Top to bottom: Rima Kupryte, Teresa Hackett, Iryna Kuchma, and Monika Elbert.
Working through libraries in all corners of the world, the international nonprofit Electronic Information for Libraries (EIFL) embodies the notion of “knowledge without boundaries.”
Established in 1999, the small but influential organization has helped libraries in developing and transition economy countries put programs in place that help to remove economic, technical, and legal barriers to accessing information. Its dedicated leaders have been at the heart of the cause from the beginning, as original signatories on the Budapest Open Access Declaration in 2002.
Now working in 50 partner countries, EIFL negotiates with publishers for affordable access to e-resources, while at the same time leads forward-looking advocacy campaigns for Open Access to research literature and fair copyright for users. Its aim is to empower libraries to leverage information for education, learning, research, and sustainable community development.
For its great strides in putting libraries in developing and transition countries at the center of the movement to democratize access to information, and increasing the visibility of scholarly research, SPARC has recognized EIFL with its June 2014 Innovator Award.
Despite being a lean organization with a $2.7 million budget and just 11 staff members (most who work from their home offices, spanning from Ireland to Chile to Ukraine to keep overhead low), EIFL has a substantial reach. It works in Africa, Asia, and Europe to create library consortia that share resources thereby saving money and speaking with a stronger voice to advocate for the adoption of Open Access policies and practices, to support the creation of institutional repositories, and to build capacity on library copyright issues.
Early and deep commitment
The impact of EIFL can be traced to the wealth of expertise of its diverse and international staff, beginning with its Director, Rima Kupryte. She grew up in Lithuania during Soviet rule, when access to information was very restricted. When Kupryte was studying for her library degree at Vilnius University in the late 1980s, the environment was beginning to change with the “perestroika” reform movement. As Lithuania was gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, a new era of openness began.
“You could witness the difference that access to a wealth of information made in people’s lives,” Kupryte says. “It’s how you discovered the world.”
Experiencing that transformation made Kupryte sympathetic to countries that didn’t have access to information, not because of ideology, but because of the high cost of journals – something she acutely understood as a librarian.
Working at the Open Society Institute (now the Open Society Foundations – OSF) supporting library development, Kupryte would review individual library requests for funding to subscribe to journals for a single year. “It made me think, ‘What happens after that year?’” she says. “We began to think how to make access sustainable – that’s how the idea for EIFL was born.”
EIFL began as a project of OSF, but since then has become an independent organization that, while still getting OSF support, has also received funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the European Commission, the Ford Foundation, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, among other funders.
Monika Elbert, a librarian who is German by birth and British by nationality, was part of EIFL from the beginning. The need for a more open system of sharing information was made clear to Elbert when she encountered a Western academic doing research on people suffering post-traumatic stress disorders as the result of war, violence, and natural disasters. If the information was published in an expensive scholarly journal, no one in the countries affected by these hardships could afford to have access to it, recalled Elbert. “It was at that moment that I realized that something needed to change,” she says.
As a senior policy advisor with EIFL, Elbert oversees the organization’s library consortia approach, where librarians in a country work together as a group to leverage their influence. Over her 15 years with the organization, Elbert has helped develop and manage sustainable consortia, and ease them into the EIFL model. “A consortium is based on resource sharing – and this is not the culture in many countries,” she said. “We have had to go for a real change of mindset.”
Consortia typically include university, research, and public libraries, as well as other institutions. Because public institutions in many EIFL partner countries are so poorly funded, there is fierce competition for support. Much of Elbert’s work is to convince individual libraries that they can go further when they act together. She frequently runs consortia workshops, sharing extensive case studies to illustrate the power of a joint effort.
“We have managed to create many sustainable and successful consortia that have opened up the world of electronic resources to millions of people including in countries such as Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Palestine, Sudan, and Zimbabwe,” says Elbert.
Affecting change from inside and out
From her home office in Dublin, Ireland, Teresa Hackett manages the EIFL program that promotes the interests of libraries and their users in copyright issues. She is actively lobbying for policy reform at the national and international level. Hackett was “bitten by the copyright bug” back in 2000 when working as Director of the European Bureau of Library, Information and Documentation Associations, as the first European directive on digital copyright was going through the legislative process.
“With a strong lobby and resources on the rights’ holder side, I realized how important it was for librarians to be at the table,” says Hackett. “Policymakers need to understand how libraries in the electronic environment work and how copyright law can be shaped to best protect the public interest and access to knowledge.”
Hackett describes the basic underlying problem as a “structural imbalance” in the current copyright system. While exclusive rights are international and mandatory, exceptions or users’ rights are national and optional. As a result, while many countries have provisions for preservation and other library activities, others do not or they don’t cover digital material. Furthermore, the laws of developing nations are often more restrictive than industrialized countries, yet the need for people to have wide access to knowledge for scholarship, science, innovation, and creativity is critical to their development.
To address this issue, EIFL is advocating at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) – that sets global copyright policy – for an international treaty to establish a basic standard for fair access in all countries, and to protect core library activities such as lending and inter-library document supply. In 2012, over 55 member states adopted a working document with proposals on 11 topics for libraries and archives, and committed to work towards an international instrument. So that government delegates learn first hand about the copyright challenges faced by librarians on the ground, EIFL has supported the participation of librarians from Ghana, Latvia, Malawi, Moldova, Poland, Senegal, Uganda, and Zimbabwe in negotiations at WIPO, including the first librarian from Africa.
EIFL also supported negotiations at WIPO over five years that led to the adoption in 2013 of the Marrakesh Treaty for persons who are blind, visually impaired or otherwise print disabled, 90% of whom live in the developing world. The landmark agreement sets in place an international legal framework to enable the creation and cross-border exchange of accessible format copies. EIFL continues to advocate in partner countries for speedy national ratification so that the benefits of the treaty are passed on quickly to libraries struggling to provide content to print disabled users. For example, Ulaanbaatar Public Library in Mongolia that cannot get modern textbooks for blind children for their DAISY readers, the Lithuanian Library for the Blind that cannot provide literature in Polish and Russian for national minorities, or Lesotho’s National University Library that has a chronic shortage of accessible books for students.
EIFL has been innovative in this space because it is willing to work all angles and push boundaries, says Hackett. “It’s unique because we work from inside and outside the system to affect change,” she says. While EIFL negotiates with commercial publishers for low prices, at the same time it is advocating to change the way the scholarly communications and copyright system works. “The combination of pragmatism and activism makes for a potent and effective mix,” says Hackett.
Spreading Open Access policies and practices
At the core of EIFL’s work is a commitment to promote Open Access. Iryna Kuchma is working to further that mission for the organization from her post in Kiev, Ukraine. Kuchma was Open Access Program Manager for the International Renaissance Foundation, the national Soros Foundation in Ukraine, prior to joining the EIFL staff.
EIFL has Open Access coordinators in 44 partner counties and Kuchma works tirelessly with them – running on average 10 to 15 awareness raising activities each year. She is active working to introduce Open Access policies at institutions and on national levels, and frequently meets with university administrators and policy makers to educate them on the benefits of Open Access. She is also EIFL’s point person on institutional repositories, helping to provide training and guidance on getting them set up, and put to use. There are now 700 repositories up and running in EIFL countries. “It’s not a one-time project,” says Kuchma. “They are continually populated with research outputs.”
Melissa Hagemann, a Senior Program Manager with the Open Society Foundations, says EIFL was the first organization to introduce Open Access in many countries, including China and South Africa. “Iryna is one of two or three main authorities on Open Access in low and middle-income countries,” she said. EIFL has helped raise awareness of Open Access globally, said Hagemann.
In the future, Kuchma would like to build on the powerful Open Access advocates in the library community and start working more with student associations on campuses to share good practices with one another.
Universities are beginning to embrace the idea that it is their responsibility to share their research outputs globally, says Kuchma. That means not only changing policies, but also developing Open Access publishing platforms.
EIFL’s large network of countries with “mission-driven people” is making a difference. Kuchma points to an example in Malawi where two hospitals, 100 miles apart, were unaware of the latest treatments for HIV-positive patients happening in one facility. Once an open access repository was in place, medical staff could exchange valuable information. “You can say Open Access saves lives. It helps provide better patient care,” says Kuchma.
Keeping the organization cohesive
While the virtual organization model keeps expenses low, having staff around the world operating in different time zones can be a challenge, admits Kupryte who is based in Rome. To stay connected, there are a lot of conference calls via Skype, along with planning meetings in person twice a year. There is also an annual general assembly meeting of all EIFL national consortia to look at trends and touch base with happenings in various countries, says Kupryte.
“In everything we do, we take a holistic approach to access to information,” says Kupryte. Programs have expanded over the years to address financial and legal barriers to access, as well as technological barriers. “From the beginning, we wanted to make sure access to information is available to as many institutions as possible. Because we want to help overcome the digital divide, which exists even between richer and poorer institutions in the countries EIFL operates in, we chose to work with library consortia as a model.
EIFL staff members are often so busy that it can be difficult to step back and appreciate the progress that has been made, says Kupryte, but she concedes that it is rewarding to look at the policy changes and attitudes evolving. “We seek to empower librarians because in the long-run, it’s they themselves who need to advocate at institutional and national level for better access to information,” says Kupryte. “It’s still a long road, but the principles are proven. The vision that every person has access to knowledge remains close to my heart after all these years.”
Elbert adds that part of the reason the EIFL approach has worked is that there is a mutual trust and respect among the EIFL team who can rely on each other to do things quickly and efficiently. “We are all professionals. We have passion for what we do,” says Elbert. “We don’t want to mess around with things that aren’t successful or do not produce impact.”
-By Caralee Adams