The U.S. government and the American scientific community have launched a project to give Iraqi scientists, engineers, and physicians free access to a broad range of technical journals on the Internet. They say the Iraqi Virtual Science Library will provide researchers the information tools they need to help rebuild the country.
The digital library was the idea of several young U.S. scientists who visited Iraq as fellows with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. They wanted to help their Iraqi counterparts emerge from the information isolation they had experienced under Saddam Hussein's rule. "It's just scientists reaching out to scientists," said University of Maryland physicist D. J. Patil is a co-founder of the Iraqi Virtual Science Library.
Standing in front of a computer display, he provided examples of articles from the more than 17-thousand online journals and their archives now available to Iraqi researchers. "That really means millions and millions of articles. So here's an article on agriculture on how to plow fields; or maybe something from the environment, such as the ecology of birds; the impact of dentistry on quality of life; mechanical engineering; medical -- this one is on the impact Alzheimer's -- and, of course, even theoretical mathematics," he said.
From the initial concept, the digital library has grown into a partnership among several U.S. and Iraqi government agencies, scientific journal publishers and private companies and organizations. U.S. Sun Miscrosystems provided the computer server and software, which the U.S. Defense Department operates. The U.S. National Academies of Science negotiated with journal publishers for reduced-price access to their online content.
At a National Academies ceremony, the man in charge of U.S. military technology and logistics, Kenneth Krieg [KREEG], said the project will help keep Iraqi scientists and engineers engaged in peaceful pursuits, which he called essential to building a democratic nation. "U.S. government experience in the former Soviet Union showed that reaching out to the former regimes' scientists and reintegrating them into the international scientific community is an effective means for reducing the proliferation of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] expertise and for building long term partnerships," he said.
Organizers of the online journal library say that connectivity to the digital database varies depending by region in Iraq. Connections are good at provincial universities, such as those in Mosul and Sulaymaniya in the north and Basra in the south, but frequently unreliable in Baghdad, where the war has taken its heaviest toll on the technical infrastructure.
Iraq's ambassador to Washington, Samir Shakir Mahmud Al-Sumaydi, says it will take time for the project to take hold among Iraqi researchers. "As capacity is built up, there is going to be more utilization. The important thing is the enthusiasm with which the academic community in Iraq embraces this, and we can see that they are approaching this with enthusiasm," he said.
The U.S. public-private coalition will operate the digital library for two years at a cost of more than $12 million dollars donated from all U.S. partners. After that, it is to be transferred to Iraqi control and computer servers.