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Magazines > Information Today > December 2011

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Information Today

Vol. 28 No. 11 — December 2011

FEATURE
Partnerships in Progress
by Robert S. Benchley


It’s early morning in Pune, India, and 2 dozen children of migrant farm workers, slum dwellers, and other underprivileged families are clambering into a new school bus. But that bus isn’t going anywhere because it’s also the school. Inside the bus is a classroom, and thanks to Springer Science+Business Media, which donated the bus to Door Step School’s School on Wheels program, the children are getting an education that otherwise wouldn’t happen.

In Houston, Drew Wilson, a director of commercial services at Thomson Reuters, starts a day of volunteering for Children at Risk, a nonpartisan organization that addresses the root causes of poor public policies affecting children. Wilson’s volunteerism paid off big this year: Because he nominated the organization, Children at Risk will receive a $25,000 donation from Thomson Reuters’ Community Champion Awards program.

In arid Eastern Africa, Ali Hassan Mulei, a farmer near Kyuso, Kenya, learned about water harvesting at the local Maarifa Center, studies that helped him improve his crop yields. The facility is one of 12 Knowledge Centers run by the Arid Lands Information Network (ALIN), which received the 2011 $1 million Access to Learning Award from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Whether they call it corporate philanthropy, corporate social responsibility, or international development (see sidebar on the Lubuto Library Project), companies and organizations in the information industry are stepping up to the plate and providing products and services to the underserved worldwide, especially in developing countries where access to books and content resources is difficult or nonexistent. These are more than feel-good PR projects. The donors and organizers are looking for sustainable programs and partnerships that yield positive results. Here are a few that reflect the depth and breadth of their commitment.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The award to ALIN provides knowledge and information through a variety of channels in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. Technology and other tools at the Maarifa Centers are used by community members, most of whom are small-scale farmers, to improve their health, income, and quality of life. Practical information, particularly related to agricultural development, helps them find markets for their crops and learn about pests, drought, and other agricultural challenges. Microsoft, which partners with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has donated more than $270,000 worth of software and technology training curriculum to ALIN.

Maarifa Centers also provide needed information in nonagricultural areas such as health (HIV/AIDS and malaria), daily living (creating an energy-efficient biogas stove), administrative needs (identity cards, tax-exempt status), education (online degrees), and entrepreneurship (small-business development). Much of the information is geared to serving the specific needs of local communities and includes online content and presentations in their native languages.

“Thousands of people in these remote communities of Eastern Africa are improving their lives through the information available at these centers,” says Deborah Jacobs, director of the Global Libraries Initiative for the foundation. “All knowledge workers can learn from this inventive model of delivering targeted, customized information.”

Springer Science+Business Media

Springer’s presence in India dates from 1980, and its 2,500 workers there form the largest employee group the company has in any country worldwide. Each year, 10 or 12 employees are sent via the company’s cross-cultural internship program to its Crest Premedia Services subsidiary in Pune, which handles German- and Dutch-language publications. The interns gain valuable professional experience, while their Indian colleagues improve their German and Dutch skills with native speakers.

Part of the interns’ experience includes volunteer work at Door Step School, a charitable organization identified by Springer nearly 5 years ago, says Eric Merkel-Sobotta, executive vice president for corporate communications. “We have a modest, but growing, tradition of sponsoring educational endeavors in developing countries, usually with a preference for university education,” he says. “But with Door Step School—and especially the School on Wheels—we thought the project was not only simple and effective, but also something our interns could be involved in.”

The bus donation is only part of Springer’s commitment. The interns each spend about 10 days of their 6-month stay working on Door Step School assignments, says Merkel-Sobotta. This often involves interacting directly with the children, but interns also help create children’s “books,” which list individual personal data (age, weight, learning progress, and other information). The books help the children gain admission to primary school or help future teachers assess their learning levels.

“The children come from backgrounds in which they might never get to meet a foreigner up close, and both the children and the teachers benefit from this admittedly small-scale contribution to intercultural understanding,” says Merkel-Sobotta. “We believe that Door Step School is making a difference in children’s education where it is active, and that interns from developed countries will become better employees in the future by participating in some form of societal engagement.”

Thomson Reuters

Drew Wilson’s nomination of Children at Risk was one of 200 received by Thomson Reuters’ Community Champion Awards program. The 11-year-old program, which began with three awards totaling $15,000, selected 45 winners this year with awards totaling $150,000. This year’s recipients range from a training program for school teachers in central Africa to a shelter for young people undergoing medical evaluation or treatment in Taguig City, the Philippines.

“This is one of our signature programs,” says Laura Jachino, manager of corporate responsibility at Thomson Reuters. “It’s a great way to support our employees’ community service efforts.” A 12-person judging panel of employees from different job functions, business units, and locations around the world is charged with the difficult job of selecting the winners. “The judges have said that it is a humbling experience,” says Jachino.

In order to be nominated, an organization has to be a registered charity, it must meet Thomson Reuters’ community support guidelines, and at least one company employee has to be actively involved in it. Winners are selected based on the employee’s overall impact on the organization.

One example is Urban Synergy, a mentoring program for minority youth based in Greenwich, East London. Adolescents between the ages of 11 and 18 can reach their full potential through one-on-one mentoring, role model and academic seminars, work shadowing, and life skills training. Urban Synergy was started by Thomson Reuters employee Leila Thomas, who has inspired colleagues and other professionals to become mentors.

ProQuest

It has been nearly 10 years since three public-private partnerships (HINARI, AGORA, and OARE) began providing the developing world with access to critical scientific research in the areas of health, agriculture, and the environment, respectively. (ARDI was added in 2009 to deliver science and technology research.) Now bundled under the name Research4Life, the programs’ goal remains the same—to help attain six of the United Nations’ eight Millennium Development Goals by 2015, reducing the scientific knowledge gap between industrialized countries and the developing world. The world’s leading science publishers have heeded the call, and Research4Life now offers researchers at more than 5,000 institutions in 105 developing countries free or low-cost access to more than 8,100 scientific journals, books, and databases.

Therein lies the challenge, says John Law, vice president of discovery services at Serials Solutions, a business unit of ProQuest. “Content publishers typically provide information on their own platform,” he says. “Researchers have had to go on each platform and perform multiple searches to gather all the material they seek.”

Serials Solutions has come to the rescue with its Summon discovery service, which was introduced commercially in 2009. Summon sites will be provided for each Research4Life program to enable a single search of the collections. Serials Solutions is donating the Summon sites as well as the services of its company librarians.

“The goal was to make all material searchable for the individual countries,” says Law. “As we got into it, we realized that each country has its own set of content; not all publishers participate in all countries. I brought the challenge to our librarians, and they adopted it as a project. The company supports a volunteer day, so one Friday they all got together to discuss how to administer all these sites.”

Twenty librarians signed on to the project. With 105 countries, that means each librarian will help launch several sites. The rollout has begun slowly (the work is very detail-oriented) with a pilot site for HINARI, and several country sites are up and running now.

“This is a very natural thing for us to be doing,” says Law. “We created Summon because we’re passionate about accelerating the research process. When we learned that we could help search in areas of the world that desperately needed it, we jumped at the opportunity.”

Elsevier

By contrast, Elsevier is the largest publishing partner and a founder of Research4Life. The company provides more than 1,600 journals, which is about one-quarter of the total content, with search and about 25 million downloads annually performed through its proprietary ScienceDirect platform.

“But you don’t want people to hit a wall from lack of skill,” says David Ruth, head of global communications for Elsevier and executive director of the Elsevier Foundation. “So one thing we fund is an organization called Librarians Without Borders that trains people in developing countries in search. What questions do you ask to get the information you want? Where do you go from there? When I visited a training program in Tanzania 4 years ago, it was more basic than I expected. It has come a long way since then.”

The foundation, says Ruth, typically funds about 10 projects from the 400 proposals it receives from 30 to 40 countries each year. “Part of the model,” he says, “is to make maximum use of the money, donate to programs that will have the most impact.”

One project that Ruth cites was the establishment of a medical library in Botswana in partnership with University of Pennsylvania Library. Such projects often also involve the Medical Library Association, which oversees training exchanges with medical librarians around the world.

Another project (a case of library science trumping political science) involved a rare cooperative effort by six countries in the Himalayas to establish a shared library to gather and distribute environmental information about the region. “A lot of what they have done is document biodiversity, the impact of climate change and actions they can take together to preserve the environment,” says Ruth. And he says the entire relationship has come full circle, with researchers publishing their findings in the journals they have used for their research.

“We also have to champion the programs we back,” says Ruth. “We don’t choose randomly; they relate to what we do as a business.” Still, he says, “none of this gives you a direct business benefit. You get a reputation benefit. But it’s woven into the fabric of the company, and it means you’re going to be in it for the long haul.”

Light From the Library

We believe that the vulnerable children of Africa deserve our best efforts,” says Jane Kinney Meyers, a librarian and founder and president of the Lubuto Library Project, which mixes mentoring with literacy initiatives in Zambia. She describes her organization as an international development project rather than a charity. “We are engaging with people in the societies we serve to solve big social problems,” she says.

That’s a tall order for a small organization. But Meyers (who has extensive experience in Africa and international development) has pursued it with a passion since founding Lubuto (a Zambian word for “light” or “enlightenment”) in 2005. “Zambia is the most urbanized country in Africa, and the impact of HIV/AIDS has been devastating,” she says. “One out of five kids is an orphan; there are huge numbers of street kids and lots of kids who can’t attend school. I got involved in a shelter for kids, started reading to them and began thinking about a plan for a library.”

Six years later, with financial support from Dow Jones & Co. and books from Follett Corp., Lubuto has opened its second library. Along the way, Meyers found a kindred spirit in the new head of the Zambia Library Service, and Lubuto is budgeted to begin bringing seven more libraries to life over the next few years. And because, as she says, “when it rains it pours,” there are talks with UNICEF about 16 additional libraries.

“We are now prepared to scale up,” says Meyers. “We have been helping our librarian colleagues in Zambia define what a good book collection is, and we will go to Follett and request seven more collections that match our guidelines. What we need now is a really good evaluation of the impact of our model to help us with other countries or to scale up in Zambia.”

Growth is just a means to an end, however. Meyers is really promoting the innovative programs offered through Lubuto’s libraries. LubutoLiteracy, which launched on June 2, offers 700 computer-based reading lessons (100 in each of Zambia’s seven main languages). Teaching children to read is not something traditionally done by libraries. Young artists from the LubutoArts program earned school fees by illustrating the lessons with computer graphics. LubutoMentoring teaches life skills and builds self-esteem and awareness.

“We are providing access to educational opportunities, but we are also improving the level of education for the whole country. We’re working through the system,” says Meyers. “Libraries today are more than just books or just computers. We work to identify social needs and determine how we can apply our expertise to meet those needs. That’s why this is development, not charity.”

R.S.B.

EBSCO: A Plan for All Seasons

Most people earmark December as the month to donate time, energy, and resources to the community. But for EBSCO, charity knows no season.

“EBSCO has many philanthropic initiatives, including what I believe to be the most effective efforts to date to bridge the digital divide (between the industrialized world and developing nations) when it comes to access to academic research,” says Sam Brooks, executive vice president of sales and marketing.

While Brooks says that EBSCO is active in supporting museums, libraries, and universities, most of the philanthropic efforts are done behind the scenes. “We do what we do for the right reasons, and while we appreciate the interest, we don’t seek publicity for these endeavors,” he says. The company allows and even encourages its top executives to focus extensively on these activities, he says, “despite the fact that more profitable endeavors certainly exist elsewhere.”

One long-term commitment for EBSCO was made more than a decade ago, when George Soros’ Open Society Foundation, via the Open Society Institute (OSI), leased what it considered the world’s most essential research databases for universities in 39 developing countries (chiefly in Central and Eastern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa). After OSI completed its analysis and deemed EBSCOhost products as “the most desired and most valuable,” EBSCO signed a contract with OSI at “truly unprecedented” rates, says Brooks. When the contract expired, EBSCO arranged for direct licenses with ministries of education, culture, and science and technology in each of the participating countries. Now, EBSCO has more than 50 national licenses “for extensive access to high-end research databases,” he says.

“The thing that separates EBSCOhost access from many of the other initiatives that are taking place is the huge usage,” says Brooks. “The resources are actually being used by a very large number of students, faculty, researchers, and doctors.” He has traveled with EBSCO to nearly 100 countries, many of them developing nations. “They were (and still are) excited about the idea of jumping forward from online (and print) research collections that were radically inferior to those of their counterparts in the comparatively wealthier parts of the world,” he says. “We have actually come a long way.”

EBSCO also extends its global consciousness by reducing its carbon footprint at home. Part of this green initiative included installing hundreds of solar panels and several electric car chargers at its headquarters in Ipswich, Mass., as well as recycling efforts and providing reusable coffee mugs for employees instead of disposable cups. “Our hope is to lead by example,” says Brooks.

ALEXA MANTELL


Robert S. Benchley is a Miami-based business writer. Send your comments about this article to itletters@infotoday.com.
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