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[ADDIS ABABA] African countries are falling behind in building digital libraries and archives to provide continent-wide access to local knowledge — and the poorest are likely to bear the brunt of this, a conference has heard.

In the opening statement at the First International Conference on African Digital Libraries and Archives (ICADLA-1) held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, last week (1–3 July) Lalla Ben Barka — deputy executive secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) — said that libraries and archives, which could be crucial in Africa's economic and social development, are accessible to only a few.

Barka shared her concerns about a growing digital divide which she said may leave the poor more marginalised in the "new global community".

"Africa is still lagging behind … in its acquisition and use of technologies [such as printing presses, computers and internet access] to preserve and provide access to its own content," she said.

Kimbo Mchombu, a professor at the University of Namibia, said at the conference that most African countries are falling behind South Africa. Very few countries except South Africa had explored knowledge management, he said.

Barka called for the formation of partnerships both inside and outside Africa, to ensure access to local information and knowledge for the people, and for this knowledge to be incorporated into Africa's development strategy to enhance economic and social development.

"Libraries and archives through the ages have worked to bring together knowledge and information, preserving what Africa has accomplished and providing the fertile soil for ideas. They provide the opportunity to educate oneself, to learn from others and also form new ideas of how to do things better or more effectively within our particular context," said Barka.

Speaking on knowledge-oriented development, Abraham Azubuike, chief librarian at UNECA, told the conference that an effective national library and information services system for economic, scientific and technological development was crucial for building a national knowledge system.

Azubuike advised countries to build effective libraries for every community. He said sustainable, knowledge-based development strategies must be based on such libraries as well as a strong reading culture and widespread literacy in information technology.

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