Digital Libraries in Developing Countries

It sometimes happens that technological advances in developing countries leapfrog those in developed ones. This occurs because established infrastructure, a strong and necessarily conservative force, is absent. For example, in developing countries alternative energy sources, such as solar energy, are widely used in place of traditional power generation and distribution, and these countries have experienced far higher levels of mobile phone growth than developed countries have. Digital libraries provide another example, compensating for the failure of traditional distribution mechanisms to address local requirements and to deliver information where and when it is needed.

Many current technology trends are not benefiting developing countries—indeed, some bring serious negative consequences. Just as industrialization and globalization have increased the gulf between haves and have-nots, so information and communications technology is creating a chasm between "knows" and "know-nots." By and large, developing countries are not participating in the information revolution, although knowledge is critical for development. The knowledge gap between rich and poor is widening.

In the developing world, digital libraries provide perhaps the first really compelling raison d’etre for computing technology. Priorities in these countries include health, food, hygiene, sanitation, and safe drinking water. Though computers are not a priority, simple, reliable access to targeted information meeting these basic needs certainly is. Digital libraries give system developers a golden opportunity to help reverse the negative impact of information technology on developing countries.

Disseminating humanitarian information

Traditional publishing and distribution mechanisms have tragically failed the developing world. Take medicine, a field of great importance in this context. Whereas a U.S. medical library subscribes to about 5,000 journals, the Nairobi University Medical School Library, long regarded as a flagship center in East Africa, received just 20 journals in 1998 (compared with 300 a decade before). In Brazzaville, Congo, the university has only 40 medical books and a dozen journals, all published before 1993, and the library in a large district hospital consists of a single bookshelf filled mostly with novels.

By decoupling production and distribution costs from intellectual property charges, digital libraries offer a lifeline. A wealth of essential humanitarian material is produced by international organizations such as the United Nations, as well as national units like the U.S. Peace Corps. Being produced by internationally oriented, nonprofit organizations, funded by all people on the planet, this information is—at least in principle—in the public domain: it could be made freely available in the form of networked digital libraries.

Disaster relief

Natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes and human-made ones like terrorist attacks and nuclear accidents demand an immediate and informed response. Disaster relief situations are complex and are addressed by a broad range of players in a variety of organizations acting in parallel. They present an overwhelming need for information: information that is tailored for the problem at hand, organized so that it can be accessed effectively, and distributed even in the absence of an effective network infrastructure. The response to a crisis is characterized by the generation of large amounts of unstructured multimedia data that must be acquired, processed, organized, and disseminated sufficiently rapidly to be of use to crisis responders.

Digital library technology allows the rapid creation of organized collections of information, graced with comprehensive searching and browsing capabilities. Intelligence specific to the nature of a disaster, the geographical region, and the logistic resources available for the relief effort can all be gathered into a built-to-order digital library collection that combines targeted knowledge with general information about medicine and sanitation.

Preserving indigenous culture

Libraries and their close relatives, museums, have always been involved in preserving culture. These institutions collect literature and artifacts and use them to disseminate knowledge and understanding of different times and cultures. Digital libraries, however, open up the possibility of flexible and coherent multimedia collections that are both fully searchable and browsable in multiple dimensions—and permit more active participation by indigenous people in preserving and disseminating their own culture, as is illustrated by the example of the Zia Pueblo. The principal participants here are by definition the indigenous people themselves: the technological world assumes the role of catalyst, midwife, and consumer—once indigenous culture has been recorded, it will find a fascinated, sympathetic, and perhaps influential audience elsewhere.

Information about indigenous culture takes many guises: oral history, in the form of narration and interviews; artifacts, in the form of images and descriptions; songs, in the form of audio recordings, music transcriptions, and lyrics; and dances and ceremonies in the form of video, audio, written synopses, and interpretations. Multimedia digital libraries allow such information to be integrated, recorded, browsed, and searched, all within a uniform user interface.

Because language is the vehicle of thought, communication, and cultural identity, a crucial feature of digital libraries for culture preservation is the ability to work in local languages. This strengthens individual cultures, promotes diversity, and reduces the dominance of English in the global information infrastructure.

Locally produced information

In digital library applications for culture preservation, the relevant information is, of necessity, readily available locally. But there are countless other scenarios that involve creating and distributing locally produced information collections. At first glance one might think that the Internet includes such a wealth of content that surely there must be something of benefit to everyone. However, this ignores not only the problem of language—most information is available only in major languages like English—but also the importance of the kind of content that only local communities can generate.

Teachers prepare educational material that addresses specific community problems, and they adapt published material to employ local examples. Indigenous people have medicinal knowledge based on local plants or long-acquired knowledge of the cultivation and protection of local species. Such knowledge is vital: more than half of the world’s most frequently prescribed drugs are derived from plants or synthetic copies of plant chemicals, and this trend is growing.

Local groups assemble information collections that describe and reflect neighborhood conditions, providing new material for sociocultural studies, fostering cultural exchange while retaining diversity, and increasing international understanding. Web sites for community and social development might include information on health problems endemic to a particular African community, or information on commodity prices for a particular good traded in Brazilian markets, or examples of curricular projects suitable for use in Indian schools.

The development of content that addresses the specific needs of a particular community stimulates the demand for information technology among that community. Getting learners to produce their own content is one of the best ways to exploit information technology in learning situations. It not only improves the learning experience, but also creates material that benefits the community. Teachers and students can work together to create their own content that has value for the community, and for the nation as well.

Effective human development blossoms from empowerment. As the Chinese proverb says, "Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day; teach him to fish and he will eat for the rest of his days." Dissemination of information that originates in the developed world is useful to developing countries, as Kataayi members will testify, but a more effective strategy for sustained long-term human development is to foster the capability for creating information collections, rather than the collections themselves. This allows developing countries to participate actively in the information society, rather than observing it from outside. It stimulates the creation of new industry, and it helps ensure that intellectual property remains where it belongs, in the hands of those who produce it.

The technological infrastructure

Computers are not so hard to come by in developing countries as one might think. Their extraordinarily rapid rate of obsolescence, coupled with the developed world’s voracious appetite for the latest and greatest, makes low-end machines essentially free: instead of clogging landfill sites many (although certainly not enough) find their way to developing countries. A 1998 World Bank survey of developing countries found 3 to 30 PCs per 1,000 people, depending on the poverty level. Using an estimated growth rate of 20 percent per year, we conclude that at the turn of the millennium there were 50 million PCs in developing countries, serving a population of four billion.

A more serious obstacle is that network access varies widely around the globe. Whereas in 1998 more than a quarter of the U.S. population was surfing the Internet, the figure for Latin America and the Caribbean was 0.8 percent, for Sub-Saharan Africa 0.1 percent, and for South Asia 0.04 percent. Schools and hospitals in developing countries are poorly connected. Even in relatively well-off South Africa, many hospitals and 75 percent of schools have no telephone line. In African universities, up to 1,000 people can depend on just one workstation. The Internet is failing the developing world. While global satellite communication networks may eventually bring relief, this takes time and money.

Because of the difficulty of network access, the structure and organization of digital libraries should be separated from their distribution media. Physical distribution of information on recordable devices can provide an attractive alternative to networks. Compact disk read-only memory, CD-ROM, is a practical format for areas with little Internet access. The 650-MB capacity of a CD-ROM can hold a useful volume of information, such as the 1,200 fully illustrated and fully indexed books in the Humanity Development Library. Most of the space in a collection like this is consumed by pictures: several times as many books could be included if they were not so lavishly illustrated. CDs are giving way to digital versatile disks, DVDs, which can hold from 5 to 20 GB of data. A year’s supply of the 5,000 medical journals mentioned above could fit, fully indexed, on a single DVD. And save lives.

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