Internet in a Box' Brings Information to Developing World


Since the year 2000, the University of Iowa has been trying to bring the benefits of the Internet to parts of the world where access is minimal and/or expensive.

The university's WiderNet Project manages the eGranary Digital Library, which places Web resources on a server on university campuses in developing countries that have little or no Internet connectivity. Based at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, the eGranary Digital Library manually updates its library at least twice each year on campus intranets in Africa, India, Bangladesh, Azerbaijan and Haiti.

  The eGranary grew out of the experience of Cliff Missen, a Fulbright scholar in Nigeria, who in 1999 witnessed how difficult it was for librarians to get good, fresh information into a patron's hands. Missen, who now serves as co-director of WiderNet, started taking compact discs with information to the Nigerian university where he was teaching. That led to the concept of the eGranary.

People in developing countries "don't have to wait for the Web," Missen told USINFO. "Seven out of eight people in the world don't have access to the Internet, and the few people in the developing world who do, spend an extraordinary amount of money to do so. With the eGranary they can have access overnight to 10 million documents without having to have any bandwidth."

Yet the eGranary does more than provide instant access to books, journals and other documents; it offers "true information literacy," Missen said. "It really does change the way people think about having access to information." WiderNet also provides coaching and training at partner institutions in Africa and manages donations of equipment and software for those institutions. Over the past five years, it has trained 3,600 people in the use of the eGranary.

Some people in the developing world have a very basic Internet connection that allows them to check e-mail and the like, but as soon as they share that connection with more than a few people the response time gets very, very slow, Missen said. "You certainly can't do things like download software, watch videos and listen to music. Those kinds of documents are too large for a tiny connection."

The eGranary, on the other hand, is very fast. Users can download a book "in a blink." Missen said, adding, "They can open a 200 megabyte video file in five seconds. ... Librarians are finding they can add a wireless mast [or access point] to this outfit, and now they've got a free wireless public library. You don't have to worry about who's logging in because there's no Internet cost."

Access to eGranary for a single user costs US$750, while a server capable of meeting the needs of thousands costs US$2,800. Annual updates cost an additional US$200, but Missen said many librarians are finding that the information provided has a long enough shelf life that annual updates are not essential.

The eGranary Digital Library is often called "The Internet in a Box" because it offers offline approximately 10 million educational resources from more than 1,000 Web sites, including OpenCourseWare from course offerings by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Project Gutenberg's complete collection of classic literature and the entire Wikipedia Web site. The eGranary's interfaces are streamlined for easy navigation and offer a comprehensive search engine. All materials - including 40,000 books in their entirety and 150 to 200 full text journals with their archives - are included with the author or publisher's permission. Many would be prohibitively expensive for a library in the developing world to own.

The eGranary's 750 gigabytes of storage space hold the largest collection of informational materials available on a server that can be accessed without an Internet connection.

Under the leadership of MIT, the open courseware movement now offers anyone in the world free and open access to the educational materials from all 1,800 MIT courses and a growing number from other universities. These materials include course syllabi, reading lists, PowerPoint presentations, problem sets and solutions, lecture notes, exams and, in some cases, videotaped lectures. (See related article.)

Founded in 1971, Project Gutenberg provides free downloads of 2 million books a month to people in more than 100 countries to spur literacy. For the most part, books available are those whose copyright in the United States has expired.

More information on the eGranary Digital Library is available on a University of Iowa Web site. Additional information about the Fulbright program is available on the State Department Web site.