The Virtual Health Library (VHL) is a network of information management and sharing of knowledge and scientific evidence in health, which establishes itself through cooperation between institutions and professionals in the production, intermediation and use of sources of scientific information in health, in open and universal access on the Web.

Consolidated as a strategy of technical cooperation in scientific information in health in the region of Latin America and the Caribbean, and extensible to other developing regions, the VHL is promoted and coordinated by the Pan American Health Organization – World Health Organization, through the Latin American and Caribbean Center on Health Sciences Information (BIREME/PAHO/WHO).

The VHL is a result of the evolution of technical cooperation in information on health sciences run by BIREME since its creation in 1967. Initially, this model of technical cooperation was based on essential functions of a regional biomedical library, promoting the strengthening and shared use of collections and services among libraries. At the end of years 1970 this model was expanded, adding to the library the function of information and indexing center, a moment when BIREME took over the coordination of the bibliographic control of scientific and technical literature in health, published in Latin America and Caribbean (LA&C) journals. This action was crucial to start the movement of the systematic promotion of the regional and international visibility of scientific and technical production in health (LA&C).

In the late of the 80s, the functions of the bibliographic control of the scientific production and bibliographic research services began to be operated in a decentralized way under the responsibility of countries in the region, strengthening the national capacity in infrastructure and human resources for management of health information. In this period, the LILACS database started to be produced in a cooperative way, receiving contributions from all countries. The controlled vocabulary of Health Sciences Descriptors (DeCS) had its translation into Spanish and Portuguese, and expansion with new categories, and it was also adopted in indexing and multi-lingual search of the scientific and technical literature of LA&C and international. The cooperative operation of the bibliographic control as well as other products and services of the technical cooperation was conducted by means of the Latin American and Caribbean System on Health Sciences Information, coordinated by BIREME and shaped by national systems which were set up using a network of libraries and documentation centers.

From the years 1990 the model of information management and knowledge sharing in health converged to the new paradigm of the Internet as a mean of production of sources and flows of scientific and technical information where an intensive process of disintermediation and direct operation of the online information sources by users prevails. The VHL is then launched in 1998 at the IV Regional Congress on Health Sciences Information (CRICS4) held in San Jose, Costa Rica through the Declaration of Costa Rica “Hacia la Biblioteca Virtual en Salud”.

The evolution in the technical cooperation in health information of PAHO/WHO through BIREME represented a gradual process of assimilation of new paradigms, without any break with the models previously used. The successive information management and scientific communication models have always been oriented to the promotion of the cooperative work and in network which is the common point present in all these models.

With the construction of the VHL, also in a cooperative way and in network, the development of capacities and infrastructures to facilitate wide access to information for health are graduall strengthened.

After 12 years of having been launched, all the countries of Latin America and Caribbean contribute or use, directly or indirectly the cooperative products and services promoted through VHL. Its network is formed by more than two thousand institutions distributed in 30 countries, including countries of the southern hemisphere, of other regions of the world, which are also adopting the model.

As principles, the VHL seeks equity in access to information in health; the promotion of alliances and consortia to maximize the shared use of resources; the promotion of cooperative work and exchange of experiences; its decentralized development and operation at all levels; the development based on local conditions; and the establishment and application of integrated mechanisms for assessment and quality control.

Among the advances in the processes of information management nationwide stand out: the adoption of VHL as an element of public policies on health information; the investments in improvement of the information infrastructure as the increase of connectivity and expansion of the Internet access; the continuous training of human resources in technology and methodology related to the VHL; the collaborative development of sources of information and knowledge sharing through collaborative spaces.

The VHL, as strategy, model and operational framework of technical cooperation represents notable innovation in information management, knowledge and scientific evidence to the strengthening of the processes of formulation and decision making on policies, planning, management, research, education, services and health care, introduced according to the social, economic and cultural conditions of the region.