Monday, July 16, 2012

Building a BHL Africa

Participants at the BHL-Africa Meeting, June 14-15, 2012, Cape Town, South Africa.
The mission of the Biodiversity Heritage Library is to build an open access digital library of biodiversity literature for the world. For the past several years, the BHL has been building upon its global network of partners, and on June 14-15, 2012, over 25 librarians, scientists and information technology managers came together at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden to discuss the possibilities for developing a BHL node in Africa. This organization and planning meeting was generously funded by the JRS Biodiversity Foundation and was a direct follow up to the initial JRS funded meetings hosted by the Biodiversity Synthesis Center/Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago in November, 2011.

Six representatives from the BHL U.S./U.K. node were present to provide an introduction to the BHL, report on the current global environment and  lead important breakout discussions regarding various administrative and technical aspects of the BHL. As always, BHL staff actively promoted the project and generated the enthusiasm required to engage the participants. BHL Technical Director Chris Freeland (who unfortunately could not attend the meetings) created this excellent video to rally the meeting participants.

A working day at the BHL-Africa meeting.
The objectives for the two days of discussion included: the identification of the scope and magnitude of African biodiversity literature collections, the creation of a project plan for coordinated digitization, as well as identifying the local digitization capacity among the attendees' institutions. The first day of discussion was focused upon learning more about the attendees' backgrounds, the current digitization activities in their institutions and how the creation of a BHL Africa would impact their work or the work of others in their institutions. Grace Costantino, BHL Program Manager, Smithsonian Institution Libraries, and Christine Giannoni, Museum Librarian from the Field Museum, conducted several video interviews that you can view here.

Nancy Gwinn leading the Governance Breakout Group.
The second day of discussion was divided into the following four breakout groups: Governance, led by Nancy Gwinn, Director, Smithsonian Institution Libraries; Infrastructure, led by William Ulate, Global BHL Project Manager, Missouri Botanical Garden; Scanning, led by Martin Kalfatovic, BHL Program Director, Smithsonian Institution Libraries; and Collaboration, led by Anne-Lise Fourie, Assistant Director, SANBI Libraries. These sessions really got down to "brass tacks" and identified the needs, strengths and opportunities among the various institutions. While the need for stable technological infrastructure was a common concern, it was noted that this was on a positive trajectory in several countries. Participants felt that their institutions hold a tremendous amount of materials that have not been digitized, including: gray literature, materials published in Africa with low distribution, as well as unpublished literature.

Several key themes emerged from the two days of discussion:
  • the desire for open access to scientific literature.
  • with people across the continent embracing mobile technology, these digitized resources must be adapted for mobile technology.
  • the "BHL in a Box" concept was highly desired. This would entail creating interactive CDs of BHL content for distribution in areas where internet access is unreliable or unavailable.

The meetings concluded with a high level of excitement and several tasks for moving BHL Africa forward. The ultimate long-term goal is to provide open access biodiversity literature to African researchers as well as to establish a BHL Africa project organized by Africans and operated in Africa. A "Concept Document" created by the Governance breakout group is being used as a basis for a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). Participants hope to regroup at Stellenbosch University (in conjunction with Berlin 10) in fall 2012 to finalize an MOU and officially launch BHL-Africa.

- Christine Giannoni, Field Museum Library 
- Pictures courtesy Martin Kalfatovic


  1. Couldn't believe my eyes when I saw "BHL in a Box" equated with CDs! Surely this is crazy!?. Why not ship relevant parts of BHL on iPads? Way more storage, built in interactivity (obviously need to write an app, but could use HTML + Javascript as a starting point), long battery life, portable, comes with 3G if needed. I'll be the first to admit that my knowledge of Africa is about zero, but given that mobile devices are common, cell networks exist where landlines don't, and even the iPad is doing well surely BHL-mobile is the way to go, not CDs! Maybe Africa will be the motivation to finally get BHL onto mobile devices?

  2. Biodiversity Heritage LibraryJuly 17, 2012 at 7:47 AM

    BHL-Africa will definitely provide a strong use case for securing funding to pursue long-desired mobile BHL development. Given the strong mobile presence in Africa, this will be a serious avenue to pursue.

    There are also many options for approaching the BHL in a Box scenario, which, according to our African colleagues, is still a desired option for many locales in Africa where wifi and 3G/4G connectivity are poor or non-existent.

    There are many challenges for developing a BHL-Africa that meets the needs of the people it will be serving, but we're excited to tackle them and have met some enthusiastic, dedicated individuals in Africa who are also committed to achieving this goal.

  3. Yeah, but I'd go with an independent application that would also run on a cheap open(ish) Android device. Or better, why not just put it on a hard disk that could could plug into whatever hardware they had already?

  4. Yeah, but I'd go with an independent application that would also run on a cheap open(ish) Android device. Or better, why not just put it on a hard disk that could could plug into whatever hardware they had already?

  5. Agree with Jim. Just bought a three terabyte external drive the size of a paperback novel that plugs in the usb ports as if it was a flash drive. It is now a common consumer item, easy to pass around, and costs less than 50c a gigabyte of storage. The mind boggles at what sort of stack of CDs three terabytes would represent, and the labour in loading it onto a PC one CD at a time! Not a good idea guys.

  6. Don't get stuck on "CD" - the intention was some media object, now likely one of the 3TB drives mentioned.