Building a BHL 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.

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.

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.

Pictures courtesy Martin Kalfatovic

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Christine Giannoni is the Museum Librarian & Head of Library Collections at The Field Museum.