Central Asian Digital Repositories

Digital repositories are one of the most prominent elements of the open access movement in universities today. Collecting publications, resources, and content generated by an institution and making them available to the public creates an online archive and serves as a representation of the institution. Universities, research institutions, and libraries are most often responsible for managing these repositories (for background information, Lynch). However, single university institutional repositories that are often associated with Western universities are largely absent from the Central Asian region.

As of this writing I have only been able to uncover one institutional repository which matches this description:  American University of Central Asia’s Digital Library. However, there are many more digitization projects in the region which have adopted a different perspective which deserve the attention of scholars not only for their convenient access to useful sources, but also because these projects serve as an example of collaboration and inter-organization communication.

Online repositories and digitization projects are essential to resource access in Central Asia. Universal infrastructure and funding challenges faced by libraries and academic institutions has required creative responses by institutions in the region. The Asian Development Bank’s findings on ICT in education revealed that policy is often not driven by actual needs but instead by the desire of governments in the region to create high visibility ICT with little substance or educational support. A combination of this direct control of ICT policy and an interest among NGOs and international institutions in creating digital access to resources has created an environment with mixed projects and approaches to digitization and digital archives. Below I will discuss some of these projects with a focus on the trends in digital repository development.

Perhaps the most common and certainly the most visible of these online resource collections are the inter-university collaboration databases. Two state-wide databases designed to bring together the works produced in the state – the Kazakhstan National Electronic Library (KAZNEB) and the Kyrgyz Cooperative Repository of Theses (KRAD) – approach the question of resource access from a similar perspective but with different content focuses. In both cases the resources presented focus only on the content created in the country. KRAD lists the nationality of the contributors in the data, which is uncommon for most of the regional resource databases and digital repositories. In Uzbekistan the digital repository Ziyonet.uz has created an open source site for teaching and learning materials. These resources focus on locally produced content that is not limited in subject matter and are designed to help advance scholarship and education through digital repository collections.

Projects like KRAD, KAZNEB, Ziyonet and others are designed to expose modern scholarship generated in Central Asia to the rest of the world. However, the focus for many projects is on the preservation of historic documents and the cultural content of the region. In an increasingly digitization-focused society, a database of original and endangered documents is seen as having higher priority than newly generated content. Central Asian governments interested in developing national identity have taken to this readily, which has shifted the focus of digitization in the region away from new content that does not explicitly concern the themes of the collections of historical and nationalist focus.

The result is a project like the Kyrgyzstan National Library’s Manas Database, a collection of translations and original texts of the Manas Epic. The project satisfies the library mission of preserving national documentary heritage but it is a document that has the ulterior motive of contributing to the construction of Kyrgyz identity. It is no accident that the first digital repository of the national library focuses on Manas rather than revolutionary or historical documents from the Soviet period. This trend is regional. In a presentation at the 2008 Issyk Kul Library Conference, Director for the Central Scientific Library of Academic Sciences of Tajikistan discussed the recent digitization projects at the library – the lithographic reproduction of the poem Saadi Sherozi [1], as well as a digitized manuscript from the 16th century on the history of Herat. The project was funded by the United States Embassy, a frequent supporter for these sorts of heritage preservation projects along with the Soros Foundation. Foreign funding for libraries in Central Asia tends to promote these projects with the goal of cultural preservation. However, when funding for projects comes from foreign institutions the definition of what is and is not culturally significant is effectively determined by international perceptions of the region. This has been observed by others in the context of museums and artistic representation and organization of the region in collections, including CESS Blog‘s own Sarah Klump. I believe that a similar misrepresentation is being created by funding patterns in library digitization.

The digital repository in Central Asia is a powerful tool because it allows access to resources which would otherwise be inaccessible. However, what is and is not digitized and what is made available shapes perceptions of Central Asia internationally. While there are databases making positive contributions such as those mentioned at the beginning of this piece, there are many actively creating an image of the region that is informed both by nationalism and foreign interests. In order to access a complete picture of Central Asia through digital repositories, a more balanced collection of resources from the region would be an asset.

[1] Саади Шерози. Мунтахаби куллиет (Избранные произведения). – Сталинабад: Нашрдавточик, 1956. – 431 с.