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Knowledge Platform

Over 40 years, Bireme has advanced from medical library to benchmark reference in the field of scientific information management

Bireme, the Latin-American and Caribbean Center on Health Sciences Information has been called to lend its expertise in the management and conveyance of scientific knowledge in a number of new initiatives. In 2006, the World Health Organization (WHO) delegated to the center the tasks of developing the technological platform for the Global Health Library (GHL), a world library containing health information sources. Bireme was also involved in the management and running of TropIKA – Tropical Disease Research to Foster Innovation & Knowledge Application, an interactive portal in the field of infectious and parasitical diseases, in conjunction with the WHO Tropical Diseases Research Program, which has the support of institutions such Unicef and the World Bank. Additionally, it was invited to provide technical cooperation for the creation of Rede ePORTUGUÊSe, a Network of Information Sources and Knowledge about Health for Portuguese Language Countries, led by WHO; one of this network’s chief lines of action is to adopt and implement a Virtual Library on Health in Portuguese speaking countries.

Today, major cooperative information networks that provide support for research and innovation in the continent are linked to Bireme, such as the Scientific Electronic Library Online (SciELO), the Virtual Library on Health (BVS) or the International Network of Information and Knowledge Sources for Science, Technology and Innovation Management (ScienTI).

SciELO, which was set up ten years ago through a partnership between FAPESP and CNPq (the National Scientific and Technological Development Council), freely offers on the web over 130,000 articles from 452 certified periodicals. It is expected to reach  more than 10 million page-views a month by the end of the year. It currently houses ten collections in eight countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Portugal, Spain and Venezuela), besides two themed collections in the fields of public health and social sciences. Databases for collections from Costa Rica, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay are currently being developed.

As for the ScienTI network, whose starting point was the CNPq’s Lattes Platform, it is formed by the national Science and Technology Councils in Latin America, that provide, in national directories, researchers’ CVs and data about research groups. With interfaces in Spanish, English and Portuguese, BVS is jointly developed by Latin American and Caribbean countries, Portugal and Spain and it operates online with more than 15 million metadata registries (data about the origin, flow or format of bibliographies), linked to the international literature bases on health sciences, such as the Latin-American Lilacs, and the American Medline and Cochrane Library, besides SciELO.

“Bireme is essential for the progress of information management and scientific knowledge in Brazil, Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as for international cooperation, particularly south-south cooperation”, says Diego Victoria, the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) representative in Brazil. In addition to organizing and managing this volume of information, Bireme took on, quite a while back, the task of establishing standards in Latin American and the Caribbean regarding the structure of registers and texts, so as to ensure that its databases can function on a global level. “As a recent example of this, Bireme communicated this year to all the scientific editors that the approval of manuscripts about clinical trials by the journals indexed in the Lilacs and SciELO basis will require the trial’s registration number, in accordance with WHO rules”, explains Bireme director Abel Packer.

Nevertheless, it is curious that the center, which has now become an instrument for affirming Latin American science, should have been created under strong American influence. In the mid 20th century, WHO launched the idea of distributing medical libraries in each region of the planet. However, only PAHO went ahead with the concept, while relying for inspiration on the US model, based on regional libraries tied  to a national library. “Bireme managed to advance way beyond the initial concept, to become a model of innovation and collaboration” stated WHO director-general, Margaret Chan, in her statement about Bireme’s 40th anniversary.

No walls
The article “A library with no walls: the history of Bireme’s creation”, published in 2006 in the journal História, Ciências, Saúde-Manguinhos, whose main author is historian Márcia Regina Barros da Silva, revisits this path. In April 1965, two American librarians were hired as consultants to PAHO, which was headquartered in Washington, in order to choose the country where the regional library should be set up.  The choice of Brazil was due, on one hand, to Brazilian researchers’ active involvement with PAHO and with the debates about the  establishment of the library.

Once the country had been defined, the next choice befell the Paulista Medical School (EPM – Escola Paulista de Medicina), now part of the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp), in the São Paulo state capital. The element that carried considerable weight and favored the school was the strong lobbying at PAHO undertaken by EPM professors Magid Iunes and Antônio de Mattos Paiva. Another important factor was the school’s new structure, in that it had come under the responsibility of the federal government, an essential condition for guaranteeing the authorities’ commitment to the project.

The creation of Bireme, it should be said, was more than justified. Almost half of the requests for scientific articles submitted to the United States National Library of Medicine (NLM) in the late 60’s came from Latin American countries. In 1972, Bireme entered the world of electronic information, thanks to the installation of an Olivetti terminal which operated through the Intersalt satellite with the NLM, via the Medline system. In 1985, Bireme became the first library to create databases on CD-Rom, anticipating an information storage trend that would become dominant. The late 80’s was significant  for the online operation of the databases, whereas the Internet was adopted in the 90’s with research interfaces in Spanish, English and Portuguese.

The launch of the SciELO project in 1997, of the ScienTI Network in 2000, and of the Cochrane Library, offering open access to all of Latin America, in 2004, completed the set of milestones. “Among the new challenges faced by Bireme I highlight the need to help transform scientific knowledge into policies and the creation of incentives for decision makers to access the body of knowledge more systematically,” said Reinaldo Guimarães, the Ministry of Health’s secretary for Science, Technology and Strategic Inputs

Financed with funds from PAHO, the ministries of Health and Education, the São Paulo State Health Bureau and Unifesp, as well as from projects such as SciELO, over the course of 40 years, Bireme has maintained its character as an international center formally linked to PAHO/WHO, keeping itself far removed from political meddling and budgetary turmoil. “On the other hand, because it operates in close collaboration with Brazilian institutions, Brazil provided Bireme and its international networks with a critical mass that helps its sustainability”, says Abel Packer.