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UDT Series on Data Communication Technologies and Standards for Libraries

Packet Radio: Applications for Libraries in Developing Countries (1993)


To understand the need for computer networking for developing country libraries, it is useful to examine the role of information in developing countries and the barriers to its flow. To this end, the present chapter provides background material, first outlining the need for information in developing countries, its users and sources, and then listing the general problems that afflict developing country libraries. One fundamental problem discussed is isolation—the fact that developing country libraries are cut off from normal information flows by distance, and lack well-developed transportation and communications systems to bridge that distance. It is this problem that is central to this study, and which packet radio has the potential to overcome by providing wireless data communications.

2.1 The role of information in developing countries

Widespread poverty, crushing foreign debt, overpopulation, and antiquated agricultural economies—these are but a few of the problems from which less developed countries suffer. Although the factors underlying these problems are obviously manifold, a lack of information compared with the industrialized world—known as the information gap—is considered to be central among them (Broadbent, 1990a). Information—primarily scientific, medical, technological, and agricultural information—can play a large role in the efforts to alleviate these diverse problems, and help create the social, economic and technical infrastructure needed to support development (Heitzman, 1990). As UNESCO states in its Medium-term Plan (1984-1989):

    The possession and use of knowledge are essential factors for progress. Information, the communicable form of knowledge,... ...has therefore come to be recognized as one of the main prerequisites for economic and social development. It is an indispensable factor in the rational use of natural resources, scientific and technological advancement, progress in agriculture, industry and services.... ...Consequently, assimilation of scientific and technological information is an essential precondition for progress in developing countries (Unesco, 1982:157).

Information users

All levels of society require information. Akhtar (1990b) identifies three broad groups of information users:

  • those needing information for research (e.g., scientists).

  • those needing information for decision making, (e.g., government officials).

  • those needing information to implement developmental change at the local level (e.g., extension workers, community action groups, and farmers).

Information sources The information needed by these diverse groups of people originates from two main sources: industrialized countries and other developing countries.

Industrialized countries. Most of the world's scientific and technological activity is centred in the industrialized world, with less than ten percent of the world's research work taking place in developing countries (Unesco, 1986). Not surprisingly, the bulk of the world's scholarly communication is generated and exchanged among industrialized countries. Thus, at least for scientific and technical information, developing countries are necessarily dependant upon sources in industrialized countries to keep abreast of technological developments (Samarajiva, 1989). This dependency contributes to the information gap.

Other developing countries. Although information is required from the industrialized world, there is also a need for information from other developing countries. Some writers suggest that information from industrialized countries, especially that which is contained in large databases, is not appropriate for developing country users—the languages of the databases are not those of developing country users, there is a lack of coverage of developing country literature, and the information itself may not be suited to local needs (Davies, 1985). For example, information contained in agricultural databases is often research-oriented and not the practical information required in developing countries (Cano, 1985).

Such practical information often comes from other developing countries, but is not widely available because of numerous problems, such as inadequate postal services, telecommunications, equipment, and staff (Gooch, 1987). In fact, Saracevic (1980) discovered that much of the scientific information relevant to developing countries comes from other developing countries, but that this type of information forms only a small percentage of databases from the industrialized world. There is clearly a need for access to regional publications that deal specifically with the types of issues and problems that many developing countries share.

Efforts to provide information

Having recognized the link between information and development, many international agencies and other organizations have embarked upon programs to create information systems that collect, process, and disseminate information in developing countries (Gassol de Horowitz, 1988). There is a bewildering array of organizations that, over the last three decades, have instigated programs to foster development through information dissemination. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to describe the history and progress of developmental agencies and their programs, agencies that have worked to overcome the information gap include, for example, UNESCO, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the International Labor Organization (ILO), and the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).

The programs set up by these organizations range from the development of large organizational networks (e.g., AGRIS) to the distribution of microcomputer database management systems (e.g., IDRC's MINISIS). In general, the large, centralized schemes (e.g., UNESCO's UNISYST and NATIS), have given way in recent years to small-scale, grass-roots programs with a local orientation (Neelameghan and Tocatlian, 1985). For more information about these organizations and their programs see Saracevic, (1980), Moll, (1983), Dosa, (1985), Neelameghan and Tocatlian, (1985) and Heitzman, (1990).

2.2 Review of current problems of developing country libraries

Despite the work accomplished by international organizations, the flow of information both within and to developing countries remains problematic (Keren and Harmon, 1980; Eres, 1981; Dubey, 1986). There are a host of problems that face libraries and information centres in developing countries. While recognizing that the situation within every developing country and every library is unique, a broad list of problems that afflict libraries can be compiled. The problems fall into five broad categories: economic factors, information resources, organizational structures, human resources, and political factors (derived from Eres, 1981, and Nicholls and Majid, 1989). For a more thorough discussion developing country libraries and their attendant problems, see the excellent analysis by Saracevic (1980).

Economic factors

The severe economic conditions in developing countries restrict the development of library and information services. These conditions are manifested in a poorly trained labour force, illiteracy, high unemployment, lack of capital resources for investment, and crushing foreign debt. Specific effects on libraries include:

    lack of funds to buy books, provide services, and to automate library technical tasks (e.g., cataloguing).

    foreign exchange restrictions. Foreign exchange restrictions limit the delivery of materials directly from producing countries.

    increased cost of publications. These increases are especially difficult for developing nations where poor economies are common.

    inability to buy journals containing the works of developing country scholars (especially those published in expensive Western journals).

Information resources

An inability to obtain sufficient information resources also afflicts developing country libraries. Specific deficits in information resources include:

    insufficient book collections and physical resources to house them (Eres, 1981).

    a general lack of information production within developing countries. The publication systems of developing nations have been described as extremely poor with very low output (Dubey, 1986). Developing countries provide very few journals of which there is almost no indexing and abstracting (Lau, 1987).

    scarcity of basic professional tools, such as bibliographies, manuals, and reference works (Gregori and Sison, 1989).

    poor bibliographic control of developing country materials which creates problems of identification and verification (Mabomba, 1988). Many developing countries have not gained bibliographic control over indigenous production of technical reports, cartographic materials, and film recordings (Gassol de Horowitz, 1988).

    lack of well maintained union catalogues, union lists of serials, and centralized cataloguing schemes to streamline library work (Alemna, 1989).

Organizational structures

This category includes those organizational structures and institutions that provide overall coordination of cooperative systems. Deficiencies in organizational structures include:

    lack of cooperative agreements among libraries for acquisition, storage, and interlending (Mabomba, 1988).

    lack of central coordinating bodies, such as national libraries to coordinate policies and bibliographic provision in all fields (Alemna, 1989).

    lack of standards library and information work (Eres, 1981).

Human resources

This category involves the human factors that affect the information system. These factors include:

    inadequate training of library staff. This includes a lack of subject knowledge and bibliographical expertise due to poor training facilities in library schools (Alemna, 1989).

    insufficient user demand in some developing countries because of reliance on traditional oral transmission of information (Lau, 1987).

    insufficient user training in the use of a library.

    lack of technical expertise in the use and care of information technology, where it exists, as well as poor physical conditions for its housing (e.g., high humidity and temperature, dust).

Political factors

Obstacles also exist because of the interference or apathy of indigenous governments in developing countries, or restrictive information policies of the governments of industrialized countries. Some specific problems in this area are:

    lack of government support both politically and monetarily for information provision (Alemna, 1989) stemming from the lack of appreciation by decision makers of the role of information in development (Keren and Harmon, 1980).

    lack of government information. Official information within developing countries is difficult to obtain because it is often classified as secret, resulting in legal obstacles to the flow of government information (Alemna, 1989).

    restrictions on transborder data flow. The tendency of industrialized nations to restrict the transborder flow of information considered to be crucial to national security limits the information available to developing nations.(Mabomba, 1988).

    lack of policies for legal deposit.

    restrictive copyright laws. The increasing use of photocopying and electronic reproduction technologies has caused copyright law to become more restrictive in industrialized nations. Copyright restrictions tend to limit the flow of information outside country of origin (Dubey, 1986).

Obviously, many of the broader, general problems listed above cannot be solved through the application of packet radio technology. For example, a lack of cooperative agreements among libraries, lack of funds, or an over-reliance on oral transmission of information, cannot be solved by, and may in fact hinder, the use of packet radio networks. The problem packet radio technology can potentially solve, however, is isolation and the barriers caused by a lack of a telecommunications infrastructure.

2.2.1 The problem of isolation

A fundamental problem affecting developing country libraries and information centres is isolation—the fact that developing country libraries are cut off from other developing country libraries and from the industrialized world by distance, and the lack of a well-developed transportation and communications system (Harris, 1990). Harris calls isolation "the most universally present problem in any discussion of information in the developing world" (1990:595). She states that "not only are [information] workers separated by long distances and territorial borders, but impassible terrain, water barriers, and other geographical features render even short distances problematic. The lack of a fully developed infrastructure for transportation, mail, freight, and telecommunication is characteristic of the developing world" (Harris, 1990:595).

Geographical isolation and the lack of reliable telecommunications has a number of effects upon developing country libraries:

    limited access to information about new publications. Few publishers focus advertising for new materials in developing countries; without advertising and marketing, new publications remain unknown to developing country librarians (Harris, 1990). The problem is exacerbated by the fact that there are few book suppliers in developing countries who accommodate demands for foreign materials (Mabomba, 1988).

    problems of identification. Bibliographic information for acquisitions, document delivery, or ILL is difficult to obtain. The lack of union lists of serials or union catalogues isolates libraries from knowledge of other libraries' holdings.

    poor access to databases in industrialized countries. Such access is difficult or impossible because of a lack of adequate telecommunications (Mabomba, 1988), although the advent of CD-ROM has moderated this problem.

    document delivery systems are encumbered by the distance between document suppliers and consumers. This distance can often result in delays of four to six months for documents to arrive by surface mail. It also increases the overall cost of the document, and the probability that it will be lost or damaged in transit (Mabomba, 1988).

    isolation of users. Users do not have access to library services because: a) there are few and widely scattered libraries in developing countries (Alemna, 1989); or b) libraries are disproportionately concentrated in urban areas (Harris, 1990). Such isolation results in only a small percentage of the population obtaining access to information.

2.3 Overcoming isolation through electronic communication

In industrialized nations, libraries have overcome isolation through the use of telecommunications and information technology. Originally, non-automated, organizational "networks" provided the means to share resources. These organizational networks, however, have been largely replaced by actual computer networks (Arms 1990). Examples of the types of networks libraries utilize range from terminal-to-host public access catalogues and public data networks, to private electronic mail systems, vendors' electronic ordering systems, the networks of bibliographic utilities, and numerous library networks. The most recent addition to this set of communications systems is the Internet—a large, global network that connects thousands of networks found in North America, Europe, and every other continent.

Computer networks have allowed libraries to enhance resource sharing among themselves, as well as to provide a higher degree of information access to their users. Specifically, networks have enabled libraries to:

  • provide users with access to local public access catalogues.

  • provide users with access remote OPACs, as well as bibliographic, full text, numeric, and image databases.

  • improve interlibrary loan requesting.

  • accelerate document delivery through the transmission of electronic documents (e.g., images).

  • engage in cooperative and shared cataloguing.

  • streamline the acquisitions process through online ordering systems.

Currently, initiatives are underway in many industrialized countries to further enhance access to information. These initiatives, such as the National Research and Education Network (NREN)1, will create the infrastructure to support information networks—"electronic libraries" that will provide desktop access to information. By interconnecting decentralized information centres containing a variety of forms of information, end-users will be able to search and retrieve information directly from the computers in their workplaces. Information supplied by libraries, publishers, and commercial information providers will be available wherever there is a computer and a link to the network. The computers, in effect, will become the doorways to a library of electronic information.

2.3.1 Networking in developing nations

Computer networks can also overcome isolation in developing countries, and allow increased information access and resource sharing. The use of information and networking technology, however, has lagged far behind in developing nations. There are many obstacles to the use of information technology in developing countries which include a lack of access to computers and software; few locally produced databases; a lack of adequately trained personnel; a chronic lack of willingness to cooperate among librarians; legal and regulatory issues; difficulties in arranging access to the databases in industrialized countries; and economic constraints (Saracevic, 1980).

Lack of a telecommunications infrastructure

The obstacle most germane to this study is a lack of adequate national and international telecommunications to support networking (Saracevic, 1980). For data communications, the telephone system is the medium most frequently used in developing nations. In many places, however, telephone systems are unreliable or non-existent. A 1984 report on worldwide telecommunications found that fully two thirds of the world's population, concentrated in developing countries, has no access to telephone services (ITU, 1984). The level of telephone service in developing countries ranges from 20 telephones per one hundred people in richer, oil producing countries, to as low as one telephone per one thousand people in the poorest countries (Hills, 1990).

Moreover, telephone service is usually concentrated in large urban areas, with less access in outlying areas (Stalberg, 1990). For example, in Kenya, while five percent of people in its largest city have telephones, only .0015 percent of people living in rural areas have access (ITU, 1984). Because most of the populations of developing countries are spread throughout rural areas, very few people in developing countries have access to any form of telecommunications.

Constraints to developing telecommunications in both urban and rural areas are many. They include (Pierce and Jèquier, 1983; Lloyd, 1987; IDRC, 1993):

    inaccessible and inhospitable terrain. For example, high altitude, desert conditions make it difficult to install and maintain equipment.

    lack of a reliable, stable energy supply, characterized by frequent failures in urban areas and total absence in rural areas.

    high usage costs due to long distances and low population densities involved in rural area (rural lines can cost five times more than urban lines).

    absence of an identifiable demand for telephone service. That is, while there may be a need for telecommunications (e.g., to request medical help, ask for advice for local authorities, or order spare parts), the demand remains low because rural populations are "too poor, too few, and too dispersed to justify the installation of a public telephone" (Pierce and Jèquier, 1983:73).

    the lack of sufficient technical support. This deficiency affects the maintenance and reliability of telecommunications systems. Shortages of skilled labour also affect the reliability of the electrical power supply.

    lack of funds. Severe economic conditions restrict the development of telecommunication systems. These conditions are manifested in a poorly trained labour force, high unemployment, lack of capital resources for investment, and a crushing foreign debt. The purchase of the equipment necessary for telecommunications is, therefore, beyond the reach of many developing nations.

    lack of policies to encourage telecommunications. Policies that result in import restrictions, high duty and sales tax on telecommunications equipment, as well as high tariffs, hamper the development and use of telecommunications.

Where telephone service does exist, it is often unreliable. In general, telecommunication service in developing countries can be characterized by (Hills, 1990; Lloyd, 1987; Samarajiva, 1989):

  • the use of obsolete equipment.

  • inadequate maintenance.

  • overloading of telephone traffic.

  • a high percentage (50%) of calls made in peak periods that fail to connect.

  • frequent telephone and power outages.

  • poor penetration in inaccessible areas.

  • noisy voice lines/absence of clean data lines.

While basic telephone service may sporadic and unreliable, the level of performance needed to support computer connectivity is virtually non-existent (Freund, 1992; Thorpe, 1984). Specifically, many countries do not have the telecommunications backbones needed to build high-speed wide-area networks (Freund, 1992). Leased line services are also almost impossible to obtain, and access to smaller, more remote cities, or rural areas is even more difficult. The lack of a basic infrastructure is further compounded by a lack of access to, and support from, telecommunications vendors, as well as local management and technical expertise (Freund, 1992).

Given such a poor telecommunications climate, among other problems that plague developing country libraries, it is extremely difficult for libraries in developing countries to share in the benefits that networking has provided libraries in industrialized nations.

Packet radio

To overcome isolation in developing country libraries, a technology called packet radio—based on the application of packet switching to radio—can be used create computer links among libraries where land-based communications are unreliable, underdeveloped, or absent. Computer networks based on packet radio could take a variety of forms, from single terminal-to-host links to the larger peer-to-peer networks, and could be used to perform a wide range of library tasks.

Chapter 3 provides an overview of packet radio technology, while Chapter 4 provides examples of the manner in which packet radio can be used to extend the benefits of networks to libraries in developing countries


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