U.S. Group Plans a Digital Library to Aid North African Research

The digital-library effort will begin in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, and may eventually expand to Mauritania and Libya.
August 25, 2010

To expand North Africa's research capabilities, a project financed by the United States plans to connect the region's universities and science institutes to a "digital library" that could eventually stretch from Morocco to Libya.

The U.S. Civilian Research and Development Foundation, a nonprofit created by the U.S. government to promote international science programs, is leading the effort and is initially working with Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia to increase their access to the latest international research, give scientists greater opportunities to collaborate, and hopefully bolster their scientific work and scholarly publishing.

The foundation, which recently completed a similar virtual library in Iraq, is spending $1.5-million on the effort. The money is part of a $5-million grant awarded to the nonprofit by the U.S. Department of State to support scientific cooperation in the Middle East and North Africa.

"The U.S. government has a renewed interest in science cooperation generally in order to solve a number of problems: environmental, economic, security," says Eric Novotny, the foundation's senior vice president. "And there's a push toward engaging the Muslim world."

In a speech last year at Cairo University, President Obama said science and technology partnerships were one of the ways the United States could strengthen ties with Islamic nations.

While the North African digital-library project is still in its infancy, researchers in the region are hopeful about its prospects.

"Morocco has every interest in being connected to this sort of network," says Omar Fassi-Fehri, secretary general of the Hassan II Academy of Science and Technology, a Moroccan government think tank that promotes scientific research.

"Knowing what's happening in other labs will give researchers ideas," he says.

Mr. Fassi-Fehri participated in a 2007 conference organized by the Fulbright Academy of Science & Technology where the idea of a regional digital library was first discussed.

In recent years, governments in the region, called the Maghreb, have made efforts to increase Internet access at universities and to connect them to each other and to European academic centers.

But access to American academic research is limited. There is also a serious problem with equipment and know-how. In a lab, there might only be one networked laptop, usually belonging to the research director. And researchers may not be aware of or know how to navigate all the available databases.

Brahim Bessais, a lab director at the Tunisian Center for Energy Research and Technology, says the idea of a regional digital library is "very ambitious, yet very beneficial for the development of the Maghreb." Mr. Bessais says Tunisia has negotiated access to various international scientific databases but has yet to digitize its universities' libraries or connect them to one another online.

Charles Dunlap, the Civilian Research and Development Foundation's senior program manager for institution building, says such problems can really hurt research. "If you're in an up-and-coming university in the developing world, and you're not seeing the best, most recent articles, it's a real roadblock," he says. "Our mission is to make sure scientists are seeing what they need to be part of the global dialogue."

'Intricate Negotiations'

In addition to North Africa, the foundation is helping set up digital libraries in Afghanistan, Madagascar, and Pakistan. In June it completed the Iraqi library, which made approximately 6,000 online journals available to all Iraqi universities and several government ministries. According to the foundation, thanks in part to the effort, the number of publications by Iraqi scientists increased from 80 in 2005 to about 250 in 2009.

The foundation's staff members are meeting with universities and ministries in the Maghreb and just beginning to carry out what Mr. Novotny describes as "intricate three-way negotiations between the owners of content, the institutions that want to use it, and us, who want to facilitate this."

One goal is to consolidate universities' existing access to online journals, negotiating one subscription with each publisher. In addition, journal articles would be available in a single, unified index, making searches easier. Another goal is to increase the visibility of North African research. The plan is to establish an open-source system for Web publishing, which will make locally produced research available online, and to help local institutions set up peer-reviewed publications where none exist.

Mr. Dunlap says the digital library's interface will be in Arabic, English, and French. It will include software that facilitates online discussions, allowing researchers to view and comment on each other's unpublished articles and automatically alerting them if others are working on similar topics.

Across North Africa, says Mr. Fassi-Fehri of the Hassan II Academy, "there are personal relations between researchers but few institutional relations. Morocco has signed an agreement for scientific cooperation with Tunisia but unfortunately with no other countries."

In a second phase, the digital library may be expanded to include Libya and Mauritania. In the meantime, the $5-million Global Innovation Through Science and Technology effort, which the library is a part of, will also support academic conferences, training seminars, and other events across the region.

While digital libraries can "democratize access to information," it may be difficult to get researchers to participate in them, says Misako Ito, Unesco's adviser on information and communication in the Maghreb region. Potential users may hesitate to contribute because of a lack of regulatory policy, she says.

"Even some professional librarians and academics are still scared of sharing their own work" in digital systems, says Ms. Ito, fearing a "loss of ownership."

"Creating a structure is easy," says Ms. Ito. "Getting information fed in and used by people is the real challenge."