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Library scrolling into digital age

Libraries need a distinct vision for the digital future, one that encompasses rapid change but at the same time preserves their traditional functions. As the largest academic library in Africa and in support of open distance learning (ODL), the Unisa Library is already scrolling ahead with an ever-growing collection of electronic resources and digital vision firmly in place.

The necessity for the library to move faster into the digital sphere is growing for several reasons. It is clear that digital content is more aligned with ODL and, with the increase in signature courses and efforts to go online, backing resources must be available digitally. Research is another key factor and Unisa ensures that its research and learning community has access to innovative content at all times. Just as significant is supporting Unisa students with disabilities for whom digital content is much easier to convert to suitable formats.

Dudu Nkosi (Director: Information Resource Content Management), Dr Judy Henning (Deputy Executive Director: Unisa Library), and Dr Buhle Mbambo-Thata (Executive Director: Unisa Library) talk about their digital vision for and the strides made by the Unisa Library

In advocating for accessible e-learning, Unisa understands how crucial it is to integrate all information resources. “As we move into e-learning, the library is very proactive in terms of acquiring electronic information resources. We have also developed many mechanisms to integrate information resources with learning resources and we’ve achieved major progress in this regard, in close collaboration with colleges. In terms of training, we ensure that our students have access from wherever they are and we’ve made strides in online training, which enhances our e-learning strategy,” says Dr Judy Henning, Deputy Executive Director of the Unisa Library.

Dudu Nkosi, Director of Information Resource Content Management, and her team have also made progress by providing access to e-books/content and the Unisa e-archive collection for the learning and research community of Unisa. “With Unisa’s “foot in Africa”, we try to ensure that, despite the technology, mobile gadgets or devices used, our students can access our e-books and e-journals and have all the information they need at their fingertips to be their information partner of choice and achieve their study goals.” This achievement in accessibility was reached through a Unisa information resources policy directive; as the biggest acquirer of e-book collections in South Africa and Africa, the library was able to influence its own policy directive and positively participate in and influence that of publishers.

Supporting Unisa’s ODL strategy in reaching as many students as possible, the library is focusing on purchasing a wider range of digital content for all disciplines. In the digital context, there are two options: publishers’ databases and open content. The move towards open content with the Unisa Institutional Repository (UnisaIR) has been deliberate to expose the institution’s own publications to the world. According to the Webometrics Ranking Web of World Repositories in August 2012, the UnisaIR was ranked 2nd among other South African IRs and number 146 out of the 1 522 top world repositories.

The UnisaIR is an open content repository as it boasts an open digital archive of scholarly intellectual and research outputs from Unisa. It contains and preserves theses and dissertations, research articles, conference papers, rare and special materials, and many other digital assets. With Unisa’s Open Educational Resources (OER) portal and others linked to the UnisaIR, a single entry into open content has been provided. The call for the adoption of a one-framework for open scholarship is loud because currently separate instruments exist for OER and IR. “At the moment we know about OER, IR, open access publishing, open data and open research, but we don’t know what’s coming around the corner that’s open. So this is why we need to create one open scholarship framework,” explains Dr Buhle Mbambo-Thata, Executive Director of the library.

There is no doubt that issues of copyright and managing open access are an existing uncertainty for authors and even institutions. However, there are several licences out there, the most common being the Creative Commons (CC) licence, which allows individuals to reuse content, provided it is attributed. At the UnisaIR, content is not under CC licensing as the articles are copyrighted to authors and some publishing houses, and permission has been given to authors to deposit their copy on the UnisaIR.

Moving towards open access is exciting but does come with challenges. Hesitation around open content and copyright is at the top of that list, followed by a lack of knowledge on open access. “There are people who don’t realise that many open access journals, for example, have high impact on the Department of Higher Education and Training accredited list and will earn a subsidy,” says Mbambo-Thata. The opportunities are endless, making this a viable platform for both staff and students, and she adds that she would like to “see more students involved in the use of OER in a manner that we can track. I know that a lot of students use the UnisaIR at the point of writing their dissertations, but I would perhaps like to do a study of how deeply our students are aware of open access issues, are aware of OER, and the effort Unisa has put into all of this.”

*Article by Kirosha Naicker

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