Women Map the World: The Making of a Database

by Tilly Vriend

"What's in it for me?" said a woman from Mali when I asked her to register her organization for the Mapping the World database. Before I had a chance to answer, a woman from Angola responded, "Everything! In that database you can find women's information on every subject, in every country; you can contact colleagues around the world... And what's more, people will be able to find your organization!"

Little did we know what the impact would be when the IIAV started to develop a database of women's information services in 1997.

This article offers an overview of the history and development of Mapping the World: A Database of Women's Information Services Around the World, which is one of the databases of the International Information Centre and Archives for the Women's Movement (Internationaal Informatiecentrum en Archief voor de Vrouwenbeweging, or IIAV) in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.1


The idea for Mapping the World was first voiced in the summer of 1997, during preparations for the 1998 Know-How Conference on the World of Women's Information.2 The organizing committee was discussing the aim of the conference (to improve the accessibility and visibility of women's information) and the best ways to achieve it. Ansje Roepman,3 the IIAV Public Relations Manager at the time, exclaimed: "Since we are inviting all women's information services to come to Amsterdam to participate in the conference, why don't we bring them all together in an inventory as well? Imagine the rich source of women's information this would be!"

Reactions varied from "You must be out of your mind!" and "That is impossible!" to "What a great idea--how?" And so the project was born.

The IIAV decided to create a Web-based database, as well as a book, that would contain information on women's information services worldwide and their collections. We aimed to include at least one information center in every country and to present the database at the Know- How Conference. We had not only to collect all the information from the women's information centers around the world, but also to develop criteria for inclusion, build a database, and create a questionnaire. Funds had to be raised. And, last but not least, the data would have to be processed. Nevertheless, the database was operational in less than a year.

Criteria for Inclusion

Women have collected and disseminated information for many years, but it is only in the twentieth century that centers have been set up for the specific purpose of collecting and documenting what has come to be known as women's information, which covers a wide spectrum of material, including cultural, political, and educational data.

We defined "women's information services" to include international, national, and local services, women's documentation and research centers connected to universities, gender-specific information sections connected to NGOs, and organizations and resource centers in which women's information is collected in addition to information on other subjects. For countries in which the development of such information is in its early stages, where democracy is newly established, or where war has destabilized development, focal points for the distribution of women's information are included.

Worldwide Purpose

The Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995, had identified the need for information specific to women and established that gender-disaggregated data and statistics are required for effective policy decisions. Every country that endorsed the Platform for Action had agreed, in doing so, to support, consult, and provide women-specific information. That had provided a context in which not only would women and women's organizations profit from the Mapping the World database, but policymakers, decisionmakers, the media, and general information services would also be able to find information and services. The intent of the project was stated as follows:

to provide ongoing, long-term access to women's information centers in all countries and all significant communities, including indigenous communities and migrant communities. The database [will] contain information on a wide range of women's information services, including details on the collections they hold.

Collecting the Data

A questionnaire was sent to all potential participants, together with a letter of invitation to the Know-How Conference. Whenever possible we used email to contact the centers, but in many cases we had to use ordinary mail, fax, or phone. From then on, it was a question of waiting in anticipation and perseverance. We often wondered if our idea was going to work out as we had planned. It took weeks before the first questionnaires came in, and many of those lacked vital information. Sometimes there was no reaction at all. Finally, in the last few months preceding the conference, the forms started to arrive in quantity. It was a great time for stamp collectors: letters from all over the word filled our mailbox. The phone was buzzing constantly and the emails came in by the dozen. We raced against the clock to enter as many centers as possible.

Unveiling of the Database

In August 1998, Mapping the World: A Database of Women's Information Services was presented to the participants of the Know-How Conference. It was a tremendous success. By then the database contained information on 162 centers representing 78 countries, varying from large national women's libraries to small grassroots centers. For the first time in history it was possible to search by name, type of organization, country, subject, and keyword (terms from the European Women's Thesaurus)4 and to find details of collections, availability of materials, Website and postal addresses, activities of the centers, indexing and classification systems, and services provided.

But we also wanted to provide the information in book form, particularly for those who did not have access to the Internet. We were therefore very pleased when our colleagues of the Royal Tropical Institute proposed working with us on a book. In May 1999 it was published.5 Not only is it a printed version of the database; it also contains essays on international women's information networks in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific and women's groups and networks in Central and Eastern Europe and the Newly Independent States.

Mapping into the Future

As this article goes to press, record number 342 is being added to the Mapping the World database: The Centro Documentación y estudios de la mujer (Documentation Centre for Women's Studies) in Bilbao, Spain. The database is by no means complete, though, as the number of women's information services in the world probably approaches 1000. The IIAV is still putting in every effort to expand the database to include at least one center per country, and we will continue to do so until all countries are represented.

Some parts of the world were well represented from the beginning--for instance, Western Europe and the United States. But in 1998, many countries in Africa, Asia, and South America were still missing. In December 1998, UNESCO acknowledged once again the vital role of free access to (women's) information in peace processes in Africa. It provided funds to expand the number of African women's information centers in the database, as a contribution to African women in their struggle for peace and non-violence. The IIAV asked her African partners to participate in the effort. With the help of the electronic networks of GAIN (Gender in Africa Information Network) and ENDA-SYNFEV (Synergy Gender and Development, Environment and Development of the Third World), women's information services in Africa were persuaded to register for Mapping the World, and within four months, twenty-five new African centers were added.

In 1999, we focused on Central and Eastern Europe, and next in line was Latin America. This time the Latin American Information Agency collected information on twenty-five Latin American women's information centers and sent the completed forms to the IIAV for processing.

One of our original criteria for inclusion in the database was that centers have a physical collection that is available to the public. As women's information services are changing their policies concerning collecting and disseminating information, virtual libraries are coming into being, offering electronic collections and links to other Internet-based women's information services. We decided to include virtual libraries and information centers provided that they have as a priority to increase access to women's information.

At the end of 2000, the IIAV's website itself was revised, offering better search options. In 2001, we have been doing user research to find out whether the database still meets our goals. Although we mainly received positive reactions, we revised the database web interface for clarity and usability. In addition, all information in Mapping the World is being reviewed for accuracy. Although participants informed us of changes, we want to be sure that all data are correct, especially since we are working on a CD-ROM edition. At the same time, new applications of the database are being researched in cooperation with our international partners.

Mapping the World plays a key role in the international activities of the IIAV. UNESCO recently asked us to develop and publish a quick reference guide to the database for public policymakers (with no library training) working for gender equality. Among the target audience, Internet access varies widely, and users of the database in less developed countries may have slow or very costly Internet access. Quick access to the database is important.


Initially conceived as a tool for networking and cooperation between women's information specialists worldwide, Mapping the World now demonstrates the power and richness of women's collections round the world. It is the fastest way to locate women's libraries, archives, and documentation centers anywhere in the world and to find out how to use the resources of those centers. Mapping the World has indeed helped to make women's information more accessible and visible. Each day, not only women's information specialists but also policymakers, researchers, women's organizations, and the media discover the enormous potential of this database and use it in their policymaking, planning, programs, and publications.

If your women's information service is not yet represented in Mapping the World, we invite you to join us, by simply filling in the electronic form at www.iiav.nl/mapping-the-world. For more information, send email to mapping@iiav.nl.


Editor's note: Mapping the World is accessible at http://www.iiav.nl/eng/databases/databases_mapping-overzicht.html.

1. The IIAV maintains a website (which includes the database) at http://www.iiav.nl.

2. The Know-How Conference, hosted by the IIAV, took place in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, in August 1998. It was attended by 300 women's information specialists from 83 countries.

3. Sadly, Ansje Roepman, to whom I dedicate this article, died of cancer in the spring of 1999.


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Mounted November 20, 2001.

4. Marianne Boere, ed., European Women's Thesaurus: List of Controlled Terms for Indexing Information on the Position of Women and Women's Studies (Amsterdam: IIAV, 1998).

5. Minke Valk, Henk van Dam, and Sarah Cummings, eds., Women's Information Services and Networks: A Global Sourcebook (Amsterdam: Royal Tropical Institute, 1999).

[Tilly Vriend started working as an information specialist at the Information and Documentation Center for the Women's Movement (IDC) in 1982; the Center later merged with other organizations to become the IIAV. Since 1997 she has been involved in developing the Mapping the World database, and she currently coordinates all of the IIAV's other databases as well. She can be reached by email at vriend@iiav.nl.]