A Global Digital Library: Possibilities, Concerns and Prospects: Social and Cultural Issues Associated with Knowledge Creation and Sharing Must Be Overcome to Develop and Implement a Truly Innovative and Valuable Global Library

By Mason, Robert M. | Information Outlook, July-August 2010 | Go to article overview

A Global Digital Library: Possibilities, Concerns and Prospects: Social and Cultural Issues Associated with Knowledge Creation and Sharing Must Be Overcome to Develop and Implement a Truly Innovative and Valuable Global Library


Mason, Robert M., Information Outlook


The vision of a global digital library (GDL) is relatively easy to state: digital preservation of, and access to, knowledge and art artifacts in a system that enables sharing of this knowledge across time and place. The result would be, as Betsy Wilson (2001), dean of the University of Washington libraries, has labeled it, an "any time, any place" (ATAP) library. With the growing availability of access to information through the Internet and World Wide Web (more than a quarter of the earth's population can now access the Web), this vision becomes increasingly appealing--it raises the possibility that even developing regions of the globe could benefit from access to global knowledge, thus helping bridge the "digital divide" that separates the information rich from the information poor.

What is there not to like about this vision? If we agree that it's desirable, what's stopping us from realizing it? What are the prospects of putting such a GDL in place?

Technically, the GDL vision can be realized. No one person or organization has assembled all the pieces, but the technology is available. Putting it together would not be trivial and would require an exceptional and dedicated effort to translate the knowledge into digital form, but technically it's relatively straightforward, and we have many examples that suggest it could be feasible. For example, UNESCO's World Digital Library (2010), though it does not share the same goals as the "any time, any place" vision, does suggest how artifacts can be accessed according to origin/culture and time period. Similarly, OCLC's WorldCat offers information about 1.5 billion items available in libraries around the world, and this might be the basis for a GDL.

I suspect most readers of Information Outlook would agree that a global digital library is desirable. A few readers may have questions about the vision or may be skeptical about the value of such a library. Certainly there are those outside the SLA community who may express doubts. It is these skeptics--more fundamentally, their underlying social and cultural concerns--that must be addressed.

Ethnic and Cultural Issues

A GDL, if it is to be realized, will be a socio-technical system, not simply a technical system that compiles information sources and knowledge artifacts and makes them accessible. It will involve the social cooperation and collaboration of communities that cross multiple domain specialties and have numerous ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

Because the GDL needs to span multiple knowledge and cultural domains, we can use a semiotic model of boundary spanning to help us grasp the issues and track the progress of our vision. The semiotic model has been demonstrated with product design team members from different disciplines to identify how they communicate across the boundaries of their specialties (Carlile 2002). This framework comprises three levels:

* At the syntactic level, a team agrees on the structure of their communications and how they will exchange information (e.g., whether the group will meet face-to-face). At this level, useful tools would include a schedule of meetings or communications, the format ("grammar") of information exchange, diagrams and sketches of plans, and other technical details of how the team will communicate.

* At the semantic level, the team agrees on the vocabulary of their communications and the meanings of the words, phrases, and symbols they exchange. At this level, useful tools would include dictionaries, thesauri, shared databases, and other resources that could help team members share an understanding of the meanings of their communications.

* At the pragmatic level, the team resolves differences in values and viewpoints. It is at this level that issues of power become significant. Even if the team members agree on the structure and vocabulary of their communications (from their work at the first two levels), they may differ in their assessment of the saliency of the information and knowledge they are communicating and how it should be shared and applied. …

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A Global Digital Library: Possibilities, Concerns and Prospects: Social and Cultural Issues Associated with Knowledge Creation and Sharing Must Be Overcome to Develop and Implement a Truly Innovative and Valuable Global Library
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