30 years

CD-ROMs – forerunners of the digital revolution

At the time, it was ground-breaking information technology. CTA's CD-ROM programme, which offered direct access to large amounts of bibliographic and other data on issues related to small-scale agriculture, was a lifeline for areas cut off from reliable information.

The scheme, which was designed to ease the information isolation that plagued many ACP countries, served as a crucial stepping stone to improving library and documentation services. For most of the ACP libraries and centres where the programme was implemented, it was their first introduction to digital information technology.

CD-Rom being used

Fast and easy to use, the system soon became popular with staff at libraries and documentation units – and with the scientists who used the information stored on the discs. The programme involved distributing CD-ROMs containing valuable information from agricultural databases, which most ACP documentation centres could only dream of accessing.

In partnership with the Netherlands' Royal Tropical Institute/ Koninklijk Instituut voor de Tropen (KIT), CTA was an early pioneer of CD-ROM technology, quickly spotting the potential it presented in areas starved of up-to-date agricultural information.

The hardware was simple and relatively cheap, and, unlike other systems, the programme did not depend on often unreliable telecommunication networks. A single CD-ROM could store several databases – the equivalent of a 20-volume encyclopaedia. The discs were sturdy, easily transportable and resistant to heat, damp, dust, magnetic fields and power cuts. The data stored on them could be easily printed or stored for further use.

In 1986, CTA took part in a pilot project together with CAB International and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) to test CD-ROMs in developing countries. Three years later, the Centre launched its own pilot programme, which was implemented by KIT. The scheme involved providing 12 agricultural information centres in ACP countries with CD-ROM and computer equipment, commercially available databases and two weeks' training. The centres, which included ministerial libraries, university libraries and regional development units, were in Cameroon, Kenya, Mali, Papua New Guinea, Trinidad and Tobago, Western Samoa, Zaire, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

By the end of 1992, CTA had installed 30 CD-ROM sites in 28 countries. By 1996, 37 sites were involved in the scheme.

Consulting the sourcebook

Valuable reference tools

As part of the package, CTA took out subscriptions for the units targeted, selecting agricultural databases for each site on the basis of their particular needs and priorities. The databases, supplied on CD-ROMs, were drawn from a range that included CAB Abstracts, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's CARIS and AGRIS, KIT's TROPAG & RURAL, SESAME for French speakers and AGRICOLA, produced by the US National Agricultural Library.

Hans van Hartevelt, the former director of information and library services at KIT, was involved in the innovative project from the outset.

"The idea was to make agricultural databases available to developing countries through offline services. We did a lot of experimenting and spent a great deal of time on it," he recalls. "Agricultural databases were copied onto a CD ROM and supplied to developing countries. They received regular updates, so they had constant access to current information."

CD pack

CTA used a number of criteria to select target information centres. Applicants had to be documentation centres based in agricultural research institutions and faculties of agriculture that were actively involved in information dissemination. They had to show potential for offering a good service at national or regional level and be able to offer access to a wide range of users. They also had to undertake maintenance of the hardware supplied.

The CD-ROM units were generally installed in universities, agricultural faculties and ministries of agriculture. Evaluations consistently confirmed the popularity of the scheme with users, who were mainly researchers and students, but also trainers and teachers, extension workers, planners, producers and traders.

Equipment provided included a computer, CD-ROM reader, an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) and a laser printer. The system soon expanded beyond simple information access, to include other components such as word processing software so that users could edit content. Voltage stabilisers were provided to protect the hardware from the frequent power surges in many developing countries, and retrieval software was supplied so that users could sift through the vast amounts of data in an efficient manner.

"It was an entire package for accessing, retrieving and processing agricultural information," said Van Hartevelt.

Although a relatively user-friendly technology, it soon became apparent that training would be needed if the CD-ROMs were to be used to their full potential. CTA funded local training courses for users, run by Van Hartevelt and other experts from KIT, which also supplied assistance to troubleshoot technical problems.

Besides providing libraries with equipment, CTA supported data producers and held seminars for both users and producers. It also linked up with projects run by other development agencies that started providing CD-ROM equipment or databases.

One downside of the scheme was that users only received abstracts and references. So if they wanted the original full version of, for example, an article describing optimum altitudes for vanilla cultivation, they had to make a request for it to be sent to them, by post. CTA sought to overcome the problem through its selective dissemination of information (SDI) service, which was made available to individual researchers, and through its Question-and-Answer Service, which served a wider target audience. SDI offered bibliographic searches and data or documents on various agricultural or rural development topics. More help came in the form of coupons issued by UNESCO and distributed by CTA, which organisations could exchange for photocopies of the articles and publications they needed.

An overnight success

Local or regional networking also provided solutions, helping librarians to obtain original documents from other libraries in the region at a lower cost. The library of the University of Ibadan in Nigeria formed a link with the neighbouring International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA), whose extensive library collection housed many of the full text documents requested by users. The advent of CD-ROM units also boosted a host of other network activities between libraries and documentation centres

Hans van Hartevelt attributes the scheme's resounding success to the dramatic improvement it brought to the scarce resources of libraries in most ACP countries, especially at that time.

"Libraries for agricultural research were not a priority. The most they had was some copies of old handbooks, so there was absolutely no access to international research," he said. "The idea was to strengthen agricultural development in ACP countries by providing researchers with agricultural information – instantly. It had a dramatic impact, so they moved very quickly from having no access at all to having tens of millions of documents pertaining to agricultural development. It was an amazing success. "

"Our measure of success was the number of copies of full text books asked to be sent to universities," he added. "In some cases, it was thousands of copies."

In some respects, the system's popularity was to prove a double-edged sword.
"In a sense it was too successful," observes Van Hartevelt. "The primary information had to be copied, generating massive amounts of work and expense. The subscriptions themselves were extremely expensive, with substantial charges for annual updates."

The programme lasted for more than a decade and was hugely successful.

Technology has moved on since the CD-ROM, but the information gap left by the closure of the project has yet to be entirely filled, says Van Hartevelt. That is partly because subscriptions to agricultural databases remain beyond the budgets of most ACP documentation centres – and because Internet access remains inadequate in a number of countries.

"There are still many parts of the world where there is no access to the Internet, and others where it is very poor," he said. "The trend of open access is making some contribution, but that relies on good Internet connections. In any case, it does not offer access to the top journals produced by commercial publishers, which are way beyond the reach of most ACP libraries."

CTA continues to address the knowledge gap through a range of products more suited to today's world. Within the framework of its book donation programme, the Centre provides ACP libraries with two copies of its entire book collection. CTA has also partnered with Cornell University, USA to make the TEEAL database available to eligible low-income countries. TEEAL is an electronic agricultural library offering subscribers a digital collection of research journals for agriculture and related sciences from over 275 agricultural journals. Through the CTA Publications Distribution Service, the Centre co-publishes a wide range of practical and technical publications, CD-ROMs and DVDs in English and French, with some titles in Portuguese and Swahili. The catalogue contains around 600 publications, many of which are also available to download. Subscriptions are free for organisations in ACP countries active in agriculture and rural development.

Promotion drives uptake

Effective marketing and promotion of what was then an entirely new concept was essential to the success of individual CD-ROM units. In Trinidad and Tobago, the library of the agriculture ministry opted to use an aggressive publicity campaign to promote its CD-ROM service, launching a newsletter to advertise it within and beyond the ministry. Staff also offered demonstrations to all the country's agricultural institutions, and arranged for the CD-ROM system to be promoted on a television programme about special libraries. As a result, uptake soared, with demand rapidly increasing from users requesting database searches.