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AAAS and Science: Building Libraries—and Partnerships—in the Middle East
Left to right:
Randa Al-Chidiac, electronic resource librarian at the University of Balamand in Lebanon; Nikolas Coffrin, a senior sales coordinator in the AAAS Office of Publishing and Member Services; Rany Al-Baghdadi, general manager, Mondesic TechKnowledge
Many Middle Eastern nations are making significant investments in higher education systems, and some have built libraries on par with the best in the world. But most colleges and universities in the region are only at the early stages of building electronic collections, and a few still rely on the card catalogues of earlier times.
Nikolas Coffrin, a senior sales coordinator in the AAAS Office of Publishing and Member Services, was in the Middle East for a month this spring, co-hosting a workshop, visiting libraries, and talking with librarians. In their meetings—and in many casual conversations over coffee or tea—he found them eager to engage with AAAS and Science and to build expertise that will aid their libraries and their nations' economies.
The workshop was "the first meeting of its kind we've attended" in the Middle East, said Science Publisher Beth Rosner. "We're very excited about working with the universities, schools, and institutes in that part of the world. We think that the scholarly tools we're offering, and the dissemination of scientific information, could be very valuable to them. Eventually, this collaboration really could help bring all of our communities closer."
The workshop emerged from discussions last year between Tom Ryan, director of site license sales for Science, and Mohamed Ghali Rashid, a librarian at Arabian Gulf University, during a meeting of the Special Libraries Association-Arabian Gulf Chapter (SLA-AGC).
Convening from 31 March to 2 April, "Electronic Collection Development for Health & Medicine E-Libraries" brought 30 librarians from the region's universities and medical research centers to Manama, Bahrain, for lectures, hands-on training, and networking. It was co-sponsored by SLA-AGC/Mondesic TechKnowledge, a publishing agent based in Dubai, and AAAS/Science. The workshop was followed by the 2007 SLA-AGC annual meeting, where Coffrin made informal presentations to many of the 200 librarians who attended.
"The valuable, practical professional training offered in the workshop gave us a good chance to exchange experience and discuss and share ideas," said Affra AlShamsi, head of the Central Medical Library at Royal Hospital in Oman. "Also, by offering this workshop for free, it was a distinguished effort from the science publishing communities—it showed their interest in dissemination of knowledge in the Middle East and in the United States."
Meeting with representatives of the publishing world "provided us with the opportunity to explain the difficulties medical libraries of the region face in the rapidly evolving world of electronic information, the vast increases of journal prices, and the shrinking library budgets," added Randa Al-Chidiac, electronic resource librarian at the University of Balamand in Lebanon.
"I hope that it will be the launching pad for further cooperation and collaboration in the near future."
Coffrin speaks Arabic, and has traveled extensively in the region; he lived and studied in Jordan for a semester in 2002, and then lived in Yemen in 2004. After this year's workshop, he traveled to meet with librarians at 15 colleges and universities in Jordan, Lebanon, Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates.
He was struck by the ambitiousness of the schools, and their libraries. "A lot of the schools were incredibly beautiful," he said. "In the Middle East, you see some of the most beautiful buildings that you'll see anywhere in the world. And a lot of the facilities are new."
The libraries constantly surprised him. At Gulf University for Science and Technology in Kuwait, the library was packed. Ditto for the library at American University of Beirut. At the University of Jordan, when Coffrin was a student there, the libraries had only archaic computer equipment—the electronic card catalog was summoned on an MS-DOS screen. But, he said, the school's new library has "one of the best library web pages I've seen anywhere."
The technological progress has been uneven. At Kuwait University, for example, there's a digital catalogue, but because power outages are frequent, the library still keeps an old-style paper card catalogue. At some schools, there's top-grade equipment, but librarians haven't heard of major global science and medical publications. At many schools, men and women use separate facilities. And political tensions occasionally were evident. A librarian in Lebanon told Coffrin about living in daily fear because of the deep cultural and geopolitical strains that flared into war last summer in her country.
"I think the librarians were excited for the most part to meet with us," he said. "They feel neglected by the publishing world and they don't often get a chance to meet with publishers."
One goal of the workshop and the meetings was to tell the librarians about the digital services of Science, and, more broadly, to help them develop strategies for building their electronic collections. But the trip "was not results-driven," he emphasized.
"One of the unstated goals was to bring librarians a connection," he explained. "You bring together people with different experience and expertise, and they can help each other. These governments [in the Middle East] sometimes have issues working with each other. If you can bring people together on the ground and open up lines of communication, hopefully it will move its way up."
Often, Coffrin said, the connection was something simpler, more elemental. "You sit down for tea and coffee and you talk about everything," he said. "You talk about travels, your family, your impressions of the country. You talk about what you think of the university. It's not about making a sale—it's about building relationships."
Edward W. Lempinen
11 June 2007