Of Digital Records, Notable Nigerians, and our Vanishing Past, By Ifeanyi Uddin
A couple of weeks back, I penned a jeremiad — The “Mythification” of Our Memories —bemoaning how close we are to losing parts of our history.
Over the years, as diverse technologies have become central to how our lives are arranged, one thing has changed, in my opinion, in the way history is recorded — leading to a major challenge. First, whereas, as a child, the default response to new concepts, thoughts, and processes was to head to the central divider in my parents’ living room (it held three volumes of encyclopedias, and a myriad other titles), and thumb through the tomes there in search of illumination, today, the dynamic is much different. Just about all the information one needs is online. And the platforms required to access this online trove are all portable.
It is thus easier for today’s child to find information, on the go, on just about anything that tickles his/her interest, than it was for a similarly placed enquirer 4 decades ago. Delightful as all this is, my gravamen, is that, unfortunately, the online references for many a Nigerian experience simply do not exist. My plaint, thus, was in pity of my children who cannot find, online, much confirmation for the stories I tell.
I thought I was on to something, riding this new hobby horse to death, until a comment on my article on these pages “de-lethargised” me. As far as Tomi was concerned my conclusion on that piece “is the problem with us as a people — buck passing while ranting. ‘We’ is really no one, why don’t you start by writing up whatever you know about those people on Wikipedia rather than waiting for some nameless ‘we’. Society progresses when individuals see something wrong and take actions to remedy the situation….and by remedy I don’t mean the usual twitter, Facebook and blog rants.”
Touché! An effective response to Tomi’s challenge took up my Christmas vacation. Background checks, collateral reading, and nights spent deciphering the editing challenges on Wikipedia ended up with my contributing two articles on two Nigerian sports persons from the 1970s and 1980s, whose absence on those pages was particularly galling.
Exciting though the process was, there was a dimension to creating a Wikipedia entry that was most uncomfortable. Although I am still working out how the cost/benefit relationship of my activity over the week it took to post those entries shape up, the main worry is of a different order. To create a Wikipedia article for an individual, the platform sets a “notability” criterion. Basically, Wikipedia’s “General notability guideline” requires that for a topic to pass muster on its pages, it must have “received significant coverage in reliable sources that are independent of the subject”.
Which in a forum that aims for considerable objectivity in the entries it hosts, is not a bad thing. Except of course, that there are very few secondary sources on Idowu Otubusin, Kunle Awesu, Chimezie Ngadi, etc. Even when these sources “may encompass published works in all forms and media, and in any language”, my best bet on many of the names on my to-do list was to visit the archives of the older Nigerian newspapers — the newer, tech-savvy titles do not go back far enough.
Badly lit, and an asthmatic’s worse dread, these archives only further illustrate the nature of our problem as a people. The search process is so incoherent, endlessly leafing through sports pages, one wonders why these libraries have not been digitised. Unfortunately, we do not have much time. Newsprint does not make for an enduring record of a people’s history — much of what remains is already flaking. Film is not an option, for standard practice, here, is to record over library copies, once we run out of inventory.
News, produced and written à la carte, that is the legacy against which I had initially penned my complaint. All that my effort to respond to a correspondent’s challenge has unearthed is that there is a “we” component to the challenge of properly documenting our history. “We” can do no worse, in this regard, than promptly digitise the libraries of all Nigerian newspapers, especially, the likes of the Nigerian Herald, etc.
This way, we would ensure that the “notability” criterion is not another hurdle separating emerging markets like ours from the developed world.