Five Years Later, an Ambitious Virtual Library is Turned Over to Iraqi Researchers and Scholars
Five years after it was conceived by an ambitious group of AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows, a digital library for Iraqi scientists was officially transferred from U.S.-based agencies to the Iraq government.
The Iraqi Virtual Science Library—offering free access to nearly 4000 journals and other publications in chemistry, engineering, mathematics, and physics—was formally transferred Monday 7 June during a news conference at the U.S. Civilian Research and Development Foundation (CRDF) in Washington, D.C. From the start, the library was seen as a tool that could help Iraqi researchers and scholars rebuild the war-torn science enterprise in their country.
“After decades of isolation from the advancements in the outside world of science and technology, this gift of life was presented to them in such a generous, well-organized and easy way to compensate for the years of deprivation,” said Abdul Hadi Al Khalili, Iraq’s cultural attaché at his nation’s Washington embassy. “Our researchers have enjoyed a glorious past, and now look forward to a bright future.”
“Digital libraries are essential not just for scholarship, but also for promoting better infrastructure, healthcare, agriculture, and economic prosperity,” said Cathleen Campbell, president and CEO at CRDF. “Across the globe, electronic science libraries are cost-effective programs that can have immediate impact on science and engineering research.”
Today, the Iraqi Virtual Science Library serves 7000 registered Iraqis, all public universities in Iraq, and nine government ministries. It provides scientific, engineering, and technical papers from publishers such as AAAS/Science, the U.S. National Academies, and Elsevier. [See the full list of publishers that support IVSL.]. By the end of 2009, the library’s users were downloading nearly 30,000 articles each month.
When the Iraqi Virtual Science Library was launched in May 2006, it was managed by the U.S. National Academies and funded by the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of State. CRDF oversaw the library from July 2006 until its transfer to Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and the Ministry of Science & Technology.
The idea for the electronic library emerged five years ago after Alex Dehgan—then a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow with the U.S. Department of State—delivered 30 boxes of books to Iraq’s Natural History Museum in Baghdad, which had a library.
Dehgan was helping rebuild Iraq’s science infrastructure and redirect former Iraqi weapons scientists into civilian science, and the books he delivered were intended to support Iraqi scientists by providing scientific, engineering, and technical research. While at the library, Dehgan noticed a problem with other materials he found there.
“The books were 30 years out of date,” said Dehgan, now science and technology adviser to the administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development. When talking with Iraqi scientists about science and technology advances, Dehgan said, it became obvious that Iraqi scientists needed access to current journals.
During the 7 June press conference, Dehgan recounted how he had given a talk for the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows during which he described his struggles to provide Iraqi scientists with recent technical studies. When it came time for questions from the audience, one Fellow told Dehgan that he should provide the materials electronically. The Fellow turned out to be Susan Cumberledge, a biochemist doing a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship with the U.S. Department of Defense.
“It didn’t seem like it was possible,” said Dehgan, considering the limited computer resources in Iraq. But computers were starting to become more available. Dehgan, Cumberledge, and other AAAS S&T Policy Fellows proceeded with the project, meeting in the U.S. State Department’s cafeteria to discuss how the library could be assembled and how they could persuade far-flung arms of the U.S. government to back the project.
Substantial infrastructure challenges in Iraq might have stymied the AAAS S&T Policy Fellows’ efforts to create the virtual library. The country had limited electricity, Internet access, and computers. But the Fellows went ahead with their idea, buoyed when then- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell wrote “good” on their information memo describing the project.
“We made a thousand copies of this memo and gave it to anyone who gave us any trouble,” Dehgan said.
Cumberledge was not at the news conference to see the library’s transfer to the Iraqis—she died as a result of cancer in July 2008. “It wouldn’t have happened if Susan hadn’t made that suggestion,” Dehgan said. “She was the spirit behind this effort.”
Cynthia Robinson, director of the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, noted that the Iraqi Virtual Science Library is an excellent example of Fellows collaborating across federal agencies and facilitating cooperation that the agencies often cannot achieve.
“The AAAS S&T Policy Fellowships are structured to enable Fellows to be creative and engage beyond disciplinary and institutional boundaries,” Robinson explained. “Frequent networking opportunities—such as the professional development workshops—allow Fellows to interact and connect around common interests and challenges, which have spawned some incredibly innovative projects.”
See a video of the 7 June event at the U.S. Civilian Research and Development Foundation.
Learn more about the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowships.