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Accessing electronic information: opportunities and constraints. The Malawi situation


Margaret E. Ngwira
Bunda College of Agriculture, University of Malawi
PO Box 219, Lilongwe, Malawi


The paper considers preparedness of libraries in the SADC region for accessing electronic information. It contextualizes the situation by reviewing the economic situation affecting libraries in Malawi resulting in limited funds for subscriptions to scientific journals. It describes the situation leading to the establishment of a library and information consortium founded in part to facilitate electronic purchases. The major players in assisting with access to electronic information resources, INASP and eIFL are introduced, and also the newly launched FAO service, AGORA. The constraints to the uptake of electronic information resources are examined - a combination of inadequate infrastructure - hardware, bandwidth, and an ongoing need for human resource development among librarians to reach out to their client communities on the new ways of accessing information. Some of the currently available electronic information services which cover aquaculture and fisheries information are discussed including the significant move to open access journals. A case is made for provision of balanced access to information both by print and electronic means for the foreseeable future and for a strong programme of digitization of local resources to ensure that local knowledge is not sidelined in the current mass migration.


Electronic information; MALICO; Cooperative purchasing; Fisheries information; Bandwidth; VSAT; Library cooperation; Information literacy; Library consortia; Open access; Digitization; Southern Africa.


This paper draws on experience in university faculties of agriculture libraries over a period of thirty five years. Although it was not fully realized at the time, in the 1970s and 1980s academic and research libraries in Malawi were relatively well supported, in part by their parent organizations and in part by major development projects such as those funded by the World Bank. One of the indicators of the health of a Library is number of current journal subscriptions. At this period, Bunda Library, the Faculty of Agriculture Library of the University of Malawi had over 200 current journal subscriptions. Things changed around the end of the 1980s. Visits to academic libraries in Southern African in the early 1990s showed that the latest holdings of core journals, and even abstracts and indexes were for 1987 or 1988. Causes for the lapse in journal subscriptions are complex to assign, but may include the following:

Malawi struggled to continue subscriptions at a diminishing rate for a few more years, but by the mid 1990s, current journal collections in support of research programmes had almost disappeared, except in externally funded research organizations such as ICLARM (WorldFish Center). While this may be a somewhat pessimistic contextualization, most scientists in the region would recognize some truth in it.

Of course this in part was offset by the introduction of CD-ROM access to bibliographic databases in the late 1980s, and accompanying document delivery opportunities through national or regional focal points or through services such as the British Library Document Supply Centre. In addition there are the important print collections made available to repository libraries by organizations such as FAO. These documents, often in series such as the CIFA Papers, continue to play a vital role in informing clients in an accessible format. In particular, their print resources related to aquaculture and fisheries are very strong.

TEEAL (The Essential Electronic Agricultural Library), a concept of Cornell University, compiled with financial support from the Rockefeller Foundation, became available in the late 1990s, bringing full text of approximately 150 core journals in agriculture on CD-ROM to libraries, which could not otherwise afford to subscribe. This had an important role in exposing agriculture students especially to recent literature but its coverage of related disciplines such as fisheries was limited. TEEAL is participating in the new FAO AGORA initiative.


The coming of Internet

Technology, of course, was changing in the wider world, allowing new ways of accessing information at a pace that was difficult for even the most technologically sophisticated to keep up with. And unfortunately, there are not so very many librarians in the region who are at the cutting edge of information and communications technology (ICT).

Internet access came to the research libraries of the region along lines of limited bandwidth onto often dated computers from the late 1990s. But there are still many smaller research and even academic libraries that have either no internet connection or a very slow unreliable dial-up connection.

The content revolution

The early Internet connections were used for e-mail (the Fidonet store and forward e-mail system served some countries in the region including Malawi well - in fact the node was through Rhodes University!) and for using search engines to access free content. Internet for Free rather than Internet for a Fee was the order of the day. Electronic access to high impact journal articles was not a fact of life to either users or librarians. Occasionally a print subscription would come with accompanying electronic access opportunities but rarely were these successfully taken up because of hardware or bandwidth or password or knowledge constraints.

Aggregators such as ProQuest and EBSCOhost came on the scene, bringing together hundreds of electronic journals, some with full text articles, some with only abstracts, some from peer reviewed high impact journals, some from the popular press. The subscriptions, copyright conditions and access and statistical information were managed by the library. However the information could be accessed on the desktop computer of scientists and lecturers, meaning that information was delivered at point of use and physical visits to the library were, as a result, less frequent. However, for librarians in many Southern Africa countries, the cost of these services was beyond their means before the coming on the scene of such players as INASP and eIFL.

International players

The availability of these new resources was a stimulus for libraries worldwide to group together to collaborate in purchasing by forming consortia. Librarians are by nature collaborative and the consortium model has taken off very successfully worldwide. Library consortia are formed by a legal agreement among libraries; they have powers to negotiate on behalf of their members for access to particular electronic information products. But for libraries already in the throes of severe financial deprivation, it was difficult to move unassisted towards forming consortia to facilitate electronic purchase.

INASP (International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications)

The International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP) recognized the constraint facing libraries in countries negatively affected by prevailing global financial conditions, not only in Southern Africa. INASP is a child of the International Council of Scientific Unions. Their approach to the situation of information deprivation is multi-faceted. Through their PERI programme (Programme for the Enhancement of Research Information) INASP assists with

All the countries in Southern Africa are eligible to participate in some aspects of the PERI programme. Consult

eIFL (Electronic Information For Libraries)

The second programme that is assisting countries in our Region to form consortia and negotiate with electronic publishers and aggregators from a point of strength is the Electronic Information For Libraries (eIFL) programme of the Open Society Institute (OSI): Many library consortia in the region are either coming into being or are being strengthened through the eIFL project and the Southern Africa office of OSI, OSISA.

AGORA (Access to Global Online Research in Agriculture)

AGORA, the initiative of FAO, following the successful World Health Organization HINARI model, brings electronic access to quality journal information to specific groups of clients - the target groups of FAO. These are exciting initiatives providing access to a wide range of materials - but not everything. Examination of the AGORA journal list in agriculture reveals great riches, but significant omissions. Fisheries information experts can examine the list for fisheries to see its completeness. 76% of the fisheries titles in EBSCOhost are not in AGORA (see appendix). But after looking at the coverage, the access mechanisms within the fisheries institutions must be examined. Is there hardware, software, internet access speed and human capacity in place to exploit information delivered in this form? If Internet access is limited on the research station, does management see the library as a vital site for connectivity? Have their researchers the information literacy skills and access to exploit the new format? What about local content? What about non-journal material? Does management appreciate the role of paper documents alongside the electronic services to meet a variety of client needs in a variety of environments?

Open access journals services

As journal prices, especially from European publishers, have soared, and library budgets have shrunk worldwide, there is a backlash among the research community saying access to information should be linked as much to need for the information as to ability to pay. This has given rise to the open access movement, a rapidly growing initiative where the cost of publishing shifts from the end user to the research grant of the researcher. Peer review mechanisms must be in place and articles are stored in a digital repository with sophisticated retrieval software.

An example is BioOne One newly included fisheries journal in BioOne is Ichthyological Reviews from Canada. There are many other examples of open access projects such as BioMed Central: the open access publisher. There is also a useful open source bloglet:

The Budapest Open Access Initiative definition of open access is: its free availability on the public internet, permitting any user to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.

Lund University in Sweden maintains a Directory of Open Access Journals One fisheries journal that they list that is not on the AGORA list is the Fisheries Bulletin from North America. A sample screen of the Directory of Open Access Journals follows.

Lund University is also experimenting with the user interface software to provide access at the article level and with SBIG (Subject Based Information Gateways) as portals of quality internet information of relevance to Southern Africa.


Throughout the world, libraries are coming together in consortia, in part to facilitate access to improved resources, especially in the area of electronic licensing. Membership of a consortium can overcome some of the disadvantages of working in a sector where there are few library professionals, such as a fisheries library. Training activities, product trials, marketing and workshops can be organized on consortium-wide basis. Many countries in Africa either have or are in the process of establishing their consortia. Malawi is no exception. Malawi is a beneficiary of an eIFL OSISA consortium building grant and the year 2003 has been a buzz of activity in getting MALICO: The Malawi Library and Information Consortium established as a legally constituted trust. The learning curve for all involved has been steep but exciting. A Stakeholders Workshop, a Training Workshop, a Board Meeting, 2 volumes of Proceedings, an electronic discussion list, a web site and some journal articles are among the current outputs.

MALICO is an institutional membership organization. This contrasts with MALA, the Malawi Library Association which, while having institutional members, is primarily a personal membership organization. MALICO has currently six members and several potential members. Member libraries are from a broad range of sectors: the two university libraries, public library, National Research Council, Bureau of Standards and Reserve Bank. The initial workshop identified the core functions of MALICO. The Mission Statement distilled these functions as follows:

MALICO is a consortium of organizations that combines its talents to promote and deliver library and information services for Malawi and the global community. This institutional-membership organization participates fully in the acquisition and delivery of relevant electronic resources. MALICO offers leadership for library cooperation, training and development, mechanisms for improved access to information and a capacity for members to respond to the information needs of the country (Ngwira, 2003).

It is planned that the Consortium will function primarily through its four task forces:


It was found quite soon that access to electronic information was problematic for a variety of reasons but quality of internet connection was high on the list. From slow leased lines to dial-up connections, it was rare to have a situation where downloading full text electronic articles was without hassle. This constraint was presented to the eIFL General Assembly in St. Petersburg in December 2002, in conjunction with representatives of other Southern Africa consortia.

Internet access

eIFL was sympathetic; a pilot project to improve internet access at four MALICO sites is underway, under the auspices of the OSISA office. The sites are spread geographically throughout the country. CSIR (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research), South Africa, has been sub-contracted to implement the project and VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) technology providing satellite access seems to be the solution for Malawi and should be implemented shortly. This will give each site the option for as high quality a line as they can afford, with step up and down possibilities. It also gives the sites options of becoming Internet service providers if they so wish. One slight complication is that the VSATs belong to MALICO, the consortium, yet will be installed on university sites. Lawyers will have to draw up a memorandum of agreement on this.


Access to electronic services is covered by complex contractual agreements. MALICO signed its first contract with a publisher, Cambridge University Press, in Sardinia in the third week of October 2003, entitling it to free access to the journals, under the conditions of the license. Contracts for access to electronic information products for institutions or consortia are complex legal documents. eIFL has a lawyer who has developed a model license for electronic publisher contracts and INASP has training material in this area. Librarians have to be very aware of copyright implications, archiving possibilities and conditions of use when they commit their institution or consortium to a contract. With the help of the INASP-PERI other electronic contracts have been signed and access to large repositories of electronic information is available to consortium members. But if they are available, it may not mean that members access them! In the final section of the paper, these barriers to access are further examined.


The constraints to access to electronic information have been hinted at throughout the paper. They are many, but can be perceived as a threat, or an opportunity or just a reality. Do we really believe that entirely electronic access is the way of the future and that paper documents are a thing of the past? No-one who has studied the human-computer interface would accept that! How many pages can a person read at a computer without wanting a printout? Not many more than two, experience would tell. Who has the budgets for expendables that can give a printout to each client in a large academic library? The major constraints could be:


This is an exciting time in an exciting profession. Librarians must keep themselves informed of developments through being part of discussion lists, professional reading and through the professional development activities of their consortia and associations. Library and information services are on the move and the profile of the library is rising in that often the new technologies are coming from the library. But some may see distributed access as a threat. It should not be so, as the management of the resources, contracts and platforms is the responsibility of the library. AGORA, for example encourages registration through the institutional library.

As always clients are the key focus. A mix of paper and electronic resources, with library staff offering support to the clients on the most appropriate source and medium, and the training support to ensure efficient uptake would seem a reasonable goal for an information service!


Ngwira, M. (ed.) 2003. MALICO: Proceedings of the Stakeholders Workshop on Consortium Building, Blantyre, May and Opportunity Knocks: the MALICO Consortium Building Training Workshop. Lilongwe, Malawi.




African Journal of Tropical Hydrobiology & Fisheries


Annual Review of Fish Diseases


Aquaculture & Fisheries Management


Aquaculture Economics & Management (Blackwell Science)


Aquaculture Nutrition


Aquaculture Research


Australian Journal of Marine & Freshwater Research


Biological Bulletin


Bulletins of Marine Ecology


Canadian Journal of Fisheries & Aquatic Sciences


Ciencias Marinas


Ecology of Freshwater Fish


Environmental Biology of Fishes


Estuarine & Coastal Marine Science


Fish & Fisheries




Fisheries Management & Ecology


Fisheries Oceanography


Fisheries Research


Fisheries Science


ICES Journal of Marine Science


International Journal of Marine & Coastal Law


Journal of Applied Aquaculture


Journal of Experimental Marine Biology & Ecology


Journal of Fish Diseases


Journal of Marine Research


Journal of Marine Systems


Journal of Shellfish Research


Journal of the Fisheries Research Board of Canada


Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom


Marine Behaviour & Physiology


Marine Biology


Marine Chemistry


Marine Ecology


Marine Environmental Research


Marine Fisheries Review


Marine Geodesy


Marine Mammal Science


Marine Policy


Marine Policy Reports


Marine Resource Economics


Marine Science Communications


Maritime Policy & Management


National Fisherman


New Zealand Journal of Marine & Freshwater Research


Professional Fisherman


Progressive Fish-Culturist


Reviews in Fish Biology & Fisheries


Reviews in Fisheries Science


Transactions of the American Fisheries Society


Western Fisheries

Providing scientific literature to the developing world


Jean Collins
Fisheries Library
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

AGORA - Access to Global Online Research in Agriculture was launched in October 2003 and is a programme of FAO in collaboration with major scientific publishers, Cornell University - Mann Library and the World Health Organization (WHO). The homepage of AGORA can be found at

Many fisheries and aquaculture libraries in developing countries have not received any current scientific journals in over ten years. Without access to current scientific information, scientists struggle - to keep up with advances in science and technology, to publish their own findings in peer-reviewed journals, to update their teaching curricula, to find funding, and in many other arenas. The demand for access to scientific literature in developing countries has gone unfulfilled for many years, and has led to the isolation of a generation of scientists from their peers.

The long-term goal of the AGORA programme is to increase the quality and effectiveness of agricultural research and training in low-income countries, and in turn, to improve food security. To contribute to achieving this goal, AGORA will provide access over the world-wide-web to a research level collection of key journals in agriculture and related biological, environmental and social sciences to the poorest countries in the world. It will offer to researchers, policy-makers, educators, students, technical workers and extension specialists, a collection of literature comparable to that available to their counterparts in the developed world.

AGORA enables users to find information on a research topic, find the complete article for a citation they already have, keep up-to-date in their field by browsing important journals and find resources for instruction.

Fisheries and aquaculture journals:

Of the more than 400 journals currently available, over 50 are core fisheries and aquatic sciences titles and include: Aquacultural Engineering (Elsevier), Aquaculture (Elsevier), Aquaculture International (Kluwer Academic Publishers), Aquaculture Nutrition (Blackwell Publishing), Aquaculture Research (Blackwell Publishing), Fish and Shellfish Immunology (Elsevier), Fish Physiology and Biochemistry (Kluwer Academic Publishers), Fisheries Research (Elsevier) and Journal of Fish Diseases (Blackwell Publishing). The full list of Fisheries/Aquaculture journals can be viewed at: and the index to all journals can be found at: There are other subject areas which include journals relevant to fisheries and aquaculture, such as: Food Policy (Elsevier) in the Food Science and Nutrition category and Environmental Pollution (Elsevier) in the Environment/Ecology/Natural Resources category.

Who can participate in AGORA?

Thirty eight of the sixty eight countries currently eligible for free access to AGORA are in Africa and it is important to raise awareness in the fisheries sector of its availability and relevance. Potential users will be required to register with FAO, and access to AGORA will be password controlled. The AGORA publisher partners are opening access free to relevant institutions in eligible countries - a list of countries can be seen at:

AGORA Contacts

AGORA Main Office
Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations
V.le delle Terme di Caracalla, 00100 Rome, Italy

Cornell University
Albert R. Mann Library-TEEAL
Ithaca, New York 14853, USA

Africa Office
P.O. Box MP608, Mt Pleasant, Harare, Zimbabwe

The presentation for the Workshop was provided by Gracian Chimwaza, Distribution Director for Africa (TEEAL/AGORA), Zimbabwe.

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