Beyond the Beginning: The Global Digital Library

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University of California, Berkeley, United States of America


This paper discusses the way in which information markets are created, the nature of digital information as intellectual property and as a commodity, and the way they shape the creation and form of information markets. The information economy emerges, as new kinds of social relations and cultural values are made possible or reinforced by information technology. These support or constrain the information market in various ways. For example, the creativity and productivity of the knowledge worker will be the key economic issue in the twenty first century, as new social relations made possible by technology change the nature of work. The productivity of the knowledge worker will be the key economic issue in the twenty-first century. The library has been the institutional boundary between academic "gift cultures" and information markets in the past. In the future, there may be a similar symbiosis between libraries and markets. The terrain on which the global digital library will operate may be in the provision of services to facilitate the use of content, which is likely to be privately owned, and as a reflexive communications channel for people with similar interests.


It is not yet possible to speak about the dynamics of the information market because it is still being invented and does not yet exist properly. We have a rôle in shaping it.

It is possible to identify several areas of leverage related to the invention of this market and two further conclusions about how the digital library might come into being. Although these comments are not comprehensive, they help define the terrain on which the global library can be built. This conference marks the beginning of making a global digital library rather than talking about it.


In his article Welcome to Cyberia (1996), the American anthropologist Arturo Escobar discusses the kind of social relationships and communities which are developing over networks. Networks are experienced as a space (Cyberspace) and as a culture (Cyberia). The information revolution brings into focus the fact that machines are becoming more intelligent — but also that we are entering into a new culture. Technologies create cultures which change our perception. Like the development of the telescope and the microscope, networks are changing our model of ourselves. The manner in which we now talk about engineering the body is remarkable. However, it may be a matter for concern that we are beginning to treat social problems as though they are medical problems. For example, the concept of "attention deficit disorder" is an attempt to medicalise resistance to education.

Network technologies do not replace the book, but offer an opportunity for new modes of discourse. The new modes of communication are fundamental and strategic. A good example is the credit card, which has in a short space of time replaced letter first letters of credit and then the traveller’s cheque. The credit card was the first digital document and illustrates the point. It created a new lifestyle and economy enabling the user to treat anywhere in the world as home. It created entirely new markets. It also created a technology of surveillance which is manifest through junk mail: someone is watching the individual’s travels, they know whether he owns a cat, or buys luggage. A profile of the individual user has been created. This makes information about his behaviour as a consumer part of a new kind of part of a market, transforming private lives into economic commodities.

In the USA, a "learning culture" is sometimes seen as delivering Baywatch into homes, confusing education and entertainment. The community represented at this conference is in competition with the private sector about who will conduct the education of the future. Organisational modes and styles will not remain unaffected while technology changes.

Focusing on the economy, the distinctive management problem of the twentieth century has been the productivity of manual labour. Peter Drucker and others have indicated that, in the next century, the issue will be what can prepare knowledge workers to be more productive. Networked society is dependent upon a capacity to generate this productivity: this is a partial definition of a "knowledge economy". An education system based upon industrial discipline is irrelevant in a knowledge economy. A passive, receptive concept of education is useful for a manufacturing economy, but dysfunctional for a knowledge economy. If machines are becoming more intelligent, perhaps we can be too. Creativity, judgement, flexibility are key requirements. Education should be seen as something you do rather than something which happens to you. The technology to support this transition is not yet ready, but it can be made so.


The rôle of the library in promoting literacy remains a core mission, but now it also has to provide a bridge to understanding lifelong learning. There are several key questions:


The economy is global. A major issue, exemplified by the concurrent EU summit in Amsterdam, is that of the rôle of national power versus the imperatives of the transnational economy. The independence of national economies is in question. The global economy is developing a capacity to work in real time on a planetary scale. We are not quite in real time yet – but the point can be foreseen at which the knowledge infrastructure could be used in real time. National information policies tend to reflect struggle for commercial advantage in the global market and to focus on copyright. The concept of information as a human right and as a means of developing human capital tends to be missing. The contradiction is that the library represents a public good, treating information as a human and civil right – as part of a "gift economy".

In fact, libraries are part of a global rush toward privatisation. Libraries may in future be privatised.


The terrain on which the global digital library will operate is not mainly to do with digitising books – books already work quite well. The current focus is on the value of content. Therefore most "wars" are about protecting value, in other words Intellectual Property Rights (IPR). The digital library may well need to focus not mainly on content, but on communication. One view, held by Esther Dyson is that information should be processed as if it were free and given away as a loss leader. The support services should be sold. As content is privatised, digital libraries will provide services such as navigation, filtering and support, training, preservation and communication, quality and format, assembly and integration of content. There may be some types of content which publishers will leave untouched, but services are a more interesting area.

Digital libraries have the capacity to shape a sense of community. They can be seen as strategic in creating new markets. Print-based libraries are defined by a sense of place and shared resources. So, too, might digital libraries. Thus far the technologies are very primitive. The global digital library will be a communications channel for people with shared interests anywhere in the world, engaging a sense of community through reading in a communications channel. Collaborative, rather than editorial, filtering will help overcome the problem of information overload. Use will be based on that made by people with similar interests. Digital documents have a reflexive quality: we as librarians can understand the nature of academic communities by studying the use of information.

[3] This account was drafted for this report by The Marc Fresko Consultancy. It is based on notes taken during the presentation and notes supplied by the speaker.

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