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16 May 2011

FFD dot org's library functionality has been restored, and I am happy.

When the directors of the South Africa Node of the Millennium Project, with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, agreed to initiate FFD dot org, it was a digital library that was the core idea. Stripped of logo and web-bling, FFD dot org is an access gate to knowledge about African futures. Mostly what sits in the digital repository are free-to-read, PDF publications written by futurists and academic researchers. Included there, too, are multimedia ouputs from global news organisations, futurist networks, other foresight projects, private individuals, development institutions, and civil society organisations.

Every month we profile foresight content from the library thematically. May's theme is democracy, as you've noticed, but what's coming in subsequent months is African futures and environment (June), technologies (July), and women (August). Other topics are on our horizon, too. Sometimes we will tackle issues of a more existential nature, such as death and digital immortality, or we'll deal with embodied concerns, such as infectious diseases, and we'll face up to matters, such as foresight and animal rights, that challenge the anthropocentrism of a great deal of foresight writing. A future topic, one particularly important to me, is mental health in Africa. I'm keen to profile this on FFD dot org because - and I've slouched about in enough psychology lectures in my past, as student and lecturer, to know this first-hand - psychologists are not involved in any meaningful sense in the foresight and futures studies community on the continent. Economists, biologists, demographers, statisticians, technologists, and political scientists produce most of what's written about Africa and the future. When we get there, though, will we be content? Depressed? In denial? Bullied?  Or drugged to the ends of our telomeres? (Note to self: time to re-watch Gattaca...and Metropolis, Alien, District Nine, Blade Runner, Dr Strangelove, and The Matrix.)

Transferring the contents of the digital library from FFD's beta site to our revamped one has been quite a task for our technical team. While they were working on that, I had the opportunity to look through the catalogue and usage stats from our genesis up to and including April 2011. What our community of users has been downloading most often fascinated - and perplexed - me.

Top of the list of most frequently downloaded resources was scenarios for South Africa in 2020, followed by possible futures for the customs union of Southern Africa. A bit of a cluster forming there, you'd think, or a hint of a reading list for someone's university course, but the next items on the list were triple helix innovation networks in the Western Cape; a project in El Salvador; biotechnology scenarios; youth; Tanzanian mining; entertainment; and financing. Sounds like elements of a plot in a Robert Ludlum novel.

What's not downloaded as frequently are publications on demography; food security; climate change; and the status of women.  Mais pour quoi?, I asked myself aloud in my best Franglais accent. Am I to conclude that our merry band of web-regulars are individuals with well-stocked refrigerators, two kids, and households in clement climes - and in all likelihood men, counting all the way to the last, erm, man standing?

Google Analytics helped me answer part of my lingering questions about who uses our site. Tanzanians were the group of visitors who spent most time with us in the first quarter of 2011. (That explains, in part, the mining report's popularity.) They averaged sixteen minutes on FFD dot org. Sixteen minutes?! Viva Team Tanzania, viva! Spending almost no time in our digital presence, and taking mere milliseconds to close the browser window that got them there, probably after figuring out that double eff dee dot org doesn't refer to undergarment sizing in Africa, were users from Germany. Average time for these Flash Gordon-esque users: one second. Besides our Tanzanian friends, South Africans, Nigerians and Kenyans were also hanging out with us regularly enough in the first three months of 2011. Visits from Francopphone, Lusophone and Arabophone African states (or would-be states) were almost non-existent. This relates to the matter of providing access to content in languages other than English. Swahili is on our wish list, along with French, Portugese and Arabic. But language, like time, is money, and we're looking for support that will allow us to deliver this enhanced accessibility on our portal. Check out our Donate page for more information.

Right now, the FFD repository is of modest size, and the search function is still primitive, but we're expanding. We'll let you know what we've added to our library. If you want something included in our collection, get hold of us and we'll try to assist within the limits of our budget and broadband. Libraries, physical and digital, are gateways to our pasts and futures. Long before I appreciated fully the potential of what was inside a library, the carpeted  space that was my high-school's book room was a haven from the politics of the playground. Decades later, the digital libraries of universities I attended as a virtual student gave me access to e-texts from the world's greatest scholars so that I could explore literary works in entirely new ways. My affection for libraries is considerable, and I've been reading with delight the wonderful tributes pouring in for the New York Public Library - which celebrates its centennial this year. Libraries do not need to be as grand as the one in New York or as symbolic as the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu, Mali, to have an impact. To borrow phrasing from Books for Africa, there's a book famine on this continent, and even small scale efforts, such the digital collection we offer at FFD dot org, make a positive difference. Visit our library.




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