How have you benefited from public libraries

64th IFLA General Conference
August 16 - August 21, 1998

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Code Number: 082-78-G
Division Number: 0
Professional Group: Contributed paper session I
Joint meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 78.
Simultaneous interpretation:   Yes

To Be Or Not To Be: Public Libraries and the Global Knowledge Revolution

Qihao Miao
Shanghai Library
Shanghai, China


After a brief introduction to the concept of the global knowledge revolution and related concepts, the thesis that the national information infrastructure is too technocentric, while the new concept of a national knowledge infrastructure is more people-oriented, is presented. The current focus of the international community on the valuation of knowledge and national knowledge infrastructures offers the library community, especially public libraries, the opportunity to rediscover and expand their role in society. So far, most public libraries are not fully involved in the knowledge revolution. In order to become more active, they should assume their role as providers of knowledge by serving as an interface between knowledge and people, organizing knowledge, bundling information and networking global knowledge.

The article then presents case studies from China, including an initiative in one of the poorest provinces and an example of reorganization in one of the country's leading public libraries. Both initiatives aimed to make information and knowledge accessible through public libraries and thus to contribute to social and economic development. The Chinese experience has shown that public libraries can be decisive carriers of the national knowledge infrastructure and that their services can still be improved if they make better use of the existing information infrastructure and work together with other providers and knowledge institutions. Finally, the post asks IFLA to raise awareness and organize the world's librarians to actively participate in the global knowledge revolution.


1 Introduction

In May 1997, a ceremony was held in the Shanghai Library building. The entrance area, surrounded by columns in the Roman style, was renamed "Knowledge Plaza" for this time. The name was chosen appropriately, because libraries often have a word such as knowledge in their logo. After all, this is one of the core tasks of a library.

The topic of knowledge is currently enjoying the greatest international attention. It is said that the industrialized countries are entering the so-called era of the "knowledge economy" (or knowledge-based economy), that this is a "knowledge revolution" which can have decisive effects not only for industrialized but also for developing countries. Strangely enough, many libraries seem indifferent to this revolution. Therefore, the key question for the library community today is whether or not they are actively participating in the global knowledge revolution.

To answer this question, the article presents analyzes intended to show that the "knowledge revolution" can mean a renaissance for the library community. A library can be an integral part of the information superhighway by making the inexpressible wealth of knowledge accessible to people in electronic form. At the same time, the library serves as a human and human-oriented place of rest and relaxation. It is the basis that offers access to the global knowledge economy and is at the same time embedded in the microcosm of its immediate surroundings. It takes on the function of a bridge that establishes the connection between powerful computer networks and end users, no matter how poor they are.

2. The approach of the knowledge revolution

To understand what the knowledge revolution is and how it relates to libraries and librarians, one should first look at some basic concepts.

    2.1. Information and knowledge

    Although the two terms "information" and "knowledge" are usually used interchangeably, there is a small but significant difference between them. The discussion about the conceptual differences between data, information, intelligence and knowledge has been going on for a long time. The model of a pyramid is known, the base of which is formed by the data, arranged above is information, knowledge and, at the top, wisdom or intelligence. A simplified model represents knowledge as part of the information, but not all information can be referred to as knowledge. The rapid technological progress in information processing as well as a better understanding of both concepts make the separation of knowledge and information necessary [1]. This also corresponds to the separation of the two further categories of knowledge: systematic and implicit [2, pp. 12-14].

    Systematic knowledge is sometimes referred to as explicit or centrally localized knowledge [3]. It is usually tied to a medium, can be changed, transferred, and taught. Implicit knowledge, on the other hand, exists in the minds of educated people or in the form of skills and practical knowledge that are necessary for the application and improvement of systematic knowledge. For some years now the rapid advances in science and technology in general and in communications technology in particular have been observed. People can process explicit, recorded and systematic knowledge much faster than implicit knowledge. The bottleneck in access to knowledge has shifted to intangible, invisible knowledge that only exists in human minds. The principles and rules of this type of knowledge flow are still largely unknown to us.

    2.2. Knowledge-based economy and knowledge revolution

    The term knowledge economy can be traced back to the early 1990s [4]. According to an OECD report from 1996, it describes an economy that is based directly on the production, distribution and application of knowledge [2, p. 7]. The transition to the knowledge-based economy requires a radical paradigm shift in economic and social systems. This change has been driven by technological innovation over the past few decades. Advances in high technology are changing the foundations of economic growth. The easy and inexpensive availability of large amounts of digitized data and information was an instrument for creating new products and services.

    The knowledge revolution is the process of a paradigm shift on the way to a knowledge economy. The term "revolution" suggests that the process and the labor pangs that accompany it will affect all aspects of human life. The conference on global knowledge held in Canada from June 22nd to 25th, 1997 and financially supported by the World Bank and the Canadian government can be described as a milestone on this path. Top representatives from various governments as well as the Secretary General of the UN took part in it.

    2.3 National knowledge infrastructure

    A national knowledge system is defined as a "network of institutions in the public and private sector whose activities stimulate, create, make accessible, absorb, disseminate and apply knowledge for productive action and for the support of the common good." [5, p. 7] A similar concept, namely that of the national knowledge infrastructure, appears in the 98 outline of the World Development Report in its version of June 30 [6]. A comparison of the key elements of national knowledge infrastructure (NWI) and national information infrastructure (NII), especially the order of their constituents, is interesting (see Table 1). According to the preliminary report of the World Bank from 1998, the relationships between educated people and their organizations are referred to as knowledge networks. There is a crucial difference between the two approaches: NII is largely a technical infrastructure, while NWI is a "human infrastructure".

3. The public library as part of the knowledge infrastructure

    3.1. The Knowledge Revolution: Curse or Blessing for Public Libraries?

    Public libraries, especially in developing countries, seem to lag behind academic and corporate libraries in terms of computer equipment. Public libraries were less enthusiastic about the entry into the information age. Some librarians believed that computers and networks were replacing traditional library activities. Particularly pessimistic statements presented the library profession as downright doomed to death, the only questionable is how quickly death occurs. Even optimistic observers saw the librarian in the information age as a passive mediator who is merely the beneficiary of the achievements of other players. Both perspectives do not see the librarian as an active element in the creation and distribution of knowledge.

    This partly explains why public libraries are rarely represented in the World Bank's knowledge-based campaigns. For example, a database query on the official website of the 97 conference reveals that only 7 librarians participated; with over 2,000 other participants. Of the 7 librarians, 6 came from universities or learned societies, one was a network specialist at the National Library of Canada, the host country of the conference. Over 100 working sessions were held covering a wide range of subjects, but the word "library" is mentioned only once in all reports available on the web, under the term "digital library" [8].

    While terms such as information revolution and information economy emphasize technology, the concept of knowledge revolution emphasizes the human aspect of information supply. As a result, it is more of an opportunity for public libraries than a threat because libraries are human-centric. The following features of public libraries should be inherited as benefits in the information age:

    • Public libraries are the first port of call for the broad mass of knowledge consumers, i.e. they know the "whole market";
    • Experience in cataloging and verbal and classificatory indexing of literature forms the basis for knowledge organization in the broader sense;
    • The physical space of public libraries, which some particularly progressive already consider obsolete, can be the natural prerequisite for bringing people together;
    • Public libraries are the only ones that make information and knowledge available to people beyond the information infrastructure.

    3.2. The library: a key element of the national knowledge infrastructure

    By their very nature, libraries should be a fundamental part of the knowledge infrastructure. In a sense, knowledge management is just another word for library science [9]. The Library of Congress puts it far-sightedly: "The libraries are in a unique position: They are both a catalyst in and a participant in the intellectual process that transforms information into knowledge and knowledge into wisdom [10]. The UNESCO Manifesto for Public Libraries names they "the local transition to knowledge" [11].

    In order to keep pace with the knowledge revolution and the rapid pace of technical development, however, it is nowhere near enough to hold on to traditions. Some librarians, especially in academic and specialized libraries, adapted to the new changes at an early stage. Some "knowledge centers" have been set up or created through reorganization in university libraries. These centers differ from ordinary libraries not only in their name but also in their function. Knowledge centers are fully equipped with computers and use all the possibilities of communication technology, i.e. they take on the role of learning centers. For example, the University of California in San Francisco has set up a knowledge center together with the library [12]. Mitchell C. Brown proposes the establishment of a so-called "knowledge bank", a database that records knowledge in libraries [13]. A number of publications have already indicated the trend, some call for a national knowledge strategy [14], some examine the role of libraries as knowledge engineers [15,16].

    Libraries have so far been counted among the "soft infrastructure factors" [17]. The concept of the national knowledge infrastructure extends the function of libraries for economic and social development. Libraries in developing countries will not always remain black holes swallowing public money, but can make a visible contribution to economic development that can be just as fundamental in the information age as in the past.

    3.3 Public libraries on the way to becoming knowledge providers

    I would use the term provider rather than the center to describe the function of libraries in the knowledge infrastructure. A center is just a place for communication, the word "provider" seems more appropriate here. As providers, libraries bundle knowledge, create added value, produce new knowledge and disseminate it as required.
      3.3.1 Interface between knowledge and people

      With the establishment of an information infrastructure, more and more interfaces are needed: Interfaces between

      1. Machine and man,
      2. systematic and implicit knowledge
      3. Culture and economy
      4. Knowledge and its consumers and
      5. Developed and developing countries.

      Public libraries are public access points to the information superhighway [18]. In contrast to other Internet services that also provide access, public libraries can also act as offline relays by downloading information and knowledge accessible on the Internet and forwarding it to those who have no network access, or by taking people to the nearest libraries to get access to the Internet. The library building can be a place where educated people meet to communicate and create tacit knowledge and convert tacit knowledge into systematic knowledge.

      3.3.2 Organize knowledge

      Gray literature, digital materials and internet sources are changing formal and subject indexing in the direction of knowledge organization. The new age could, so to speak, create the space for a higher level of knowledge organization, e.g. the building for "web collections". Cataloging of the internet has been on the agenda for a long time [19], library collections on the web go further, with librarians selecting and reorganizing the information available on the internet for their customers, the regular library users. (Who, if not librarians, could take on this task!) The fact that they put collections on local websites can be particularly important in developing countries, where the telecommunications infrastructure is still a bottleneck with long waiting times. The web collections held on library servers archive selected Internet sources that are worth preserving for the future and that might otherwise only have a short lifespan.

      3.3.3 Bundling information

      The bundling of information can also be viewed as an interface function. It is important for developing countries to first make information more "usable". Although this concept is not new [20], it is quite novel for some public libraries. Our experience shows that it is not enough for public libraries to take on the technical processing of literature; they have to do more if they want to play a role in local development. It is not uncommon for users to have very specific questions that go beyond the level of normal information services. There have been long debates about how far libraries should go in collecting, compiling, and linking information to meet specific needs, and this is not just about fees, but about the limits of library services. In the knowledge-based economy, the boundary between libraries and other information services is blurred. On the other hand, the costs of collecting information through the available networks and digitizing information are considerably reduced, so that mechanisms for cost-sharing would be easy to set up.

      3.3.4 Networking global knowledge

      The local limitation is proving to be both a strength and a weakness for public libraries. With the global networking of the library community and other information services, the individual library can go out into the world.The networking of knowledge is not just a question of the Internet, but of international cooperation between knowledge institutions. Some suggestions have already been made, e.g. for intercultural cooperation in the exchange of information [21] and for decision-makers in developing countries [22]. Having experienced traditional interlibrary loan relationships, it should not be difficult for the library community to work together to network knowledge.

      The common man, not just scientists and policymakers, need information wherever it is made available. There is, for example, the story of a young Chinese farmer who suffered from a rare disease that only occurred once in another country a few years ago. She was finally able to cure them with the help of an Internet list in which a number of doctors around the world provided their knowledge and help. Whenever I tell this story in lectures or at meetings, the audience wonders how it worked. The disease was so rare and so severe that the case got publicized in the media. Help eventually came from information specialists at a medical research facility. Of course, not all information seekers will be so successful, but the case presented gives me the certainty that public libraries can be catalysts in the networking of global knowledge.

4. Public Libraries in the Knowledge Revolution: the Case of China

Although the term "knowledge-based economy" has become increasingly popular in the learned societies of China since the publication of the Chinese version of the above-mentioned OECD report, neither the Chinese "knowledge industry" in general, nor the libraries in particular, are aware of what is under happened at the top of the knowledge revolution in the rest of the world. Regardless of this, a parallel development is taking place in China, which is characterized by country-specific moments.

China's economy has a dual structure. Some industrialized coastal provinces and cities are keeping pace with developed countries, while poverty and illiteracy are still the main problems for many other areas. However, both face the same dilemma when it comes to information and knowledge. The following illustration shows what the public library system in China has done and will do as an integral part of the knowledge infrastructure of that country, and how collaboration within the library community can contribute to this process.

    4.1 The knowledge project: dissemination of information and knowledge for the unsupervised

    The knowledge project in China was launched as a completely normal campaign to support libraries, as it is known from other countries, e.g. South Africa [23]. It was proposed in 1994 by the provincial library in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region (which is a de facto province). This is one of the least developed provinces in China. The provincial public libraries had to accept substantial budget cuts. The reasons for this were both economic backwardness and longer-term developments.

    So the project was proposed by the provincial library and supported by the local government to encourage the flow of knowledge through library systems. The following measures were taken, among others: establishment of a steering committee; Organization of readings and similar events, establishing contact between the library and a local company ("partnership") that provided the library with 5,000 RMB (approx. US $ 600) per year; Raising additional funds locally and overseas [24].

    After three years the action has brought some results: more than 500,000 RMB and 1.5 million books have been donated to the provincial library system. 115 village and community libraries have been set up through partnerships [25]. At the beginning of 1997 the project was expanded to all of China. The steering committee for the national project was set up by various ministries of state. The national knowledge project aims to promote social progress by supporting the reading and dissemination of knowledge in public libraries.

    The Guangxi Knowledge Project is a purely local initiative. The importance of the project is that it makes information accessible to those who are not otherwise provided with information. This is a great challenge and a right step on the way to the knowledge revolution. However, the project in Guangxi Province has also raised some critical issues that have yet to be resolved.

    First, it is difficult to break out of the vicious circle created by a lack of information. The question is whether one library alone can improve the poor representation of local businesses over the next few years. Some companies weren't sure whether the partnerships could continue. Second, the knowledge project had a difficult time in its original form because there were problems with understanding and applying modern information and communication technology (ICT) to specific situations. This is not only due to the slow development, but also to the lack of up-to-date information, which can be extremely important for the local economy and make progress sustainable. Until recently, the knowledge project did not pay enough attention to the benefits of the Internet. Now the provincial library has set up a network connection with 10 city and district libraries and has created access to the information highway via the CERNET node at the University of Guangxi. (CERNET stands for China Education and Research Network.) But before we discuss other areas for improvement, let's look at the other side of the coin.

    4.2 Reorganization of the Shanghai library

    Shanghai's relative prosperity represents the second face of China. In 1997 the city's gross domestic product per capita was over US $ 3,000. A recent study found that in the three largest cities in China, including Shanghai, 33% of the population use computers for personal or professional purposes. A quarter of these users, over 8% of the population, has Internet access. In late 1996, the library moved to new premises that cost approximately US $ 7.5 million. According to traditional criteria such as the size of the collections and the size of the premises, the Shanghai Library is the second largest public library in the country after the National Library in Beijing. Despite its comparatively advanced information environment, the Shanghai Library also faces various challenges.

    At a time when more and more information is available digitally, can be processed by machine and can reach the end user even without libraries, a time when an advanced information infrastructure, the "info port" is emerging, and Internet content services have some tasks from libraries, librarians must ask themselves where their place is in the competition in the "knowledge market". Top managers have found that libraries are under pressure. They need to reorganize to become "knowledge centers" rather than computerized book museums [27]. Behind the magnificent building and the state-of-the-art LAN-based integrated management system is thinking about how a library will position itself on the threshold of the new millennium. Accordingly, a number of innovations have been introduced that some library theorists may consider to be radical and unorthodox:

    • Research units were set up as sub-units in order to accelerate research in-house and by contractually bound experts;
    • A training center has been set up to train information specialists and users in how to use knowledge;
    • Extensive cultural and academic events are organized to jointly address problems;
    • Reports on developments in the world make society as a whole aware;
    • Business receives help with searching in libraries and on the Internet;
    • Mechanisms will be put in place to support the legislation of the People's Congress as well as political decisions by the local government.

    The purpose of all these efforts is to make a direct contribution to local economic and social progress. In addition, they affirm the value of libraries to society as the basic services are free of charge.

    4.4 On the need for collaboration between libraries and other knowledge institutions

    Although the knowledge project and the activities at the Shanghai library took place in the same country, both of them sometimes did not know of each other what was happening in the other and what ideas were being discussed. Although the Shanghai Library and other libraries in rich areas of China donate books to libraries in poor areas from time to time, more could be achieved if these libraries were understood as partners in the knowledge network. For example, the Shanghai Library could help public libraries like the one in Guangxi find internet sources, if necessary. such libraries would benefit more from this than from book donations with high transport costs.

    On the other hand, the transformation process at the Shanghai Library would have achieved even more if we had known earlier about the actions of the World Bank and methods of assessing knowledge. There are many opportunities for collaboration between libraries and other institutions around the world. Most of the time, it is not the libraries but the specialized and other knowledge institutions that are the sources of information and knowledge, as in the story of the young farmer mentioned above, but libraries can help end users to find and access these sources, for this reason the Cooperation between all knowledge institutions so important.

5. Libraries and the Knowledge Revolution: Conclusions

The knowledge revolution offers the library community, especially public libraries, the opportunity to rediscover and expand their key position in the national knowledge infrastructure:
  1. The last few years have been characterized by the steadily increasing availability of technical aids that enable simple and inexpensive transmission, distribution and conversion of systematic information. In the third millennium of human existence, knowledge will become vital, and tacit knowledge will become the bottleneck.
  2. The focus of the international community on the knowledge revolution is both necessary and timely. It is crucial that the libraries understand the possibilities the paradigm shift opens up. You shouldn't just remain an observer but an active co-creator.
  3. The Chinese case study has shown that public libraries can be a crucial vehicle for a society's knowledge chain. Libraries can make a contribution to economic and social development in both less developed and comparatively rich areas in the transition to the information age. However, the case of China has also shown that the efforts made are not yet sufficient and will not be sufficient in the future if the existing telecommunications and network infrastructure are not used in full. The example also shows that the results can be expanded through collaboration between libraries and other knowledge institutions.
  4. Global collaboration between libraries can make an enormous contribution to better networking of knowledge. Public libraries, which are traditionally connected to a broad public, can take on the task of channeling the latest information and knowledge and making them available to those who do not have their own network connection. IFLA, as the representative of the international library community, should take on the responsibility of alerting and organizing librarians around the world, especially in developing countries, to take an active part in the global knowledge revolution.


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Translation English-German by: Dr Sabine Homilius