How to provide digital libraries to those without internet?

egranary Digital Library

Though internet coverage has increased exponentially in developed countries, it has lagged far behind in the developing world with wide disparities in global connectivity. In 2011, the United Nations reported that while more than half of the wealthy world is online, a mere 15 percent of people in developing countries are connected. The WiderNet Project is “building a bridge across the digital divide” in order to attack information poverty and encourage education, research and collaboration.

What is the WiderNet project?

In 2000, poor Internet access in Africa inspired Cliff Missen, a Professor of Library Science at UNC Chapel Hill, to begin the WiderNet project, with the goal of bringing computing capability and substantial information resources to the five billion people who lack good Internet access.  

Focusing on low-cost information technology alternatives for the world’s poor, The WiderNet Project provides both hardware and specialized training.  The innovative cornerstone of the project is the eGranary Digital Library, or “Internet in a Box:” Basically a hard drive with “the seeds of knowledge”-- some 32 million documents.  More than 1,600 authors and publishers have granted permission to distribute their work via the eGranary, including: Wikipedia, the Gutenberg Project, the Khan Academy, U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Columbia University, Cornell University, and MIT’s OpenCourseware.  The WiderNet Project has installed eGranaries in schools, clinics, and universities in 48 countries ranging from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. It’s also installed in 10 prisons or jails in the U.S. And WiderNet has plans to expand locally by installing eGranaries in low income housing communities. 

A single eGranary can serve thousands of users and have profound benefits. From a teacher in Jos, Nigeria, "The amount of learning is phenomenal. The students, never having seen textbooks, are unfamiliar with concepts of world history such as the ancient civilizations in Egypt and Greece. Seeing diagrams as to how and why there are seasons, or the solar system and pictures of the planets elicited amazing responses." And “There is hardly a better project for making electronic resources cheaply available to poor, cash-strapped universities…” 

Project history and growth

Missen began the ambitious project in 2001 after experiencing firsthand the Internet deficiencies in Africa as a Fulbright scholar studying at the University of Jos in Nigeria. When he returned to the University of Iowa, he burned the first collection of documents onto a CD. He moved to Chapel Hill in 2012.

The eGranary Digital Library now is designed and developed by WiderNet@UNC, a service project of the UNC School of Information and Library Science.  It is distributed by the sister organization, The WiderNet Project, a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation formed that focuses on field implementations and training.

For the last fifteen years, WiderNet has been deploying the eGranary Digital Library all over the world and, in most cases, the eGranary is the only means through which people (nearly 3 million) at 1,000 universities, schools, hospitals, and libraries gain access to the information they need.  

Now we’re creating specialized chip-size collections to serve the next billion people. Our eGranary Pocket Libraries will be used on smartphones, tablets and USB keys and the content will be tailored specifically to local and area needs.  The way things are unfolding in developing countries, many people are purchasing tablets and smart phones but either they can’t afford to pay for an Internet connection or there is no connectivity in their community. 

The eGranary Pocket Library Initiative

Over the next three years, experts will design specialized collections to fit on thumbnail-sized chips ranging from eight to 64 gigabytes. A recent special project to put Ebola information onto chips for use in east Africa provided "proof of concept" that the idea works.

Students and volunteers at WiderNet@UNC will work with colleagues from around the world to develop dozens of chip-sized collections that focus on topics like language and literacy, life skills, vocational education, IT skills, health sciences, math, science, and more. Panels of content assessors and designers will be recruited for each collection, along with volunteers and representatives of the target populations.

The project will explore different ways to engage with patrons, evaluate their use and identify ways to secure an income stream and sustain the project long-term.

The device is more than just an e-book reader. Using an optimized version of the eGranary software suite, it will host dynamic Web sites, e-books, and interactive applications like self-paced learning and quizzing tools. Each collection will include its own catalogue and search engine and will appear to the patron as if they were operating on the Internet. With the interface a standard Web browser, users can explore video, audio, animations, PDF documents, etc.

Each collection will also include tools to create personal Web pages and learn essential IT literacy skills. The project has developed Web interfaces so that many stakeholders from around the world can be involved in the production of the collection.

To increase the scale and speed, the project launched a fundraising campaign on Indiegogo on March 19.

Technical specifications for the eGranary Digital Library

eGranary Digital Library, is a plug-and-play server that provides instant access to 32 million documents including video, audio, books, journals, and Web sites. A single eGranary, connected to a wired or wireless local area network (LAN), can serve thousands of patrons.

It comes in several forms and basic prices:

  • $1,800 for an external USB hard drive eGranary Digital Library
  • $3,600 for a 12-volt eGranary plug-and-play server that may be powered by a battery.
  • $3,500 for a full-sized rugged eGranary plug-and-play server that can be shared by thousands of local users.
  • $6,000 for a computer lab that includes a 12-volt eGranary Digital Library, low-power wireless networking equipment, and six battery-powered netbook computers.

The library has a built-in proxy and search engine that emulates the Internet experience. It has a catalog with over 50,000 professionally organized items. As well, it hosts a bevy of services, like Moodle (course management software), WordPress, PHP, and MySQL. It also includes tools allowing subscribers to upload local materials as well as create and edit Web sites.

How Does WiderNet Create the eGranary?

Through a process of copying web sites (with permission) and putting them on internal networks at partner institutions in developing countries, this digital library delivers instant access to a wide variety of educational resources including video, audio, books, journals, and websites.  A single eGranary, connected to a wired or wireless local area network (LAN), can serve thousands of patrons.

Some of the documents in the eGranary Digital Library are in the public domain, some carry a copyleft license, but most of them have been freely provided by their authors and publishers as a contribution to global education. About 6% of the content in the eGranary Digital Library is not available on the public Internet; much of it typically requires a subscription or payment, but authors and publishers have agreed to provide it for free to people in low-bandwidth situations.
Any subscriber can include their own digital content in the eGranary Digital Library, making it a publishing platform for communication and collaboration.

The eGranary Digital Library contains a built-in proxy server and search engine similar to the Internet, at a speed that is otherwise not usually available to them. The proxy server allows users' Web requests to "play-through" to the Internet if a connection is available.

From Consumers to Creators

Since many patrons of the eGranary Digital Library are unfamiliar with using the Internet, WiderNet Project hires librarians worldwide to assist partners in locating specific resources. The eGranary's interface includes a word search powered by Lucene and Solr, an online public access catalog powered by VuFind which contains over 60,000 records, and dozens of portals cooperatively developed with experts from around the world.

Since 2010, the eGranary Digital Library includes interactive Web 2.0 features in its Community Information Platform. Thanks to a generous grant from the Intel Corporation, the Community Information Platform allows users to create and share their own content through technologies like built-in Web editors, LDAP security, Moodle, WordPress, MySQL, PHP, Drupal, and others. Subscribers can set up unlimited Web sites on their server and use free, built-in software to make Web pages, upload files and share local information with each other.

Sharing Knowledge Freely

One of the guiding principles of the eGranary Digital Library is that the content must not be sold for profit. The WiderNet Project pledges this to authors and publishers when seeking their permission and each subscriber institution signs a license agreement stating that they will make the content freely available to their patrons via their local area networks.

To build a reliable, self-sustaining service, the WiderNet Project has developed a business model that aims to cover ongoing program and development costs through grants, donations, sponsored training programs, and volunteers. So far the organization has raised and spent over $1,200,000 in 10 years to develop, field test and promote the concept. Volunteers from around the world have put in more than 15,000 hours to assist with computer programming, collecting and organizing new resources, creating portals and curriculum, and building and distributing new libraries.

While the development of new features is funded by grants and gifts, eGranary drives are sold to subscribers to recover production costs without making a profit. Subscribers cover the costs of basic librarianship, the purchase, testing, and preparation of the equipment, the transaction costs (like marketing, licensing, and accounting), and providing on-going technical support and software updates.

Several value-added resellers integrate the eGranary Digital Library into their offerings. Additionally, young entrepreneurs in developing countries have joined the WiderNet Project's Field Associate program, offering on-site installation and training in their countries.

The eGranary Digital Library represents the collective efforts of thousands of authors, publishers, programmers, librarians, instructors and students around the globe. Some of the many authors and publishers who have granted permission to distribute their works via the eGranary Digital Library include: Wikipedia, the Khan Academy, the Centers for Disease Control, Columbia University, Cornell University, MIT OpenCourseWare, UNESCO, the World Bank, the Hesperian Foundation, and the World Health Organization.

We encourage volunteers from all over the world to join our cause – you can devote your time or donate resources.  You can be a supporter to help us reach the five billion people who still lack internet access.  


Image credits: The WiderNet Project


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