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62nd IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 25-31, 1996

A Helping of Democracy? Telematics, Democracy and Libraries.

Tuula Haavisto
Finnish Library Association


When the railways were built last century, they epitomized progress. Railway people were in a highly respected profession; the station master was among the cream of society. Physically linking distant regions, the railways revolutionized communications. The change was probably just as big, conceptually, as the one by which data networks now make it possible to communicate in real time from one si de of the globe to the other.

As well as physical transformation, the railways brought unexpected changes too. For example, the factory whistle had already introduced townspeople to precise time keeping—but it was the whistle of the trains that brought exact time to the countryside.

A hundred years later, many feel they are slaves to time. For most office workers it seems a real luxury to have time that is not planned in advance. But then, we do have those trains to take us from place to place, and so keep to our busy schedules. When I think of the kinds of change that information handling is bringing us, I often ponder the effects—visible and invisible—of the railways.

Automatic data processing today carries an extra positive charge, just as anything to do with the railways did previously. It is seen as new and progressive. Even jobs in the rank and file are highly esteemed, compared with the same level in other professions. The computer dimension gives a job that special glow. This is particularly so around teleinformatics and programming. It’s no coincidence that librarians and information specialists started to look dynamic in the public eye at just that moment when terminals and micros landed on the service counter.

Working with the information content seems not to offer quite the same halo. The attractions of the journalist's profession are doubtless quite different from those of the teleinformatics field.

Now we see mainly the physical changes related to the development of data processing. I'm sure, though, that other change processes are to come, which will alter profoundly the lives of future generations. Perhaps they will even change ours!

It is difficult, of course, consciously to influence the development of something which, as its contemporaries, we can hardly perceive. But we could perhaps define a few goals that we consider essential even in times of change. Then we could try to focus our energy on reaching these goals as best we can.

Is Democracy unfashionable?

Democracy. Equality. Words with the ring of old clichés perhaps, but for me they are valid foundations for my work. I'm convinced that we must try to distribute power and prosperity fairly. Insufficient perhaps, it is a good way—maybe the only way—to keep despotism and corruption under control.

In the Anglo-American tradition, and partly in the Central European too, state and civil society are clearly in opposition. The Nordic countries have recently outlined the relationship between these societal elements in a new way. Here, popular movements have relied on the state, and even got it to serve their own ends. One can say, that the state has been considered as a common project of the p eople.

The Nordic countries, their governments and people, want every citizen to have free access to information and experiences. The public library system, financed by the state and municipalities, is a good example of how this desire is realized. It is experienced as an ideologically neutral service maintained for all civic groups, and has the general acceptance of the population. The Finns have expr essed their support for libraries very clearly during the economic recession of the 90s: in 1994, when the Finnish public libraries celebrated their bicentenary, more than 10% of the population signed a congratulatory and supportive petition.

The debate about democracy and society has, however, gradually changed character, even in the Nordic countries. The environmental movements, for example, have wanted to change the world faster than any legislation is naturally inclined to. In the late 70s an era of a new kind of civil disobedience and active opposition began in Finland. That's when Greenpeace-type activity occurred for the first time. Activists chained themselves to machinery that they wanted to prevent being used, while the media eagerly looked on.

Now, in the 90s, even established institutions are seeking to clarify their roles in society. Lately even the public library has been asked how it sees its role. It is clearly part of the public sector, and financed by it, but it is starting to look upon itself as supporter both of individual users and of the civic society. Is there a conflict here and, if so, how should it be resolved?

Democracy without Information?

Without publicly-available information, democracy is probably impossible. Particularly as information is becoming the critical factor in most jobs and professions, at least a minimum amount should be available to everyone. Otherwise a new kind of inequality is born; those privileged with information, and the others.

The matter becomes demanding, as democracy requires quality in everything to do with information. It is not enough to just store things in one's brain. One has to understand too, and preferably know how to continue dealing with the information on one's own.

Responsibility for how to grow to understand ramifies very broadly. What is the position of the family, the individual, society? Things done in support of this growth with tax-payers money, or clearly in the public domain, are worth some collective pondering.

Although teaching methods may be criticized, school is vital in developing the basics for learning and insight. I believe that the level of comprehensive education should be as high as possible, for that relates closely to the level of democracy in an information society. One has to know how to read and write. To critically appraise the products of other minds, one must be able produce text and other forms of expression oneself. Much is lost if this facility is weak.

News media keep people up to date with the daily stream of events. Though they may offer background material to aid understanding of what is happening, they are primarily attached to the present moment. Like schools, they manage their task with varying degrees of success. From a democratic perspective, the trends towards concentration of media ownership are no inspiring prospect.

The Library is an Enabler

The importance of the library, the third pillar of information democracy, has become more clear during the last few years in many countries, and in the European Union. Even in the developed library nations, the library’s public image stuck for a long time at the level of lender of fiction, although in fact people used it much more broadly—for instance, as an information centre. The libraries' sta ndard has consciously been improved in France, Spain and Belgium for example; an important reason being to secure democratic information dissemination in the information society.

As an information institution, the library is specialized as a place where everyone can seek answers to their own questions. Its memory, organized to help find answers, has many different elements: catalogues in printed, card index and electronic form, other databases and the so-called sources of the second degree. Naturally, the professional skill of the staff is a vital part of the resource, i mportant not only in finding information but also in organizing documents and creating keys that facilitate searches. Apart from this, the library has innate potential, even if one is not looking for specific information. In the universe of information handling, the significance of serendipity should not be underestimated. The library can yield succulent coincidences!

In Finland all libraries, both public and research, have operated a voluntary network for decades. With inter-library loans, orders for copies, and replies to information inquiries moving from one library to another, each node in the net can give a much broader service than its own resources provide for. Electronic mail, as it becomes more widely available, is a natural tool for the library netw ork.

The library is largely a service for the active individual. Using it in the search for information shows that a person has grasped a problem by the throat and intends to solve it. This is just where the library is prepared to help.

Information Institutions are intertwined

The library lives in symbiosis with other information institutions. In most countries most of the heavyusers of public library information services are pupils and students. When a new term appears in the press—Internet, say—the professional librarian knows to prepare for questions by collecting press cuttings in the drawer at the information desk and finding out what books or articles on the subj ect have already been published, and in which languages.

Libraries in Finland have won the confidence of the Finns, who find them convenient and easy to visit. This is obvious from the statistics: 2/3 of Finns are library users. Because of this libraries are given many kinds of special tasks when large public circles should be reached. Libraries provide information on subjects as diverse as educational options and the European Union, for example. Ther e is a wish to harness them to spread consumer information and become Front Offices; that is, sources of basic guidance about public life, authorities, and so on.

Teledemocracy and the Library

So, how has telematics affected the library's role as one guarantor of equality?

There are many answers; the tone of which depends on what one wants to emphasize. Developments in information packaging do not of themselves alter the basic mission of the library with regard to democracy: access must still be offered and user-assistance given where information is in electronic form. But doubtless—more than anything else over the next few decades—they will change the emphasis i n the library’s way of relating to its users, and in its importance as a public space.

Many people think telematics is making libraries unnecessary, now that everyone can get information so easily from their own computer. I disagree. As information appears in ever vaster quantities and more diverse forms, so the need to organize it is all the greater; and skilled help is all the more necessary for finding the right information at the moment of use.

In the process of guaranteeing democracy in information acquisition, telematics also adds the dimension that publicly produced information gets better public use through libraries and their networks. Information is available in real-time, and even smaller libraries can offer it complete, whereas printed matters can be acquired only in limited quantity, or not at all.

Internet is a concrete example of the changes. The discussion around it says a lot about the issues that the data networks have raised.

In the library, Internet can be viewed as only another new information source, operating with a slightly different logic. Internet fits neatly the idea of information regardless of packaging : a box on the table in some corner and then a little user guidance as first-aid. 'It'll be all right there with the CD-ROMs and databases.'

I think there is an error of perspective in this kind of thinking. For me, and many others, the interesting thing about Internet is the new potentials that it offers. It has qualities that seriously challenge traditional professionalism within the libraries. Examples of these potentials are: communication between decision-maker and citizen, easier international communication, and information pro duction by the library and its users.

From the users' perspective, Internet's greatest potentials surely lie in its communication qualities. There is much talk of how electronic mail can create new kinds of feedback channels from citizens to decision makers. I don't know if members of parliament will reply better to e-mail inquiries than they do to letters or cards, but I do believe that telematics makes communication easier. If cit izens on their own terminal can follow the Parliamentary readings of an important law reform, they can easily express their opinion there and then through the same medium. The threshold is much higher to start writing a letter (which may not be published) to the editor on the basis of something one has read in a newspaper. Parliament, or a local authority, can start systematically to collect feed back, if they so desire. Doubtless further dimensions of communication will be developed.

The necessary hardware, however, is not within everyone's reach at home or in the office, and equality demands that it be made available in some public institution. What better place than the library, where people are already accustomed to look for information? At least in those countries where the public library system is well developed, the library has long opening-hours and vast user-groups. T here is a wide range of supporting information available as needed, and most libraries can also house discussion groups.

Even the European Union has become aware of this. One recent topic discussion has been the broader distribution of EU-information straight to citizens. The proposed channels are the public libraries.

Other, almost literally limitless, communication is possible. In offering free use of Internet, the library can be a route to contact with any other user of the network. This can be a stimulus to new international relationships at the grass root level. Contact between one group and any other, or its members, can find new solutions. Small communities like neighbourhood associations or village co mmittees, for instance, can exchange experiences more widely than before, and so keep a more effective eye on the authorities. The European lobbying organization for the library field, EBLIDA, gives an idea of the international possibilities. Its board has founded four advisory bodies, operating entirely through Internet.

Our experience of Internet communication shows, too, that it enables contacts which could not even have been born without this medium. Active library users have joined our discussion group, and their input is very exciting. They are asking us basic questions: How are you going to make some sense of this Internet chaos? Can you create something to win Alta Vista as a search tool? Can we combine our skills to help to operate in Internet? Will anyone collect an archive of electronic contents worth preserving? If so, who will do it, and how? Will libraries exist in the year 2050?

As I myself work in a national library association, it was my dream to work with an electronic discussion group. My association is often asked what our position is on various matters, and the reply must be quick. Through a discussion group on Internet I now can ask for reactions to support my response. For this to work, there must be a critical mass of active librarians in the group. More genera lly speaking, electronic exchange of thoughts and messages opens up enormous vistas in my work.

When testing this idea, one discovers that in networks each participant's activity is crucial. Those who do not keep in touch easily drop out of discussions and loose their chance to be of influence.

Professional Skills on a new Level

Internet demands a new tuning of librarianship skills, firstly because of the need to organize the vast stores of information locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. The core area of library work is just that; organizing masses of material. This is already being done. In the individual library in Finland we call it local editing. The library can create its own home pages with link-up s by choosing material which it thinks will be of interest to its own users. In 1996 we have begun to collect and maintain "a bank of link-ups" suitable for public libraries at the national level to help this local editing. At the international level, IFLA has taken it upon itself to participate in creating keys to the Internet chaos. There are other moves towards this goal and, intrestingly, man y of them have nothing to do with library and information professionals.

Another challenge is: how should libraries view the prospect of offering Internet as a complete unpruned package? They can hardly be selective with it, as they can with other types of material. Libraries are accustomed to being responsible for offering comprehensible material, but Internet works on the opposite principle: the receiver takes responsibility. How quickly will users learn this? Will this cause large problems? In the USA dicussion about censoring Internet in public libraries has already begun, partly because of a law which has the purpose of enabling Internet cencorship in public institutions. On the other hand, some researchers speak about this matter as an opportunity to educate people to think critically.

With regard to the contents of Internet, it will be important to show users that, in addition to its amusement value and despite its reputation, it is also a serious information source. It is well known, for instance, that statistics and news are available there. But so also is fiction, like the anthology of poetry and essays on Finnish Literature Forum (http://www.kaapeli.fi/flf/).

Because of the networks, the focus of library work will move more towards so-called background work. As more people use information resources directly along a cable, and as the volume of information grows, so too does the need for work on organizing the material so that it can be telematically found. The number of direct contacts with clients, at least regarding information requests, will surely but slowly decrease.

There are several brakes on the rate of change. First, it will be a long time before most people learn to find their way around the networks without help. Not everyone will learn, and the library feels responsible for them too: they can not be left deprived of information. Second, much significant information will still be published in printed form far into the future, and today’s printed matter will not become waste tomorrow. Third, the library has dimensions other than utility. It is (or it should be) a spiritually uplifting, usually beautiful and pleasant public space, where one can spend time free of charge and meet other people. Finns like going to the library and, I maintain, they feel it is an inviting place to take their information requests.

Furthermore, serendipity thrives in the library collections. It is to be found on Internet too, but the hunter of chance will doubtless want to move in many kinds of terrain.

From Plans to Reality

Two main strategies for the Information Society were published in Finland in 1994/95, the most interesting for libraries under the title "Education, Training and Research in the Information Society. A National Strategy" Available in printed form and in Internet: [URL: http://www.mined.fi/infostrategy and gopher://gopher.funet.fi/11/FUNET/infostrategy]. In them, libraries an d schools have been given a key position in securing information equality.

Now that the strategies have been published, the question is: will these words become functional economic decisions, or will they merely serve the formal need to say something about democracy in the information society?

In this case the answer is positive: in the 1996 state budget a sum of 11,5 million FIM (~ 2,5 mill. USD) has been reserved for two library programmes; they will continue up to 1998 with the same level of financing. With this money, under the project title House of Knowledge, we are hiring three planners to concentrate on helping public libraries in Internet use by, among other things, creating a common bank of link-ups as mentioned before. Another common effort is PULS, a common home page for all Finnish public libraries [URL: http://www.lib.hel.fi/syke/], including material in Finnish, English and Swedish. Regional specialists for the Internet work will be hired during 1996 as well.

A third programme, specially concerning culture in the information society, has been published in Finland in January 1996 (to be published in Internet under the www.mined.fi -server mentioned above). In this programme public libraries are, again, in a very central position - even in an enviable position, as some "competing" branches of culture say. It is too early to say how well this programme will be supported in budgetary terms.

Can we find the concept of democracy in the major Information Highway policies?

On the EU level, it seems that considerations of democracy in the information society will need strong public support from libraries and schools. For example, one key document, the Bangemann paper, does mention the division between information-rich and information-poor, but there is not one current programme in the EU aimed at bridging that gap. The first EU report (an interim report, the final o ne will be published in the end of 1996) to comment on the Information Highway concept from a more human and social point of view was published in January 1996 under the title Building the European Information Society for Us All: First Reflections of the High level Group of Experts. It is available in Internet in English, French and German under [URL: http://www.ipso.cec.be/hleg/hleg.html]

But on the macro decision-making and budget level, the EU policy on the information Highway tends to be influenced strongly by technical and commercial considerations: "we must get a bigger share of the growing telematics market." The EU does have an interest in producing software for the telematics market, but the emphasis is on conquering new markets on the grounds that products contain "Europ ean elements".

In contrast to the Bangemann report, the Finnish and other Nordic strategy papers mentioned consider the democratic issues of the Information Society in much greater depth. But, so far, Finland is the only one Nordic country to begin realizing these strategies with support from the state budget.

In Great Britain, several county libraries and the Library Association have together, by themselves, created and financed a project called EARL, which collects Internet-oriented libraries under the same virtual umbrella.

The USA's official Information Highway policy pays more attention than the EU's to issues of democracy in information dissemination, but the matter has very little budgetary support on the federal level. Some American public libraries have been included in Information Highway projects, but they are very few. In other words, this development in the USA is up to the local decision makers - and lib rarians ofcourse as instigators. A special phenomenon in the USA are sponsored Information Highway projects. The sponsors are usually big IT firms, and one can read about such projects in nearly every issue of American library journals.

Desired Development

For libraries and their users, the present non-commercial character of Internet is a benefit. As long as the general nature of Internet continues, as many people as possible should be taught to understand and use networks. In its present form Internet itself offers exhilarating and motivating possibilities for just those studies. The library could not afford to give its users free surfing opportu nities for any commercial network, nor would that be appropriate.

Internet is the world's first general network. If one day it breaks up into fragments with different operating principles, I hope one part of it will survive in a form similar to the present non-commercial and multi-material network. One condition for maintaining it surely is that it has a certain critical mass of information content that motivates people. An important element of the motivation is the reliability of the content. I think the greatest risk here is that the share of unreliable and even dis-information will grow unbearable. An other condition is that the network preserves its vast communication potential.

The present Internet shows that despite tightening copyrights and the general spirit of commercialism, there still are people and organizations that want to bring the products of their minds and spirits to be distributed in some public forum. I fervently hope that there always will be space for these kinds of interests on the networks, so that people have diverse opportunities for direct interac tion.