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Syracuse iSchool alumna Laurie Kutner G '98 establishes grassroots digital library project in Costa Rica to provide remote community with information access

In 2007, Syracuse iSchool alumna Laurie Kutner G’98 took a sabbatical from her job as library associate professor at the University of Vermont. She headed to Monteverde, Costa Rica, a small town high on the Continental Divide known for the rich biodiversity of its many reserves. Monteverde is a hot spot for researchers, and as an information professional, Kutner was interested in studying the information resources of the area.

Kutner spent her six-month sabbatical in Monteverde researching the research community itself. She found that international researchers often came to the area, conducted their studies, and then left with their data. Once that information left Monteverde and was published in expensive journals, it became nearly impossible for local researchers to access it.

Driven by a strong desire to quench the local thirst for information, Kutner decided to do something. She contacted the iSchool and enlisted the help of students in the M.S. in Library and Information Science program. The iSchool interns scoured the Internet for research on Monteverde. They also contacted authors and asked for permission to publish their work on the web site of the Monteverde Institute, a non-profit association dedicated to education, applied research, and community engagement. Over time, a collection of Internet-accessible materials about Monteverde research developed.

Kutner’s sabbatical came to an end, but she was not ready to give up her efforts in Monteverde. “It was obvious that so much work could be done there,” she said. Ever since then, Kutner has spent her summers in Costa Rica, working to provide the local Monteverde population with access to information resources.

Kutner visited the iSchool on Wednesday, February 10, to give a presentation about her work in Monteverde. She has joined forces with the Monteverde Institute, the University of Vermont, the Syracuse iSchool, and the University of South Florida to create two bilingual digital library collections. The Monteverde Institute sponsors the project, the iSchool provides student interns, and the University of South Florida donates digital libraries software and server space.

“Collaboration is important, especially when you’re working in parts of the world where resources are limited,” Kutner explained during her presentation. There are many challenges to creating digital libraries in developing countries, such as securing intellectual property rights and finding reliable technology. “Since Monteverde is an environment of limited resources, it makes the work that we do incredibly gratifying because everyone is so thankful for what we’re doing,” Kutner said.

During the summer of 2008, Kutner worked with two iSchool interns to digitize and provide access to a collection of materials about Monteverde community development and planning. The collection, called the Sustainable Futures collection, includes research, PowerPoint presentations, architectural drawings, photographs, maps, data, and supporting notes. By the end of the year, the collection had grown to include 260 digital objects.

In the summer of 2009, Kutner and iSchool interns worked with a collection of items related to community health. Their goal was to provide access to information on accessible health care and other community-related health issues.

Kutner explained that iSchool interns are a critical part of the Monteverde digital library project. “They’re involved in all aspects of decision-making and the creation of a digital library,” she said. The interns work closely with Kutner and offer their input on everything from collection scope to copyright issues to workflow development and metadata. The interns also create all of the digital records using software provided by the University of South Florida.

“Students have control over the whole project from beginning to end. It’s really a unique learning experience,” said Kutner.

This summer, Kutner is looking for one or two interns to help with a collection of tropical ecology documents from a program based out of a biological research station in Monteverde. Kutner is especially interested in students who are pursuing a Certificate of Advanced Studies in Digital Libraries because their coursework is best suited to the project.
The six-week internship will last from roughly June 23 to the end of July. The Monteverde Institute will place each intern with a local family, who will provide a room and meals. Interns will also have the opportunity to take four to six hours of Spanish classes per week.

“It’s a great environment in which to learn, and at the same time we’re contributing something important to the community,” said Kutner. “Digital libraries in developing countries have great potential to directly affect the wealth of communities through access to information.”

More details about the Monteverde internship opportunity will be distributed to the LIS listerv in March.

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