The Blue Trunk Library: another type of technological innovation

Knowing that the project you’re working will not be available to all should not stop you working on it. We know that not everyone has colour televisions, or cars, or mobile phones, but we welcome development in those areas because many do use them, and because it may have a knock-on effect for those who don’t. Still, it’s sometimes easy to get carried away with the promise of new technology, as I know only too well. The excitement of finding a new gadget, app, or the (often sudden, unexpectedly successful) bringing together of seemingly untalkative technologies can rightly put us in a zealous spin. At its base level, it finds its nadir in the growing number of videos that capture the moment of unwrapping and unboxing a new purchase. At the most sublime moments, it means directly changing people’s lives for the better, something we all wish for. It’s necessary, inevitable. It gets things done. We may want it no other way.

You’ll know, I hope, the limitations of the context in which you’re thinking of using that new technology. It’s part of understanding how innovation will be useful. Yet, sometimes we all need reminding of the other side of the coin – those that do not have access to broadband, or Web 2.0 apps, or iPads. This is especially true when we use the term ‘universal’ when thinking of the audience for our work. At the very least, it’s always timely to know how the other half live.

The Blue Trunk Library or 'Biblioteque Bleue' (take at the WHO HQ, Geneva)

The ‘Blue trunk library’ (or ‘Biblioteque bleue’) is a collection of printed documents that assist mostly medical staff (but sometimes those like you and me without medical training) to help others with health problems. It is targeted at use in health centres, especially in Africa. It contains a diverse range guidance, from how to bandage a wound to how to deliver a baby. The library weighs a huge amount, as you might imagine: yet people must, and do, carry it from town to town, sometimes for miles. It’s designed to be easy to store and to protect the books from the weather.

It is develop and distributed by the World Health Organization. You can purchase the Blue Trunk Library – it costs around $2000 US (minus shipping). This is what the official WHO website has to say on it:

The Blue Trunk Library has been developed by the library of the World Health Organization for installation in district health centres in Africa as a means of compensating for the lack of up-to-date medical and health information. The collection, which is organized according to major health subjects, contains more than one hundred books on medicine and public health. In order to make it easier to transport and store, the collection has been packed into a blue metal trunk fitted with two shelves on which the cardboard boxes containing the books are arranged.

The kind of books you find inside often contain diagrams and pictures, colour-coded to help the reader understand them as quickly as possible and without ambiguity, in an often multi-lingual environment. It has helped thousands of people and save many lives, I should think. You could also easily get all the information found in the BTL onto your smartphone.

Dr D.V. Nsue Milang, a representative of the WHO, was asked if he thought that new technologies, such as virtual libraries, internet e-access books and PDFs meant the end of the kind of books you find in the BTL. He responded:

Non, c’est bon d’avoir les nouvelles technologies qui permettent de plus en plus un accès facile à l’information sanitaire, mais le livre aura toujours son importance capitale pour plusieurs raisons dont les suivantes : tout le monde n’a pas accès à ces nouvelles technologies, surtout dans les villages africains les plus éloignés, avec le manque de connexion internet, manque d’électricité, manque d’équipement informatique; La consultation de ces informations virtuelles n’est pas facile pour tout le monde, surtout au niveau rural où les gens ne sont pas bien formés en informatique ; Le livre est un document physique que vous pouvez emprunter et consulter partout où vous êtes, à la maison, au bureau, dans une salle de consultation.

[No, it’s good to have new technologies which allow more and more simple access to information on health, but the book will always be important for the following reasons: not everyone has access to new technologies, especially in remote African villages with poor internet connectivity, without electricity, without information technology; access to virtual information isn’t easy for everyone, especially at a rural level where people aren’t familiar with this type of information. The book is a physical document that you can borrow and read wherever you are, at home, at the office, in the doctor’s consultation room. (My translation)]

It is a reminder not just in the need for  direct and unambiguous communication, suited to the context; but in the need to understand that our sometime vision of universal technology is not currently shared by all.

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