21 June 2007

Africa: A Guide to Reference Material on Africa South of the Sahara

book review

Washington, DC — Information about Africa is best accessible to scholars and journalists when available data is organized and widely distributed. The work under review is built upon a historical fact that the collections of data known to researchers of African societies and cultures came out of the colonial experience.

The first edition of this present volume was firmly grounded on the set of data preserved during the colonial era. Originally published in 1993, its first edition tried to complement and elaborate on the vast amount of data presented in Lord Hailey's /An African Survey/. A source of great wealth for the researcher feeding on colonial holdings, Lord Hailey's work has remained a classic. McIlwaine's contribution was to start with what we knew from Lord Hailey and build on what we inherited from his exercise. Hence 1938 became a crucial starting point for the collection, interpretation and organization of his research text.

In a critical look at this second edition of McIlwaine's work, published in 2007, one is struck by several points. First is the major change in the quantity of the original text and the subsequent information added to the second edition. Attention was apparently given to space because coverage was limited only to works published after 1938. Our author has clarified this point by saying that works whose original publication date was earlier, but which had a later edition or supplement published in or after 1938, fell under the new criterion of selection. Similarly, continuing sources that started publication before 1938, but continued to be issued after that date, also received attention in this volume. The decision to restructure the original to produce the changes seen in the 2007 volume was simply to give room to new data.

One driving factor in the thinking of the writer is to recognize the continuing importance and relevance of earlier works and the need to stress the interdependency between old data and new data. The author yearns for the day when the Internet could create the website response to the habitation between old data and new data in the interest of the scholar or researcher trying to profit from all available data.

The next point to note is the author's decision to differentiate between the 1993 edition and the 2007 edition by addressing the chronological limitation imposed by the new text. To resolve this organizational problem, the author has arranged his entries alphabetically by title and name rather than by date of publication. Here the author makes it clear that entries for works that have appeared in more than one edition now list the latest edition first, and the continuing works are listed under their most recent title.

A third factor is the widening coverage of this edition to cover biological sciences and earth sciences. Here the author tries to compete against the dominant volumes catering to the researcher's quest for more African studies data. Related to this desire to widen the circle of coverage and depth of understanding and appreciation of the African reality, the author places much emphasis on reviews of works in his list of subject matters.

The fourth element of this volume is the manner in which the material is organized. The single index of the first edition is divided in the 2007 volume. Here the single index of the 1993 volume is divided into 'author/title index' and a 'subject index', with expanded coverage in the 2007 volume to accommodate the volume of data available since 1993.

Another point that merits attention is the crisis in the African book market. The reluctance of British libraries to purchase books about Africa has led the author to argue about the degree of familiarity with the individual items listed in the 2007 volume. Truth be told, he contends that 80 percent of the works in this volume were properly examined. This suggests that the number of works purchased by libraries and made available to him were less numerous than in the years before 1993. I believe such a problem is intimately linked to the widely known phenomenon called the African book famine.

A final point is that the author categorizes his text into 'Africa General', 'North-East Africa', 'East Africa', 'Central Africa', 'West Africa' and 'Southern Africa'. Under each of these sections of the continent he has listed the available materials in the following subcategories: Handbooks, Yearbooks, Statistics, Directories of organizations, Bibliographical sources, Atlases and Gazettes and Earth & Biological sciences.

What is remarkable about this present volume is the amount of time and energy expended in the reviewing and presenting of vast amounts of data for the benefit of the researcher. The author deserves much praise for his effort, although I would hasten to add that the limitations of research work, largely determined by the African book famine, has led to disparities among African countries.

Some countries have sufficient data for them to be listed under all the subcategories listed above. Others simply lack intellectual scholarship to be included in all the categories. Those who are seriously interested in empowering African societies with scientific and technological knowledge must acknowledge the fact that development without such knowledge is empty.

For this reason, I salute this work and encourage librarians, news media sources and scholars to pay close attention to all such works, and demand their purchase for public and educational libraries.

Africa: A Guide to Reference Material

By John McIlwaine

Hans Zell Publishing, 2007, pp608



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