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From Gutenberg to the Global Information Infrastructure: Access to Information in the Networked World

Author: Christine L. Borgman
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000
Review Published: August 2005

 REVIEW 1: Bill Herman

In From Gutenberg to the Global Information Infrastructure: Access to Information in the Networked World, Christine L. Borgman provides a useful and interesting discussion of how librarians can best cope with and contribute to the growth of networked computing technology. While I had hoped for a broader discussion of the relationship between networking technology and society generally, her book is worthwhile for those who are interested in the scholarly or professional production and dissemination of knowledge.

I will start with a disclaimer: the book was first published in 2000. It is unusual to review a book that is over five years old, but I am happy to take on this unique challenge because instead of asking about its currency, I can better evaluate whether the book is standing the test of time. Despite my reservations and a few spots of dated discussion, From Gutenberg to the Global Information Infrastructure is still a valuable resource. I will first review the book's topical coverage; since Borgman does a fine job considering that which she covers, this summary will also contain my discussion of the book's strengths. Then, I will offer some criticisms; one is stylistic and two suggest neglected topics that could have made Borgman's book stronger.

From Gutenberg to the Global Information Infrastructure opens with an interesting discussion of the social context and impact of networking technology. Taking the ever-reasonable middle ground between technological determinism and social shaping, she deftly discusses the co-evolution of computing technology and human behavior. This trope continues throughout, and the vivid examples of co-evolution are a real strength. Because she covers many of the most important concepts in theories of technology (including "push" vs. "pull" technologies, adoption and adaptation, and theories of infrastructure), the chapter is accessible and useful to a broad audience. Here and throughout, she also provides good historic detail, from the development of the ARPANET (pp. 12-13) to the development of national and international policymaking goals (pp. 22-26). Chapter 2 is a summary of and contribution to the information studies debate about what constitutes a digital library; while this chapter may be the least interesting to a general audience, it is thorough and thoughtful.

Borgman's discussion of the problems of librarians in the age of networked computers begins in earnest with Chapter 3, which examines real problems of access and their potential solutions. I particularly enjoyed her discussion of the functions of metadata, which (perhaps regrettably) is also spread throughout the rest of the book. Chapter 4 considers the authoring, publishing, and circulation of scholarly works. For those both new to and familiar with the economic and political problems of academic publishing, this chapter provides an insightful discussion. Borgman voices a shared concern that libraries are unable to afford the increasing number of scholarly journals at increasing prices. She correctly identifies several causes, including: professional publishing pressures, the commodification of information enforced by copyright law, and readers' desire for credible information. She acknowledges the growth of electronic publishing, but she voices skepticism that it can truly solve the problem. To date, her skeptical predictions have unfortunately proven true. Yet she also provides enough detail that those who advocate electronic publishing learn more about how to get there.

Chapters 5 and 6 discuss the problems of designing user-friendly digital libraries and suggest some useful solutions, respectively. Borgman concisely repackages some of her previous work, including two case studies; I found the study on elementary students studying science (pp. 127-129) to be especially thought provoking. Chapter 4 left me concerned that Borgman would not discuss real use patterns by researchers in generalized library circumstances, but Chapter 5 did just that with enough detail to assuage my concerns.

Chapter 7, "Whither, or Wither, Libraries?" provides a passionate defense of the need for professional librarians despite the explosion of content on the free Internet. See below for an important critique of this chapter, but Borgman eloquently defends her profession's relevance. Of course, as an academic, I already agreed that libraries and free access to information are undervalued and worthy of vigorous defense. To her credit, she does so in a broader discussion of social values, acknowledging genuine tradeoffs in capital and in copyright industries' ability to exploit their products.

Chapter 8 takes some of the insights of the book into the future with a broad vision for "a global digital library" (209) implementing "common standards for representing text, images, sound, languages, etc." (213). Borgman hopes to give the world's people the ability to learn and publish with minimal effort. Before concluding the book's themes, Chapter 9 introduces a discussion of scaling networking technologies and porting them internationally despite economic and cultural barriers. To illustrate the attendant challenges, Borgman reviews some of her previous work on the adoption of networking technologies in former Soviet bloc countries (pp. 244-263). This discussion highlights the challenges of international and intercultural adoption of communication technologies amidst economic and political obstacles.

While the book is eloquent, detailed, and useful, it does have a few notable weaknesses. First, the introduction does little to inform the reader about the purpose of the book: theorizing the role of libraries in the age of networked computing. The title implies a tome about the social context and impact of networking technology generally, and the introduction cements this impression, but for the most part the book is of the librarians, and for librarians. Libraries are a vital part of access to information, but they are just one piece of a very large puzzle. The introduction should better prepare diverse readers for the book's contents. Additionally, an explicit statement of the book's focus on those who oversee, fund, regulate, and use libraries might have better enabled Borgman to connect her thoughtful, interdisciplinary introduction to the book's mission.

Additionally, From Gutenberg to the Global Information Infrastructure does too little to help practitioners adapt to the general-purpose computing skills of library users. Chapter 4, "Books, Bytes, and Behavior," begins to address this issue, yet Borgman explicitly limits almost all of her empirical examples to scholarly communication (96). Scholarly use of the Internet is a small sliver of total bandwidth -- especially, I suspect, in students' homes. Non-scholarly interfaces such as search portals, instant messaging programs, message boards, and blogs are undoubtedly shaping the use patterns and expectations of users -- even those of us who first used the Internet for "serious" purposes in collegiate environs. Chapters 5 and 6 provide a thoughtful discussion of some of the problems and solutions of designing user-friendly computer interfaces for patrons, but they never delve into the shifting challenges that result from increasing general-purpose computer skills among patrons -- not even to map out an agenda for future research. Borgman suggests "that the design of digital libraries should be based more on the needs of novices in a field than on the needs of experts" (114). As a subset of that commendable credo, digital librarians should adapt to the computing skills and habits of the novices in their target populations.

Borgman also could have spent more ink on the relationship between librarian-designed and general-purpose Internet resources. Some students are shocked that Google is not always the best research tool for the job; the book does not discuss how to shatter this expectation or cash in on these users' residual search skills. Even serious scholars often use Amazon to locate and evaluate books; Borgman mentions one of its greatest strengths, collaborative filtering (105), but does not hint whether libraries should emulate this trend or leave it up to the private sector. This could be due to her implicit fear about continuing public policy support for librarians in light of the free web. Chapter 7 largely dismisses the adequacy of the broader Internet in meeting specialized research, but the free Internet is often better for other research goals. For instance, Borgman barely mentions the promise that decentralized individuals "can create new resources for others to use" (240). Especially in light of more recent developments -- consider, for example, the Wikipedia (wikipedia.org), founded in 2001 -- but still a valid critique when the book was written, From Gutenberg to the Global Information Infrastructure does too little generally to address the real promise of the general-purpose Internet. The book misses the chance to help us decide how best to integrate these two sets of bountiful information resources.

Before I began reading, I hoped that From Gutenberg to the Global Information Infrastructure would throw down the information-age gauntlet and make bold claims about and prescriptions for the future of networking technology. Instead, it is a sensible discussion of more limited scope but of real value to librarians and to those of who depend upon and advocate for libraries. Borgman's very respectable book takes information studies online with painstaking research, vivid detail, and accessible eloquence; anybody who cares about the future of libraries should give it a look. If one is looking for a far-reaching theory of the interaction between networking technology and society, however, From Gutenberg to the Global Information Infrastructure may not reach far enough.

Bill Herman:
Bill Herman is a Ph.D. candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania. His scholarship focuses on media policy, especially copyright law. He has also written about music cultures such as electronic music DJs and Grateful Dead bootleggers, and he is developing work on media industries and the Internet.  <bherman@asc.upenn.edu>

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