Academic journal article Partnership : the Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research

Top Languages in Global Information Production

Academic journal article Partnership : the Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research

Top Languages in Global Information Production

Article excerpt


The amount of information produced around the world has grown rapidly during recent decades. The advancement of digital technology contributed to this growth by providing a solution for effective storage of large amounts of data. It was estimated that at the beginning of the new millennium information available in print, film, optical and magnetic formats was equivalent to about "250 megabytes for each man, woman, and child on earth" (Varian and Lyman). This statistic may create a false impression that availability of information is also growing. However, there are many barriers which prevent access to information resources. The so-called "Digital Divide" is the most well-known and most discussed issue in library literature, but it is certainly not the only one (Aqili and Moghaddam; James; Berube, etc.).

This paper attempts to examine global information production from a cultural perspective. Its goal is to answer the question: "Which languages are most widely used in the production and dissemination of information?" In other words, if we were to gather all books, journals, films and web pages published and created on the planet, what part of this huge collection would be available in English, French, Spanish, Chinese and other languages? One might agree that English would be at the top of the list, but what language would follow it? What would the top ten languages be? What percentage of overall information resources might each language comprise?

Answering these questions will enable us to better understand the diversity of the information universe and to determine current trends in global information production.

Methods and Data

Information exists in numerous formats. The scope of this research was limited to those information sources which are commonly available through the public domain, i. e. libraries and the Internet. These include books, academic journals, newspapers and popular magazines, films, and web pages. Government documents, archival materials, technical documentation, and computer files were excluded from this analysis, although they constitute the major part of global information resources (Varian and Lyman). The overall goal was not to provide precise and comprehensive data (an enormously difficult task), but rather to give a sense of the kind of information environment in which we are living. Obtaining relative results was more important than calculating statistics.

The first step was to determine the distribution of different languages for each type of information resource. This data was summarized and compared to the percentage of the world's literate population using each corresponding language. Literacy was considered a minimum requirement for accessing and using information, which in most cases is composed of textual characters. Exceptions might include audio, video, and graphic materials. This comparison permitted an estimate of the discrepancy between the population which is potentially capable of using information and the amount of information available in different languages.

The following data were collected for the various information formats.


The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) remains the only organization which provides relatively reliable numbers about global book publishing (UNESCO Institute for Statistics). The UIS collects publishing data from questionnaires distributed every second year to all member states of UNESCO. Information on non-member states and territories is collected from other sources. The disadvantages of this method are similar to those affecting all survey research. They include non-response, delays, misinterpretation of questions and unavailability of data due to political or economic circumstances (Altbach and Hoshino 165). In general, the response rate tends to be higher for countries with more planned or controlled economies.

The most recent statistics on global book publishing were released in the last edition of the UNESCO Statistical Yearbook (1999). …

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