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Iraqi educators praise new virtual science library

BAGHDAD, Iraq—A new U.S.-designed virtual science library for Iraqi universities is a big hit with Iraqi researchers and students, who for decades went without up-to-date journals or studied abroad where they could find them.

The Internet-based library already has 800 registered users. It allows free or virtually free access to thousands of scientific journals as well as databases at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Agriculture and the Web site Science.gov.

For students of agriculture, medicine, engineering and other scientific subjects, "This will allow us to raise the educational level without requiring students to travel or pay money," Beriwan Khailany, Iraq's deputy minister for higher education, said Wednesday.

Baghdad was one of the world's leading scientific centers under the Abbasid caliphate from A.D. 750 to 1258, but modern Arab dictatorships have been less receptive to free inquiry, and Iraq's university system deteriorated during Saddam Hussein's regime.

Khailany said she realized recently how far behind Iraq was when she saw online libraries and databases at campuses in Egypt, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

"Seeing how much they depended on information technology," she said, "made us realize how big the gap was here and that we had to lessen it."

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, a Washington-based professional group, designed Iraq's virtual library with help from the Departments of State and Defense and a $360,000 grant.

The portal makes searchable versions of more than 17,000 magazines and "millions of text articles" available, said co-founder Dr. Susan Cumberledge, formerly of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She and Dr. D.J. Patil didn't know how to build a digital library when they started, she said, but they got a lot of help from Sun Microsystems of Santa Clara, Calif.

Of Iraq's seven universities, those in Mosul, Sulaimaniyah and Basra have the best Internet connections. At Baghdad's four, getting online is more difficult and "some users have to go to Internet cafes," Cumberledge said.

Khailany said students and professors often studied at Internet cafes because computers were so scarce on campus. The ministry's long-term goal is one computer for every five students.

The number of Iraqi virtual-library users could be vast, said Alan Springer, whose German-based scientific-journal publisher, Springer, is contributing to the new teaching tool.

"Please don't underestimate the science of the developing world," he said. "More than 50 percent of students in the world today are in developing countries. There's a lot going on."

Among the groups that are stocking Iraq's virtual library are the American Chemical Society, which is providing access to 700,000 articles going back to 1879, and a second major publisher of scientific journals, the Dutch firm Elsiever.

The next step is for Iraq's higher education office to "create something that the universities can take over and run by themselves," Cumberledge said.

One plan calls for complete Iraqi ownership in two years. That'll take a lot of help, Khailany said.

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(Wells reported from Washington, Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Obeid from Baghdad.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Basra university

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