South African National Biodiversity Institute (2014)

Biodiversity Heritage Library Africa

Project Details

Grant Amount: $150,000
Contact: Anne-Lise Fourie
Contact Email: a.fourie 'atsign'
Funding Dates: 11/1/14 - 10/31/17


The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) is a consortium of natural history and botanical libraries that cooperate to digitize the legacy literature of biodiversity and to make that literature available for open access and responsible use as a part of a global “biodiversity commons.” The BHL consortium works with interested parties to ensure that this biodiversity heritage is made available to a global audience through open access principles. Biodiversity Heritage Library Africa (BHLA) was launched in April 2013 and is organized into three regions: Western/Central Africa, Eastern Africa and Southern Africa. BHLA’s vision for the organization is to create a sustainable network of institutions and countries for increased access to biodiversity materials in Sub-Saharan African institutions. A large amount of biodiversity literature from Africa exists in non-African institutions and has already been absorbed into BHL. One of the main components of this project is to study what biodiversity literature content Sub-Saharan Africa can contribute to BHL and how much content is held primarily in African institutions.

Key Objectives and Activities

The purpose of this project is to continue to grow BHLA through assessment, collaboration, and digitization of African collections. The first step is to analyze the existing capacity for participation and content aggregation from southern African Libraries. BHLA will also work to build internal and external capacity for digitization of biodiversity literature and resources through workflow training workshops, initially training the 13 BHLA member institutions, after which the trained member institutions will train new partners. A key focus of digitization activities will be the “grey-literature” (e.g., institutional documents and governmental reports), which is a rich source of historical biodiversity information, but which is often extremely difficult to discover and access compared to academic literature. As a new organization, several of BHLA’s goals also focus on expanding partnerships through outreach with other African institutions, and securing a sustainable future for the organization, through stabilized governance, funding, and infrastructure.

Planned Outputs

  • Two overview white papers on capacity and content collections will be produced that analyze and provide collection development/digitization priorities for biodiversity literature in sub-Saharan African institutions, acquired from the survey and meetings with current and prospective BHLA partners.
  • Sub-Saharan Africa biodiversity literature (journals, articles, or other materials that are either newly digitized or aggregated from existing digital content) will be available on the BHL portal to be easily accessed, approximately 200,000 pages per year, totaling 1,000,000 pages over the full five year project.
  • Two digitization workflow training workshops will be conducted, one for the 13 current BHLA member institutions, and a subsequent training for 15-20 new and prospective BHLA members.
  • BHLA partner meeting to assess status of the project in meeting primary goals with a public project update report summarizing the meeting. Development of a five year sustainability and governance plan.
  • Quarterly reports for BHLA.
  • Participation in development of mobile technology.

Planned Outcomes

BHLA anticipates that making biodiversity resources from Southern Africa available online will increase the use of the BHL portal by African researchers. This will inform further research in critical areas such as food security, primary taxonomy, and protection of biodiversity, critical habitats, and ecosystem services, contributing to the overall understanding and conservation of biodiversity in the region. On a global scale, the group also expects that this expansion will position BHLA as a key contributing partner of the BHL global community.

The accessibility of this information will increase the efficiency and depth of research on southern African biodiversity topics, and ultimately, the efficacy of conservation strategies. Many conservation NGOs in sub Saharan Africa, for instance, do not have their own libraries, and find it extremely difficult and expensive to track down material to use for management plans and biodiversity protection projects. Having unlimited free access to this information dramatically extends NGOs ability to factor in contextualized historical perspective on biodiversity in the region. In addition, online accessibility will translate to a direct cost savings for institutions and researchers worldwide, reducing the need for in-person visits to rare book collections, and InterLibrary Loan requests.

Primary Software Platforms

All completed data and metadata will be available in an open access format and accessible through the Biodiversity Heritage Library portal, and all digitized texts will be available via Internet Archive.

Results to Date

The work to assess and increase capacity of partners to digitize and upload literature made substantial progress at the BHLA workshop preceding the TDWG conference in September 2015. Attendees from 11 partners received training in all aspects of digitization, testing the new BHL training curriculum, and adapting it for use with other African partners. Work on digitization is slowly, but surely, picking up steam as more partner institutions transition from the training to the implementation phase. Visibility from the conference and other site visits has garnered attention for the project, resulting in the addition of three 3 new partners, and serious enquires from several more.

Lessons Learned

For many of the partners, the training at the TDWG was a critical component of understanding the nature of the work, and allowed them to better assess the digitization needs of their own institutions, as well as their capacity to meet those needs. Though this has slowed the onset of digitization work, it will likely result in more realistic goals and planning for the online publication of these resources, in the long run. Meetings like these are also an invaluable opportunity to generate momentum among individuals and institutions working toward similar goals. This was apparent at TDWG, which drew together several groups working on JRS-funded projects related to publication of biodiversity information. Cross pollination and mutual engagement is a critical, if difficult to quantify, benefit of meetings.

Managing a group of multinational partners, embedded in varying institutional environments, is often one of the most challenging parts of a large project like BHLA. In particular, setting up financial procedures to comply with all the requirements among partners and between partners and digitization service providers can be very time consuming. However, up-front investment in planning and infrastructure should pay off in a high efficiency of digitization down the road. The project is also investing in helping partner institutions obtain their own project funding to enhance the sustainability of BHLA.

Project Director Biography

Ms Anne-Lise Fourie attended the University of Stellenbosch, 1977-1980, receiving a BA in Political Science and Anthropology, followed by a Higher Diploma in Library Science. She has worked as a librarian for 33 years, of which the last 18 years in the Mary Gunn Library, South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) at the Pretoria National Botanic Garden. Currently she holds the post of Assistant Director: SANBI Libraries and Chair, Biodiversity Heritage Library Africa. She is responsible for the 2 main libraries in Pretoria and Cape Town, 3 herbaria libraries, 10 Botanical Garden libraries and 3 Biodiversity Education and Empowerment Centres’ libraries.

Notes from JRS

The Biodiversity Heritage Library is a remarkable global effort toward open access to the legacy biodiversity literature. JRS’ support of BHL began in 2011 with our sponsorship of African attendance at the Life and Literature conference hosted by the Field Museum in November 2011 in Chicago. That gathering proved to be a catalyst for the formation of BHL Africa that was formally launched at SANBI in April 2013 with partial support from JRS. BHL Africa is still a fledgling institution and it remains uncertain which African institutions will become partners and will actively contribute to the governance, financing, and digitization. Much has been learned by BHL in forming nodes elsewhere in the world that should be a guide and the community of biodiversity informatics experts in Africa is not large. We are optimistic that the JRS support will provide an underlying base for the full flight of BHL Africa. As 2016 begins, we are working to support BHL’s improved project planning as they learn which national partners seem most committed and capable to participate in BHL Africa.

Last Updated: February 28th, 2017

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