Kilwa Kisiwani—a medieval city on an off-shore island in Tanzania; Lalibela, Ethiopia—capital of the Zagwe Dynasty and famous for its rock-hewn churches; The Asante Temples at Besease and Patakro, Ghana; Djenné and Timbuktu, Mali, celebrated for mosques in Sudanic style; and a preliminary collection of digitized photographs of African Rock Art. Future landscapes will include the stone ruins of Great Zimbabwe; the stelae field at Axum, Ethiopia; Elmina, Ghana; Lamu archipelago located on Kenya's northern coast; and five rock art shelters and caves in South Africa’s Cederberg Mountains.
Each of these cultural landscape areas "includes a vast range of visual and textual materials ... [including] high-resolution, metrically accurate digital photographs, two-dimensional site plans, three-dimensional models of structures, towns, and landscapes, spatial/geographic information systems (GIS), digital video and panoramas of the sites, and in the future, computer visualizations with walk-through capabilities.
"Related contextual materials ... include, for example, a selection of digitized scholarly articles, monographs, and travelogues from the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution Libraries, and the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies at Northwestern University; some antiquarian maps of Africa from the Afriterra Free Cartographic Library; selections of narratives, drawings, and documents of and by the |xam and !kun people of southern Africa as collected in the 19th century by Lucy Lloyd and Wilhelm Bleek; and a unique collection of field notes and images from excavations at Kilwa Kisiwani carried out during the 1960s and early 1970s by Neville Chittick, the first Director of the British Institute in Eastern Africa."