Although there are more donkeys than vehicles on Lamu Island, and no internet access, the ancient Swahili settlement off the coast of Kenya has fast access to Wikipedia and millions of other documents thanks to a pioneering worldwide project directed from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Cliff Missen, WiderNet project director and associate professor in the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, carried the “Internet in a Box” by car, plane and wooden boat to Lamu. He then provided training in an old stone fort and installed the powerful offline learning system at the American Corner Library. “The community is very lucky for these resources,” the library manager said.
The WiderNet Project will soon celebrate the 1,000th placement of the eGranary Digital Library in schools, colleges and agencies around the globe. Moving to an ambitious next phase, the project will begin producing the “pocket library,” a fingernail-sized chip to bring customized information systems to potentially millions of students, teachers, officials and others in developing nations.
“We will make it easier for librarians, educators and volunteers around the world to organize information into small portable chip-size collections that can be simply copied to someone’s flash memory or internal drive in a laptop, tablet or smart phone,” said Missen,
To increase the scale and speed of pocket library production, the WiderNet Project will launch a fundraising campaign on Indiegogo on Thursday, March 19.
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 and the project 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, WiderNet, a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation formed that focuses on field implementations and training.
Some 32 million resources are contained in four terabyte, portable hard disks with a USB connection or in specially designed and built computer towers. 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.
One delighted eGranary user, Carolyn Carter of the United Methodist Church of Nigeria, said, “This made the teachers at our school realize how much information is out there and how it can be used to expose students to a whole new world of information.”
New Pocket Library Phase
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 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. Each collection will also include tools to create personal Web pages and learn essential IT literacy skills.