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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: September 2005

 REVIEW 1: Hang Ryeol Na

Upon reading the book thoroughly, my first reaction was to rethink over its title, From Gutenberg to the Global Information Infrastructure (GII), and the subtitle, Access to Information in the Networked World. Anybody would guess that the book covers the age between the 15th century of Gutenberg and the 21st of GII, but there is little story until the 1990s. In terms of chronology, author Christine Borgman touches the post-1990s including the vague future. Also, the subtitle seems to deal with both access and network, but the book consistently puts its priority on the issue of access. In this sense, I think the title of this book does not so closely correspond to its contents and is somewhat lacking in balance.

One more thing that needs to be clarified before going into the main body is that the book is published in MIT Press's series on Digital Libraries and Electronic Publishing. Without knowing this, you might wonder why it is so devoted to explaining all the details about a digital library. For example, the logical linkage from Chapter 1 on GII to Chapter 2 on a digital library might not look so tight, which means that the reason why digital libraries are explained after GII is not clearly shown. If you are aware that the book is under the series about digital libraries, however, it will help you understand a larger context in which it is located.

Taken as a whole, the overall essence of the book could be summarized like this: Given that the GII presents a wealth of opportunities for providing information resources to people around the world, the author poses the construct of a global digital library (GDL) as a way of access to information in internationally distributed computer networks, with in-depth examinations of technical, social, and policy challenges. In an effort to stimulate discussion rather than offer answers, she provides a holistic approach to the issues by mobilizing ample academic disciplines such as computer, information and library science, sociology, political science, economics, public policy, etc. As the bibliographic references alone are forty-pages long, it contains a variety of citations, concept definitions, literature reviews, empirical research, etc.

In her first two chapters, Borgman set the basic scope of the book with two major topics -- GII and digital library. In the first chapter, introducing the premise and the promise of a GII, she tries to determine what is meant by it. Starting from traditional definitions of infrastructure, the author views GII as a public policy, a technical framework, technology, people, content, and so on. Despite such a lengthy description, GII is still not clearly defined, and the chapter vainly ends up with saying it is a means for access to information through the odd metaphor of the elephant being examined by a group of blind people (30). While her own metaphor of the elephant does not seem so relevant to its surrounding context, the author is scathing about another metaphor for information infrastructure -- the "information superhighway." For example, she remarks, the highway metaphor captures only a narrow sense of infrastructure and is misleading because it skews public understanding toward a low-level infrastructure (22). Such a critical view, however, could be balanced by others scholars who researched the same metaphor. For example, Herbert Kubicek and William H. Dutton explain that the metaphor evoked a powerful image, which crystallized many issues surrounding telecommunications infrastructures into a simple concept that could be readily understood by non-specialists. According to Kubicek and Dutton, it is one of the reasons why the Clinton Administration's promotion of their information superhighway vision stimulated a broad public interest and, as a result, the subsequent growth in worldwide popularity of the Internet followed [1].

Besides, the author proposes a balanced view of co-evolution between two extreme perspectives towards embracing the changes caused by new technologies: one is revolutionary discontinuity and the other evolutionary continuity. It is magnificent that this co-evolutionary scenario, as Borgman's chosen stance, is coherently applied to the later topics such as electronic publishing in chapter 4.

Chapter 2 closely examines the multiple meanings of the term "digital library," upon which a concept of global digital library is proposed. Borgman employs two competing perspectives, one of researchers and the other of librarians, to illuminate the definition of a digital library to impressive ends. For researchers, digital libraries are content collected and organized on behalf of user communities, while for librarians they are institutions or organizations that provide information services in digital forms. Further, GDL is proposed here as a useful construct that encompasses all the digital libraries that are connected to and accessible through a global information infrastructure. So, in Borgman's view, GDL is the component of a GII that supports access to information (49).

Chapter 3 is mostly dedicated to defining the terms, which can be ambiguous in many contexts. As the chapter title indicates, a series of definitions of terms like access, information, universal service, digital, digitized, and metadata, despite their profundity, is loyal to only half of the book's subtitle, access to information, which the author defines as a goal of a GII. In the wide range of societal, behavioral, technical, and legal factors that can influence access to information, Borgman enduringly shows that access to information is a rich concept that incorporates a host of many academic disciplines. Her great efforts for exploring the definitions, however, stop here in this chapter -- so, for the rest of the book's subtitle, the networked world, chapters 1 and 9 on a GII should be revisited.

Chapters 4 & 5, in brief, can be interpreted as a supply - demand model. The former chapter addresses the issues in the information life cycle and the evolution of publishing, technology, and institutions, which are, I interpret, on the supply side of information. On the other hand, the latter chapter, on the demand side for information, discusses the criteria for designing information systems for usability, problem-solving behavior as search for information, and so on. Here, a careful look at the subject of who in two different situations may be interesting. To the question who supplies information? Borgman focuses on scholars by saying that scholars are a rich source of material, that a considerable amount of knowledge exists about how scholars create, and that they have the longest history of usage (95-96). To the contrary, regarding who demands information, she concentrates on novices, or every citizen, by mentioning that digital libraries are designed for more general audiences, that novices often are stymied by unsuccessful searches, and that novices will not tolerate poor design in digital libraries (140-141). Because ordinary citizens, compared with the scholars, are poorly described as not so information productive, nor so familiar with information search, I am afraid that this part can be seen as a kind of aristocratism in a negative sense.

If chapters 4 & 5 are to be seen as a supply - demand chain, then chapter 6 can be regarded as a story of making a marketplace as convenient as possible. This chapter outlines a research agenda for making the next generation of digital libraries better suited to people’s information-related behaviors, and thus easier to use. Based on research findings, four trends in digital library design are attractively displayed: 1) from metadata to data, 2) from independent to linked systems, 3) from searching to navigation, and 4) from individual to group processes. Considering that the objective of this chapter is ultimately to provide lessons for the future of a GDL, I wonder why the author did not quote from very similar projects like "Electronic Libraries: Bibliotheca Universalis," whose results were officially reported in August 1999 [2]. "Electronic Libraries," one of the eleven G8 Global Information Society Pilot Projects -- with aims of making major works of the world's scientific and cultural heritage accessible to a vast public via multimedia technologies and of exploiting the existing digitization programs to build up a large distributed virtual collection of knowledge and make it available via the global communication networks -- succeeded in leading the partners to draft an international agreement for the period 1999-2001 and to continue on standards and systems interoperability.

Having its feet on the ground of the present, chapter 7 looks forward to the future. First, it assesses the role of libraries as institutions on the threshold of the 21st century. For example, as the traditional ways of creating, searching, or using information are adapted for a digital environment, it shows how the existing roles of a library in a society for promoting learning, ensuring an informed citizenry, etc. are being questioned. At the same time, confining the real issues for future libraries to how best to provide access to information in a networked world, not a choice of libraries or computer networks, Borgman identifies the challenges in rethinking libraries in a digital age such as the invisibility of infrastructure, the changing nature of collections, etc. Chapter 7 covers both contemporary analyses and future approaches with a lot of issues from library principles and practices to library categories, which is why Michael Day from the University of Bath, another reviewer of the same book, pays more compliments to this chapter in particular [3].

How to globalize a local digital library is a key concern of chapters 8 and 9. In terms of systems, interoperability, portability, data exchange, and implementing standards are highlighted. Moreover, for the language factor, Borgman discusses multilingual information access, character encoding, universal character sets, and transliteration. Chapter 8 mainly lists the action items for each individual local society or community with some accompanying points in a global context, while chapter 9 seems to approach the same issue from the perspective of an international or global society. That is, what chapter 9 suggests require policy coordination among the countries on a more macro level. Transformation of today's Internet into a GII is a typical example in this regard. Although research is needed to scale up the Internet to a GII that can support a wide variety of applications and services for the entire world at higher speeds, it is governments after all who should construct architectural frameworks to make all the networks function as a whole at the national and international levels. This process for a GII, of course, involves a complex mix of top-down and bottom-up efforts, national and international management, competition, and cooperation (229-230).

Here, as in chapter 1, the need for an exact definition of a GII arises again. Scaling up the Internet to a GII can be a complete disaster, depending on how a GII is defined. For example, Asia Pacific Information Infrastructure (APII), an APEC initiative rooted in a GII, has been being constructed, operated, and managed since its inception almost fully by governmental funding, separately from Internet. On the contrary, the Internet is driven by free market forces, which is out of governmental power. Thus, in the context of APII, it is not feasible at all to develop APII by expanding the Internet, and there is no proven guarantee in this book or elsewhere that a GII is funded by the private sector or that it contains Internet as a part.

A case study on Central and Eastern Europe in chapter 9 is a great addition, and it incorporates information infrastructure development in the region after the end of the cold war. But for the story of US libraries and UK’s JANET in the case study (259-260), some additional explanation might be needed. Borgman explains that the UK took a different approach from the US in that the UK mounted databases on JANET, while US libraries mounted them on local networks. In fact, however, US also operates its own academic network called Internet2 Abilene, equivalent to JANET, and there have been a lot of applications about a digital library on it [4].

Throughout the book, the author kindly includes summaries and conclusions at the end of each chapter. Only a review of them and the preface will provide the reader with extensive and substantial knowledge, especially a broad perspective of how one library affects the GII and vice versa. From Gutenberg to the Global Information Infrastructure is ideally suited to anyone who is interested in the development of digital libraries and a GII. It is a must-read, especially for graduate students, librarians, practitioners or researchers of information and library science, and those in public policy. The book is one of the winners of the American Society for Information Science and Technology's 2001 Best Book Award.

[1] Herbert Kubicek and William H. Dutton, "The Social Shaping of Information Superhighways: An Introduction," in The Social Shaping of Information Superhighways: European and American Roads to the Information Society, eds. Herbert Kubicek, William H. Dutton, and Robin Williams, 11. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.

[2] "Final report on the G8 Global Information Society Pilot Projects." http://europa.eu.int/ISPO/intcoop/g8/i_g8conference.html.

[3] Michael Day, "From Gutenberg to the global information infrastructure -- book review," Ariadne, Issue 27, http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue27/review/.

[4] Michael A. McRobbie, "The Library and Education: Integrating Information Landscapes." See also, http://www.internet2.edu.

Hang Ryeol Na:
Hang Ryeol Na is a senior researcher of APII Cooperation Center, Korea Information Strategy Development Institute (KISDI). His research area focuses on international relations in ICT, especially advanced networks, for public policy making. He is also interested in Internet governance, international development using ICT, and so on.  <john@kisdi.re.kr>

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