Growing number of websites with official documents
More and more, those authorities charged with disseminating basic decision-making data are choosing to make official documents available on the internet. That section of NAI’s online information resource “A Guide to Africa on the Internet” is constantly updated by NAI’s library. Several new websites with information on constitutions, censuses, development plans, budgets, economic reports, statistics, and so on, have now been identified.
Official documents or government publications are those publications produced under the auspices of legislative bodies, decision-making and judicial organs, civil service departments, courts of law, independent institutions, committees, people in authority, etc. The online collections, however, are still uneven: some states offer a rich collection of official documents in full text, while others supply only a limited number of official documents in summarised form.
Gunnar Lindbom and Katarina Hjortsäter are two of NAI’s librarians tasked with identifying websites with official documents.
How would you describe interest in official documents among the library’s borrowers and users?
“I would say that the need to find this kind of material creates an interest,” says Gunnar Lindbom. “If you are writing about healthcare in a certain country, you want to find health statistics, and they are usually found in official documents. If the subject is the economy, you want to look at a country’s budget. Borrowers who come from Africa and are doing research on Africa especially appreciate the kind of material we provide. It is not always easy for them to find this material in their home countries.”
How much of the material found in the library and in ”A Guide to Africa on the Internet” do you have to search for and how much is sent to you directly from the sources?
“What is found in the guide is material that we have to search for ourselves and keep updated. The printed material is generally sent regularly to us by our supplier, Hogarths,” says Gunnar Lindbom. “There is not a single country that delivers material directly to us. This means that material from countries not covered by the supplier is difficult to get hold of. Direct correspondence with the sources tends to be difficult, and it is also difficult to monitor what has been published.”
What can you say about the websites you now have identified? Are they in countries that were previously not publishing material online?
“A growing number of governments and parliaments in Africa have their own websites. But the quality varies. Some websites are more concerned with PR for the governments and presidents currently in power. Other websites are well developed, with separate sites for ministries and plenty of relevant material such as investigations, statistics and more,” says Gunnar Lindbom. “We are also noticing that the websites are dynamic. For example, a lot of government publications previously found on Tanzania’s website have been removed and are no longer available, unless you are lucky enough to find them on internetarchive.org.”
Since a growing volume of material is now on the internet, has availability and reliability increased?
“Information is becoming more available to people with access to the internet, so you could say things have become more transparent. For a growing number of people, more documents are made available since it is cheap and easy to publish material online. The documents have not changed, only the medium,” says Katarina Hjortsäter.
“A lot of what is now put on the web are documents not previously classified: they have always existed but in printed format. As regards statistics, it comes down to what the officials want to know. An example is South Africa, where the former government did not recognise HIV/AIDS. Consequently they were not interested in gathering statistics on how many people were infected. If you were interested in finding out, you had to go to WHO to get relevant figures. The collection of numbers is sometimes based on questionnaires and sometimes on national censuses, but sometimes on figures gathered by healthcare institutions. As regards the latter, you will only get numbers for people who have been treated, so that many cases remain unrecorded. These are factors one has to be alert to – quality control and critical reading of sources basically,” she continues.
Are we moving towards a situation where more documents are published only online rather than being printed?
“Yes, that is very likely. But it will take some time before reliable archives are established in all states. So we will have to continue dealing with printed material for several years to come. But the printed material will decline in the long term,” says Gunnar Lindbom.