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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

The Promise of Digital Libraries in Developing Countries

Although knowledge is critical for development, few developing countries are participating in the information revolution. Just as industrialization and globalization have increased the gulf between the haves and have-nots, so information and communications technology is creating a chasm between the knows and know-nots [5].

For dissemination of humanitarian information, traditional publishing and distribution mechanisms have failed tragically. 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, receives just 20 journals [3]. In Brazzaville, Congo, the university has only 40 medical books and a dozen journals, all published before 1993. Digital libraries, by decoupling production and distribution costs from intellectual property charges, offer a desperately needed lifeline.

Disaster relief, whether for natural disasters such as earthquakes or hurricanes or man-made ones such as terrorist attacks and nuclear accidents, demands immediate and informed response in an environment where the local infrastructure may be unpredictable or severely damaged. Digital library technology can quickly create 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 be gathered into a made-to-order digital library collection that combines targeted knowledge with general medical and sanitary information.

Nurturing a capability for creating local information collections is an effective strategy for sustained long-term human development [4]. Teachers prepare educational material that addresses specific community problems, or adapt other 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. Local groups assemble information collections that describe and reflect neighborhood conditions, providing new material for socio-cultural studies, fostering cultural exchange while retaining diversity, and increasing international understanding.

Digital library technology also opens new opportunities to enter the global marketplace. Countries such as India, Romania, and the Philippines have long undertaken low-level information-processing tasks like data entry and OCR. The varied demands of digital library development, such as manual metadata extraction, collection organization, cataloging, and information presentation, greatly expands the range of tasks the developing world can undertake, creating valuable new export markets.

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The Technological Infrastructure

Computers are not so rare in developing countries as one might think. Their extremely rapid obsolescence combined with the developed world's voracious appetite for the latest and greatest, makes low-end machines essentially free: many find their way abroad. A 1998 World Bank survey of developing countries found 3 to 30 PCs per 1,000 people [4].

A more serious obstacle is that network access varies widely across the world. Whereas more than a quarter of the U.S. population was surfing the Internet in 1998, the figures for Latin America and the Caribbean were 0.8%, Sub-Saharan Africa 0.1%, and South Asia 0.04% [3]. Schools and hospitals are poorly connected. Even in relatively wealthier South Africa, many hospitals and most schools have no telephone line. Universities are better equipped, but even there 1,000 people can depend on just one terminal. The Internet is failing the developing world [2]. While global satellite communication networks will eventually bring relief, this takes time and money.

Distribution media for digital libraries should be separated from their structure and organization. Physical distribution of information on recordable devices can provide an attractive alternative to networks. While easily disparaged, the ubiquitous CD-ROM is a practical format for areas with little Internet access, and can hold a useful volume of information, particularly in text form.

Computers in developing countries tend to be low-end, often with poorly installed software. The computing environment is outside the control of system developers, and may lack network access, browser software, adequate disk storage, and main memory.

The Greenstone software (see the article in this special section) works standalone on platforms appropriate to developing countries—all varieties of Windows from 3.1 up, and Linux. Supporting primitive platforms poses substantial challenges: for example, Microsoft compilers no longer support Windows 3.1 and it is necessary to use obsolete versions.

Even standalone users interact through a Web browser: Netscape is supplied on each CD-ROM. Greenstone runs locally but incorporates a Web server so that if the system happens to be connected to an intranet—say in a hospital or school—information is available to other machines. This happens automatically: no special configuration is necessary. Another engineering challenge is checking unobtrusively for the existence of a network, especially in situations where network software is poorly installed.

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Information Collections

Greenstone is being used to deliver humanitarian and related information in developing countries. Table 1 summarizes information collections, available on the Web ( and CD-ROM, from organizations ranging from UN agencies to small NGOs. Fifty thousand copies of these CD-ROMs are distributed annually, of which 60% are provided free.

For example, the Humanity Development Library is a compendium of practical information aimed at helping reduce poverty, increasing human potential, and giving a practical and useful education. It contains 1,230 publications—books, reports, and magazines, which in print would weigh 340 kg, cost $20,000, and occupy a small library book stack. The need for this kind of information is eloquently conveyed by a typical request letter (see example on next page).

In an evaluation involving 90 responses to a questionnaire circulated to 360 randomly chosen organizations, the majority (75%) liked the interface, and nearly all (96%) wanted more CD-ROMs like this [1].

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End-User Collection Creation

Notwithstanding an often rudimentary computing environment, users in developing countries should be empowered to produce digital library collections themselves, not just consume information produced elsewhere. Creating new collections typically requires advanced knowledge of file formats, how documents are structured, what metadata is available, and how to translate it into appropriate searching and browsing indexes. However, making new collections modeled on existing ones, with source documents in the same format, metadata provided in the same way, and the same searching and browsing facilities, need be no more difficult than updating current collections.

Greenstone incorporates a collection-building wizard that allows nonprogramming users to create and organize digital library collections from source documents present on local disks or downloaded from a network. Guiding the user step-by-step, it requests the collection's name, stated purpose, email contact address, existing collection to use as a model, file types to include, and source directories and URLs to mirror.

Through a simple interface, authorized users can add material to collections, or prepare a directory that contains a complete image of the data and program files necessary to burn a self-installing CD-ROM containing a collection. In developing countries CD-ROM writers are frequently available in local telecenters equipped with high-end computers provided by governments, NGOs, and private initiatives.

Finally, Unicode is used throughout Greenstone, and users can translate the interface into local languages without having to grapple with the software itself.

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It has often been observed that technological advances in developing countries can leapfrog those in developed ones. We think digital libraries will provide another example, compensating for the failure of traditional distribution mechanisms to address local needs and get information where it is needed.

In the developing world, digital libraries represent a killer app for computing technology. Priorities there 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 computer professionals a golden opportunity to help reverse the negative impact of information technology on developing countries.

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1. Agriculture Information Needs Survey. FAO Waicent, Rome, 1999.

2. Arunachalam, S. How the Internet is failing the developing world. Science Communication in the Next Millennium. 1998.

3. UN Development Program. Human Development Report 1999.

4. World Bank. World Development Indicators 2000.

5. World Bank. World Development Report: Knowledge for development. 1998/99.

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Ian H. Witten ( is a professor in the computer science department of Waikato University, New Zealand.

Michel Loots ( is Director of the Humanity Libraries Project, Antwerp, Belgium.

Maria F. Trujillo ( is a researcher in the Payson Center for International Development, Tulane University.

David Bainbridge is a lecturer in the computer science department of Waikato University, New Zealand.

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UF1Figure. Example request for the Humanity Development Library.

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T1Table 1. Information collections produced for developing countries.

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©2001 ACM  0002-0782/01/0500  $5.00

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2001 ACM, Inc.


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