Silvia Pinzon MLIS, Assistant Library Director of Miami-Dade Community College Hialeah Outreach Center. (Also Dean of Library Affairs for the Belize Development Trust.)
The advent of the World Wide Web has created immense opportunities for developing countries. Direct and almost immediate access to information and experts through the Internet has many implications. The things you can do to effect development and social change through Internet library resources seem to be unlimited. Because this is such an innovative, specialized field we found very little literature on the subject. This article is a first-hand account of the creation of a digital library to serve the needs of a developing country: Belize.
A Little About Belize
In co-operation with some Belizeans on a Belize list serve (firstname.lastname@example.org), we decided to start a digital library to serve the needs of the small country of Belize. Belize is an English-speaking, Central American independent nation on the western edge of the Caribbean Sea. Its total area is 22,960 square kilometers, or slightly larger than Massachusetts. In 1973, the country changed its name from British Honduras to Belize in anticipation of obtaining its independence from England. Belize became an independent nation in 1981. The original inhabitants of the region were the Maya. Many Maya ruins, like Caracol, Lamanai, and Xunantunich, are being uncovered today. The countryĖs population is composed mainly of Creoles, Mestizos, Garifuna (of African and Carib ancestry), and Maya. According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, International Database, the estimated total population for 1998 was 230,160, at an average annual growth rate of 2.4 for 1990-2000.
Thanks to input from about two hundred listserv members, we decided to try to do something about bringing information to Belize and to organize it in such a way that it would provide goal-orientated economic, cultural, and educational changes (including grant aid, technical ideas and resources) as well as political reform. We wanted to specialize only on future developments with specific social goals such as accelerating economic development, tackling poverty and providing the technical resources necessary to do so.
To provide a responsible format and operational continuity, we decided to form a non-government organization (NGO). After many research hours, we learned that most NGOs are organized as corporations and cost considerable money in legal advice and registration fees. In our case, we had no money but plenty of goodwill and access to volunteer labor. Eventually, we found that recent Belize Trust Legislation provided the means of forming a legal entity that required no registration and no money if we did it ourselves, sort of a do-it-yourself NGO. This fortunate piece of information enabled us to create the BELIZE DEVELOPMENT TRUST (http://ambergriscaye.com/BzLibrary/trust.html).
Around 1996, several private web servers were offering page hosting services in Belize, but their communications costs were so high that they could not accommodate us on a free-of-charge basis. Finally, Marty Casado in Eugene, Oregon, who was running the local Ambergis Caye tourism web sites from the US, offered to help voluntarily. He donated not only space on his server but also personal time to maintain a site for our group of volunteers. And the "Digital Resource Library for Belize Development" was born. The next challenge was to decide what to put in the library (content) and how to organize it. (Digital Library ULR: http://AmbergrisCaye.com/BzLibrary)
Again, we approach the listserv and found the answer. Subject matter comes from input on the Belize Culture (Bz-Culture) Listserv, a general discussion group of Belizeans at home and abroad and many foreigners who visit Belize and love the country. Subscribers on the listserv include computer programmers, college and university professors and administrators, fishermen, farmers, retirees, teachers, physicists, lawyers, judges, engineers, students and people from all kinds of backgrounds and interests. The discussions can get quite raucous and lively at times but the common thread is honest concern for Belize, its people, and its future. With such a wealth of interests and expertise at our fingertips, it is no wonder we decided to draw the digital libraryĖs subject matter from the concerns and discussions of the Belize Culture listserv members.
Anyone in the country can post a problem, idea, or concern for discussion on the listserv; recommended URLĖs or web information sources are carefully screened for reliability, appropriateness, and authority by at least two volunteers and, if acceptable, they are placed under a number of categories in the Digital Library. The categories, or subject headings, were developed as intuitively as possible, based on the general interests and information needs of the users, with the widest appeal as possible. In this sense, the library is highly specialized. Collection, analysis and selection of web sites are ongoing.
Philosophy & Mission
The philosophy of the group running the Belize Development Trust, the legal umbrella for the digital library, is to enable people to help themselves by providing free access to information and resources in order to instigate advancement and to offer technical opportunity. The intent of the Trust is to encourage Community Development Work within the country of Belize, Central America, covering Educational Projects and Programmes, Poverty Programmes, the Protection of the Environment, The Advancement of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms by political action, or education, and any other suitable programme, or project that may be construed for the welfare and Community Development of identified segments of Belizean population, geographic location, or other that may be regarded as community development within Belize. (Belize Development Trust, http://ambergriscaye.com/BzLibrary/trust.html)
Challenges, Results, and Future Plans
One of the challenges we have right now, after two years in existence, is that we would like to branch out into other projects that require grant writing. Most grant-giving institutions have traditional guidelines to evaluate results such as statistical analysis of concrete work, physical structures or machinery, analysis of production levels and personnel, etc. As a motor for social improvement and change we cannot take any credit. The Belize TrustĖs mission clearly says so. We can only supply knowledge, and encourage democratic debate to fuel change. People in the trenches politicians, social workers, professionals, scientists, fishermen, educators, housewives, etc. have to implement those changes. However, taking credit for results is the traditional evaluation method used by almost all agencies to assign grant monies to projects. Our results are indirect and non-measurable. However, we do know that the digital library has been instrumental in finding sources for free medicines for local hospitals that lack medical supplies. A number of legislative laws have been passed because of information on developmental issues archived in the library. More private NGOs have been formed to tackle specific in-country rural problems. Because of article submissions posted on the digital library, several Legislative ACTS, such as the Referendum Act and the National Library Technology Act, have been passed.
We would like to use our new expertise and enthusiasm to expand our aims and to inaugurate more complex projects, like the introduction of a Geographic Information System (GIS) to digitize and present Belize-related mapping information data; the development of an aeronautical training venture in the Corozal Free Trade Zone, in the Northern part of the country, to manufacture small wood aircraft, covered by ceconite, using internet assistance from the many world-wide members of the Experimental Aircraft Association; the introduction of a Tilapia fish farm as a cooperative rural cash crop to improve nutritional intake in the hill country. These are just a few of the many stimulating, useful ideas and challenges that volunteers must deal with on a day to day basis. Most, if not all, of these ideas need international money for training, administration, grant writing, and tools and equipment if we want to carry them to fruition.
The Digital library has been quite a success! We see the results every week in Belizean newspaper articles, in comments on the listserv, and in different activities being carried out within the country. The project has been and continues to be a difficult project to assess. We, the volunteers, are still learning and growing and the digital library continues to expand and change sometimes in unexpected directions.
A year ago, the United Nations invited us to become a member of UNAL, the United Nations Associated Libraries. Recently, Dave Matthews from the Office of Community Services, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, used the Digital Resource Library for Belize Development as a suggested case study to implement solutions to social problems in developing countries.
It is a wonderful experience to be a pioneer in the information technology field today. The potential for having a direct impact on the social development of a community is remarkable. The outlook for the Electronic Resource Library for Belize Development promises to be interesting, exciting, and full of personal and professional satisfaction.
To see this digital library, about which I am still learning many things as it grows. Please go to the URL at: