Over the past few weeks, I’ve been avoiding the inter library loans sections of my university’s library. Guiltily, I’ve been clicking ‘delete’ on the several emails they’ve sent me to remind me to return about twenty books borrowed from other South African libraries.
Like many academics, I am a forgetful borrower of library books, but I do return them promptly when another user requests them. I’m stalling on these sources because I’ve just started writing a few articles based on my research project. I’m working in, what is for me, a relatively new field, which means that I am more than usually reliant on these texts to ensure that I produce rigorous and useful scholarship.
I also feel a little resentful about being loaned these books for a relatively short period of time. These sources – all published fairly recently by mainstream academic publishers – are standard historical texts which a university library should stock. Mine, though, does not. In fact, with the exception of its excellent archive and Africana collection, my university’s library’s history section is not particularly good; it lacks significant works, and does not reflect new trends and new fields in the discipline.
I think that part of my annoyance is the result of the fact that I wrote most of my PhD in the British Library where I was able to order every book which I needed. Given that my dissertation was on a fairly obscure aspect of South African history, this was particularly impressive. Returning to South Africa has made me realise how important it is for academics to have ready access to the secondary sources they need to do research.
There are some excellent university libraries in South Africa, but books here are expensive, largely because they are taxed as a luxury item. Despite lobbying to reduce or eliminate the tax, our Government remains loath to do so. Also, ordering books online can be fraught with anxiety, as our postal service is terribly inefficient. In fact, for a while Amazon ceased posting orders to South Africa altogether because of the number of packages which simply disappeared.
It’s here that ebooks become extremely useful to South Africans, academics and otherwise. This week, an edited collection of essays on mass education and citizenship, to which I contributed a chapter, was published. The publisher is posting complementary copies to authors, which is great, but what’s even better is that they’ve made the Kindle edition immediately available. Both editions cost roughly the same, although without postage, the ebook is a cheaper option for academics here.
I was lucky enough to be given a Kindle for my birthday last year. Like many academics and bookish people, I had mixed feelings about Kindles: part of the pleasure of reading is the tactile nature of books. Also, the demise of bookshops dismays me, and I like to support them as much as I can.
But, equally, I need to have access to the sources I need for my research. So I made a promise to myself: my Kindle is for academic books only and over the past few months it has proven to be invaluable. Not only are ebooks frequently cheaper than hard copies, but they arrive almost immediately.
It’s here that I think that universities in the developing world should consider the usefulness of ebooks in allowing academics and students to keep in touch with international scholarship. I don’t argue for the abolition of university libraries – particularly because librarians can be so important in helping us and our students to do research – but, rather, for a rethinking of how we access research produced abroad.
Moreover, ebooks and the Internet open up the ways in which we share our research. There is a gulf between academics and the public in the developing world. Bridging this requires us to be creative in communicating our research. In sub-Saharan Africa where access to the Internet via mobile technology is increasingly widespread, this offers researchers an opportunity to make contact with a public who would not normally be aware of our work.
Instead of seeing Kindles and other devices as a threat to the book – and, even, as some have suggested, to literacy – we should think of them as allowing us to open up access to our research to a far wider audience.