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Bridging the Information Gap: SDA Highter Education Facing the Information Revolution

By Gilberto Abella


In a sermon on mission preached recently at the Loma Linda University Church, Elder Robert Folkenberg addressed two major points that define part of the background for this paper. These were the increasingly global, international and diverse nature of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and the individual responsibility of the members to fulfill the mission of our denomination.

Beyond these two important issues raised by Elder Folkenberg, I would like to add a third concern to the scope of this document: the role of the Seventh-day Adventist Librarian in relation to his or her profession in a time of rapid and global change. This presentation is, therefore, an attempt to reflect on the challenges facing Seventh-day Adventist librarians at three different levels:

  • In relation to the tensions and growing pains of an increasingly international and multicultural Church
  • In relation to the personal and spiritual responsibility of each librarian towards the mission of the Church.
  • In relation to what they can do to assist each other to overcome the challenges of a profession in transition, a changing world, and rapidly evolving technologies.

In short, this presentation is an effort to initiate a discussion on the nature of the social, spiritual, and professional responsibilities of SDA librarians. It will touch on the philosophical framework but will focus on pragmatic ways of dealing with the challenges that need to be addressed. As the ASDAL leadership requested, the role of electronic transmission of information will be dealt with as “the great equalizer.” However, this paper will address also some broader aspects of information access and resource sharing.

The views presented here are certainly personal. Yet, they reflect the input from a number of distinguished and dedicated colleagues who should receive credit for assisting me in articulating the ideas expressed in this document. Indeed, many of my positions and suggestions have been shaped by my discussions with Harvey Brenneise, Keith Clouten, Marilyn Crane, Carlyle Edwards, Maynard Lowry, Nelia Wurangian, and Adu Worku. Among these colleagues I would like to recognize in particular the input of Harvey Brenneise and Adu Worku, who have maintained an inspiring dialogue with me for several years.


The assumptions that I used as starting points in the formulation of my approach to the challenges we face as librarians and as Seventh-day Adventists can be summarized in the following points:

  • Our professional values and our Christian beliefs are not two totally separate sets of principles. On the contrary they represent complementary areas that should be harmonized and fully integrated.
  • Regardless of where we were born or where we work, as conscientious professionals, as dedicated Christians, and as sensitive human beings, we cannot remain indifferent to challenges and needs of colleagues and institutions in other parts of the world.
  • Responding to the appeals from within the profession for a more assertive role for librarians, and from within the Church for more individual initiatives, SDA librarians should do more to respond to the challenges facing the World Church and its institutions.
  • In a professional world dominated by technology, cooperation appears to be less and less optional and becomes more and more an absolute necessity.
  • Good stewardship is not just an old Biblical principle, it is also a sound approach to the handling of the financial and technical challenges facing SDA librarians in this day and age.


One would hope that the views briefly described above are representative of the positions held by most SDA librarians. However, there may be some legitimate variations in the way individual professionals view and relate to the ministry of a world-wide Church.

While there is room for different positions and definitions, in terms of philosophical assumptions, there is very little to argue about in relation to what is happening regarding the widening gap between the information rich and the information poor. Anyone who reviews library science literature, general scientific publications, medical journals, and documents focusing on world economy, realizes that there is one trend that authors in all these areas of learning acknowledge: developing nations are having more difficulty in accessing information in general and scientific or academic publications in particular.

One of the most current analyses of this situation was published in the respected journal Scientific American in May of 1995. (1) Here are some of the facts included in that report:

  • A recent survey of 31 libraries in 13 African countries revealed that not even one library has a viable serials collection.
  • Since 1989 the Addis Ababa University had to cancel 90% of its subscriptions.
  • India, a country that used to receive about 20,000 foreign journals in 1983, receives now less than 11,000, and fewer copies of each.
  • Of the 3,300 journals indexed by the Science Citation Index, just 50 are published in less developed countries.

One sentence from the same article summarizes the current situation:

“Throughout Africa and many other parts of the developing world, the flow of scientific information from the rich countries of the North has dried up over the past decade.” (2)

This analysis does not describe the libraries of SDA institutions in Third World countries. The situation depicted refers to the national and better funded universities in these nations. Some of them, beyond being supported by their governments, also receive some funding from international agencies and Western countries.

What can we say then about the condition of the libraries of SDA institutions in the same areas? From informal reports provided by librarians, teachers and alumni of SDA colleges situated in developing nations, all we may conclude is that the situation is dismal.

Yet, as important as print collections may be, they are no longer sufficient to keep up with the information explosion. Indeed, small and large institutions in the developing world have an absolute need to find ways to access electronic sources and electronic retrieval tools.

In another paper presented at this conference, Keith Clouten summarizes the developments of the last few decades leading up to the formation of the “Information Superhighway,” the “Virtual Library,” and the “Global Information Village.” Although his presentation focuses on North America, the realities that he mentions transcend borders and are relevant to the entire world.

The fast and profound technological changes, taking place in the richest and most advanced economies, pose a serious challenge to developing nations. No country, no area of the world and no institution of higher learning wants to be left behind by the “Information Revolution.” However, in most nations still in transition from an agricultural economy to an industrial one, the possibility of creating the infrastructures required by the post-industrial civilization, is just a distant dream.

For SDA librarians, there is one very important issue to consider in the present state of international affairs. That is the fact that the widening gap between information rich and information poor nations is painfully reflected in the composition of the Church. In practical terms this means that the same financial, technical, and infrastructural problems affecting the state universities in the developing countries are present even to a greater extent in SDA educational and health institutions.

This last point touches the core of what this paper is supposed to do: to call the attention of SDA librarians working in the developed nations to the needs of schools, hospitals and training centers all around the world. When we do so and look at the World around us–not just as members of a Church but as professionals with a global vision–what we see or should see is a global challenge.

This word, challenge, was carefully chosen. It reflects not a sense of despair but a determination to do something about the seemingly insurmountable problems of fair access to information across borders and continents.

To use the words of Adu Worku, ASDAL President-Elect, “What we need is a ‘great equalizer’ to enable educational and health institutions in developing countries to gain a fair level of access to printed and electronic sources.”


Does such a “great equalizer” exist? No. At least, not yet.

Could one be created? There is no simple answer to this question. However, I suggest that a number of mechanisms should be implemented to achieve the much desired equalization. No single method or system by itself is likely to reduce the gap between the information rich and the information poor. The existing difficulties are too complex to be handled by a simple solution. In most cases not even “throwing money” at the problems will lead to their resolution.

Nevertheless, there is hope. As long as the awareness of these disparities inspires people to do something about them, positive changes are possible.

Having looked briefly at the problems before us, I believe that the important question to ask now is: What can SDA librarians do to meet these challenges?

Maybe we could approach the same query with a different wording: Can we make a difference?

I suggest that in spite of the monumental and frightening dimensions of the problems, we do have the possibility of making a significant difference for the better.

What can we do? What specific courses of action can we take? I do not have the final answers to these questions. However, I would like to make some suggestions that, hopefully, will help all of us, as a group, to define a clear direction for the future of SDA librarianship and the future of SDA institutions all around the world. I hope that the ideas that I will propose, can be used as starting points for discussion at this conference.

The first suggestion I would like to offer is something that should permeate everything else we do, create, or think about. It is an issue of posture. It is the prerequisite for everything else we may decide to attempt. That is a proactive approach to librarianship.

In practical terms and in the context of the issues discussed in this paper, this means that we should not wait for other groups or entities to create solutions for our problems.

We may hope that Church administrators, international agencies, college boards, and national governments will take some action leading to the improvement of access to information in SDA libraries around the world. However, if we wait for someone else to solve our problems, they may never get solved or they may be handled without our input and guidance. Therefore, I suggest that it is up to us, as dedicated professionals and committed Christians, to take the initiative and seek solutions for the challenges we face. This proactive and hopeful posture is therefore the first requirement for a constructive program of action.

If we are really determined to make a difference and ready to dedicate some of our time and energies to the cause of creating a “great equalizer,” where can we start?

I propose that the first step should be the creation of a group, task-force, or committee to analyze the present problems and formulate a concerted strategy under the umbrella of ASDAL.

If I may be so bold, I would like to suggest, as well, a tentative agenda for such a task-force. The points listed here represent possible areas of action for such a group.

  • Articulating a needs assessment program for SDA libraries all around the world but with focus on the challenges facing the ones in developing countries.
  • Assisting SDA institutions in developing countries to locate, apply for, and receive funding from international agencies, foundations, private sources, church entities, and governments in developed countries.
  • Increasing the level of communication between SDA libraries in industrialized nations and SDA libraries in developing countries.
  • Creating mechanisms to develop human resources in “Third World” countries with focus on professional and technical advancement.
  • Increasing the purchasing power of SDA libraries around the world by creating an international educational consortium with dual focus on printed materials and electronic resources.
  • Assisting SDA institutions in developing countries to acquire computer technology and improve the related technical skill and infrastructures.
  • Searching for means of providing SDA institutions around the world with inexpensive access to the Internet and/or other electronic methods of electronic transfer of information.


For some, the suggestions I have presented may appear to be no more than a list of impossible dreams or generalities, without significant practical applications. To such objections I would simply reply: let us never underestimate the power of our dreams. Let us move on, by either transforming the goals described here into realities, or by creating better and more appropriate ones.

Still, the question remains: How do we convert our aspirations and our vision of a better future into tangible results?

Within the narrow scope of this paper, it will not be possible to address all the psychological and administrative requirements for the creation of a concrete and workable set of plans. However, I would like to make a couple of suggestions in relation to each major area of action proposed above. I will also address with greater detail a simple and inexpensive technical solution that, more than any other mechanism, may lead to a cost effective “flow of information without borders.”

Let us review each major point of the proposed agenda and consider some of the options to consider in implementing it.

Needs Assessment

  • Rationale

    Before making any suggestions in relation to this approach, something should be said about the reasons to carry out such effort. A careful needs assessment survey is necessary because not all the efforts that ASDAL or anyone else may pursue will be equally valuable for the SDA libraries around the world. Even the best ideas suggested from the distance may not correspond to the special situation of each institution. We need to find out what issues need to be addressed first, and what solutions will have the greatest impact.

  • Formal Survey by ASDAL

    One of the most direct and simple ways of gathering the necessary data would be for ASDAL to create a survey of needs to be sent to all libraries in SDA institutions around the world.

    A possible alternative would be for the same type of survey to be handled by the Education Department of the General Conference. This could be done in close cooperation with ASDAL.

    A third possibility would be for doctoral students to conduct such surveys in the context of the work required by a doctoral dissertation. This would involve some persuasion in relation to the student and in regards to his or her main professors.

Fund Raising

  • Creation of a grant writing kit

    In the United states there are numerous articles, documents, books, reports and various papers on how to write grants and obtain external funding. Some of these materials are suitable for international use and could be compiled into a kit for distribution to SDA colleges and hospitals overseas.

  • Search of grants and funding databases

    There are several commercial databases that provide information about sources of funding for various types of projects. Under the umbrella of ASDAL, some searches could be performed by experienced online searchers on what sources of funding are available for international projects. The results could be announced in ASDAL Action and full reports could then be sent to those who request them.

  • Coordination with other SDA agencies

    ADRA and maybe other SDA agencies may already have the expertise and the contacts to locate funds available to assist schools and hospitals in developing countries. ASDAL would benefit from coordination of efforts with such entities.

Human Communication

One of the easiest ways to increase the level of communication among SDA librarians in different countries would be for ASDAL Action to publish more news, short reports, letters, and requests for help sent by librarians outside of the United States.

Another suggestion will be described in greater detail below, in the context of the establishment of a FidoNet network of electronic bulletin boards linked to the Internet. This idea would essentially entail the exchange of electronic messages among librarians via an inexpensive world-wide network of FIDO bulletin boards.

Professional Development Outreach

One of the simplest ways of contributing to the professional development of SDA librarians all around the world would be for ASDAL Action to publish reports of events, developments and solutions that would be relevant not just for the North American institutions but also for smaller libraries in other parts of the world.

A central library of tapes, video tapes, books and journal articles that could be loaned for a couple of months at a time would be another possibility. This could benefit not only librarians outside North America, but also people in charge of academy libraries or hospital libraries and who do not have funding to attend professional meetings.

At a later stage, ASDAL could create a program for continuing education that could be offered by correspondence or distance learning and maybe through an existing educational institution.

International Consortium

This idea is essentially the possibility of adding an international dimension to the efforts for the formation of a purchasing consortium for the SDA libraries in North America. During this conference, Harvey Brenneise will certainly have the opportunity to explain some more about such a project.

Access to Technology

  • Recycling

    This idea reflects the possibility of utilizing computers that are no longer used in a particular institution and channeling them to other places or areas of the world where they can be fully utilized. Let me give you an example of what can be done. When I was leaving Loma Linda University, the School of Medicine entrusted to me three IBM PS2 color computers. I sent one to the School of Nursing at the same University, where it is used for searching the Internet. Another was sent to the School of Nursing at Pacific Union College for the same purpose. The third is being used at La Sierra University as a dedicated word processor. I believe that there are dozens of computers stored away in SDA institutions, just waiting to be discarded. These are not top of the line machines, but can be used for a variety of tasks in schools and hospitals all around the world. What we need is a well organized program to locate these unused machines, retrieve them and send them to places where they can be appreciated and used.

    The Business community is another potential source of free equipment. Some companies are willing to donate to non-profit organizations computers that they no longer need and use these donations as tax write-offs. Again, this is something that ASDAL could do to supply libraries with limited funds with fully functional computers and other office equipment.

    An additional possibility would be to find a way to negotiate quantity purchases of computers in the context of the international consortium mentioned above.

  • Access to Digital Information and Communication (FidoNet)

    The full description of FidoNet and what it can do is provided in the next section of this paper. However, the main point to make here is that there are means of establishing low cost and low maintenance methods of digital communication across international borders. With computers no longer used for more sophisticated uses, it is possible to set up electronic bulletin boards that, once linked to existing international networks, can be used to exchange messages and data files.


What is FidoNet and how does it work? FidoNet is a point-to-point and store-and-forward network of electronic bulletin boards (BBS) or nodes. Each one of these nodes requires only a microcomputer, even an obsolete one, a modem, an inexpensive BBS software package, and access to regular telephone lines for communication with other nodes.

FidoNet was developed in 1984, and it has more than 10,000 nodes worldwide. Although originally based on MS-DOS hosts, it has been ported to environments ranging from UNIX to Macintosh.

Like the Internet, FidoNet has its own addressing system. It is numeric with a bit of punctuation, and specifies a particular node in the administrative hierarchy. Addresses are of the form zone:net/node where zone is one of the six continents (North America, Europe, Oceania, Asia, or Africa), net is the city, and node is the particular host within the local network. For example, 1:105/6 is host number six within the Portland Oregon US local network (net 105) which is in North America (zone 1).

Local, regional, national, and continental coordinators exchange data between themselves and maintain this world-wide system in a current and functional manner.

Of particular interest to librarians in isolated locations, is the fact that there are gateways from FidoNet to the Internet. Indeed, Internet users can send messages to FidoNet users and vice-versa. The FidoNet domain name within the Internet system is

Currently, there are FidoNet nodes in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

FidoNet has been enthusiastically supported in many developing nations because of the low cost of starting and maintaining a node. However, computer operators in Third World countries have been interested in FidoNet for other reasons as well:

  1. FidoNet uses a technology which optimises the use of low quality phone lines. This means that this system has an appropriate standard of communications for areas with poor telecommunications infrastructure. Although there are other low-cost, easy to use DOS-based systems in the world, there is no other system that will work well on low quality phone lines.
  2. FIDO software is relatively inexpensive and often free for non-commercial use. Furthermore, FIDO is easy to install, use and fine tune for specific conditions.
  3. FIDO software runs on obsolete and low-cost computers from IBM PC XT to Macintosh Classic.
  4. The FidoNet message format is such that information can move between this network and the Internet.
  5. A FidoNet node can be operated with a 2400 baud modem. With file compression, it is possible to send or receive about 40,000 characters (about 6,500 words) during a one-minute call. This means that sending an electronic message costs between 1% and 10% of the equivalent fax transmission cost, depending on the speed of the modem and the size of the message.

With FidoNet, the possibility of exchanging electronic messages among nodes and to or from the Internet is quite obvious. However, there is a more exciting and promising possibility made possible by this system: the capability of exchanging data files.

Would such potential make a difference? Yes, it would. Let us review a possible revolutionary scenario that FidoNet could bring about.

The librarian or the person in charge of the library in the hospital at Malamulo in Malawi, is asked to find some information about a surgical procedure. He or she cannot find anything relevant in the local library. So, this member of the staff writes a message with the request from the physician and sends it via FidoNet to Loma Linda University. At this university another librarian receives the message about one day later, performs a Medline search, retrieves three highly relevant articles and scans them, recording the text in the form of computer files. Then, he or she attaches the files to a message and sends them to the FidoNet node in Malamulo, Malawi. In 24 hours, going through the Internet and a dozen FidoNet nodes, the articles will reach the destination in time to make a critical difference for the surgeon who wants them and the patient who awaits the surgery.

A student at Solusi College in Zimbabwe could use the same method to request an ERIC search and several articles from Andrews University.

With low or non-existing budgets, FidoNet may be the closest thing to the “Great Equalizer” that the ASDAL President is hoping to implement.

Is the flow of online searches and of scanned documents that simple and that easy to implement? Well, the answer is yes and no.

From the technical viewpoint, the solution is simple and inexpensive. However, there are at least two major types of obstacles to face before such exchange can be fully implemented.

The first challenge is the legal one. Some work has to be done to define the legal parameters of this international arrangement. For example: proper procedures to handle copyright issues have to be defined and set in place.

The other major barrier is the financial one. Let us suppose that next year the average interlibrary loan charge for a journal article is $10.00. Would a student in Africa be able to afford that amount? Certainly not. Would the university libraries of Andrews, Loma Linda, or La Sierra be able to send all the articles requested free of charge? No, it is not likely. However, with good will and good planning a workable solution could be found.

I suggest at least one possible way of creating a feasible formula. Let us suppose that two libraries accept to become the main lenders for this international program. Andrews University would provide articles in all areas except health sciences and Loma Linda University would supply the medical or health related requests. Instead of $10.00, they would agree to charge only $6.00 per article. Then, out of the $6.00 dollars, the student or requester would pay $1.00, the borrowing institution would pay another dollar and the remaining $4.00 would be charged to the World Division from where the requests originated, or even by some entity at the General Conference. The Department of Education could be a possible source.

In order to make the deal more appealing to the lending libraries, the World Divisions accepting this program would pay a certain amount upfront: let us say, $2,000.00 per year. This amount could be used by the lending libraries to purchase equipment that they need. At the end of the year, the World Divisions would pay the balance due and would settle the accounts with the borrowing institutions within their territories. This is not a miraculous solution but it may be a fair way of dividing the burden of the financial cost among all the parties involved.

A FidoNet network when supported by interlibrary loan and financial agreements such as the ones mentioned above could come very close to being the “Great Equalizer” that the current ASDAL leadership would like to see in place.

Having discussed what ASDAL and SDA librarians in developed countries can do to help denominational institutions in developing nations, I would like to mention briefly another source of help: national and regional networks of libraries. At the present time, even in very poor countries, there are efforts under way to promote the cooperation among different libraries. Rather than remaining isolated from national efforts for interaction and collaboration, SDA libraries and librarians in each country should participate as much as possible in whatever structures are being created at national or regional level. Even in cases when the resources to be shared are very limited, it will be worthwhile to take part in such efforts.


Could we assist schools and hospitals in developing nations to gain better access to information? Or is this an impossible dream? I suggest that the scenario described above can be implemented in spite of the obstacles and challenges involved.

I believe that the most important obstacle to implement the solutions I propose or similar plans that other colleagues may formulate, is the conviction that all of us are too busy and too overworked to be able to tackle such a huge task.

I would like to reply to this objection. My contention is that in every professional area, people have time to do what is important to them. Therefore, the issue of lack of time may be more accurately described as a matter of priorities.

I do not suggest that each librarian should neglect his or her current responsibilities and dedicate most of the working hours to help libraries in developing nations access information. However, I do believe that between the extremes of doing nothing and spending full time working on these international issues, there is a middle of the road approach that all of us should seek.

What we need is a global view of librarianship and a renewed commitment to the World Church we all belong to. If we integrate our faith and our professional values, we will have a different perspective of our roles as Christians and as librarians. We will look at our colleagues who face greater problems with loving care and with a determination to help them in every way we can.

Where are we going to get the strength and the energy to handle the huge task ahead? I suggest that if we consider our profession to be a labor of love, we will have the motivation to carry us forward, even while juggling multiple tasks and a variety of responsibilities.

In closing, I would like to share with all of you a true story that shows what the labor of love of one single person can do to change the world.

In one of the presentations I attended at the latest ACRL conference in Pittsburgh, Dr. Nelson Valdez, from the Latin American Institute, described the growth of Internet use in Latin America. However, he acknowledged that Cuba, the country he was studying more closely, was not connected to the Internet at the time he began his research.

His account of the situation contained a dramatic and very personal twist. Indeed, the lack of an electronic communications link between Cuba and the United States became a critical matter to him when he married a Cuban lady. Due to a variety of bureaucratic problems, he was unable to bring his spouse to America.

Trying to make the best of a bad situation, he arranged his professional life in such a way that he could spend six months per year doing research in Cuba. However, for the remaining part of the year he had to be in the United States.

While on North American soil, communicating with his wife was a very difficult task. During the time he was away from her, he wished that an Internet connection could be established between the two countries.

That was an impossible dream. The Cuban government feared the influence that such a communications link could have in Cuba. To make things even more complicated, the State Department, in its effort to continue the isolation of the Castro regime, was doing everything possible to prevent the linking of Cuba to the Internet.

Dr. Valdez was not about to give up. His motivation was greater and stronger than the obstacles he faced. He was able to piece together an international organization based in Canada. The purpose of this entity was to create a computer connection between Cuba and the rest of the world. In time, he achieved his goal.

At the present time, there is an Internet host in Canada that functions as an e-mail server for Cuba. That machine collects messages from all around the world which are addressed to Cuba. Including among these, are the love letters Dr. Valdez writes to his wife. Every night, that server calls another machine in Cuba using regular telephone lines. A connection between the two computers is established and dozens or hundreds of pieces of electronic mail are exchanged. Among the ones received from Cuba are the messages Mrs. Valdez sends to her husband.

Something that a couple of years ago or so was an impossible dream, became a reality due to the motivation of one man, a motivation inspired and nurtured by love.

The solutions proposed in this paper are not more difficult to implement or more challenging than the project tackled by Dr. Valdez.

We may not have the romantic reasons that inspired him. However, we have powerful ideals and a strong commitment to service. We love our profession, our Church, and our colleagues in different parts of the world. As sensitive human beings we cannot ignore the difficulties of many people in the developing countries. It is time to transform our compassion into action. When we do so, we will open the way for the triumph of faith, love, and hope in our lives and in our professional accomplishments. More than that, we will be able to look back and realize that our talents and our efforts were utilized to make a difference and to create a better world.


1. W. Wayt Gibbs. “SCIENCE AND THE CITIZEN–Information Have-Nots” Scientific American 272 (May 1995): 12B, 14.

2. Ibid. p. 12B.

Gilberto Abella is Chair, Department of Public Services, La Sierra University Library, and coordinator of electronic systems. 

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