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

Exploiting Online Potential: Information, National Development, And Libraries

T.D. Webb, Ph.D.


The 1990s have begun a lengthy period of unparalleled economic development throughout the world. Many international communities are on the verge of great industrial and economic strides. Nowhere is this more true than in Asia and the Pacific, where international industrial and economic connections are being completely refashioned.

Yet despite the promise, the accelerated rate of economic and social change has created an information vacuum as change itself has outpaced the supply of information on which to base decisions that would assure prudent and successful development. In the resulting economic, industrial, and political reformation, implementing a system of rapid information exchange is of the utmost importance. An i mmediate supply of the appropriate information could place emerging multinational economies very quickly in positions of stability and health.

Of course, informed decision making for development requires awareness of the most current relevant information. Libraries can play a crucial role in this process, and not simply as automated "middlemen" passing along information from publishers and vendors as they always have. Some innovative vendors are already providing those services better than libraries can, with such services as CompuServ e, America Online, and others.

Instead, libraries, especially research libraries, can produce new information that is valuable and relevant to their users from the bodies of research they have at hand that is unique, valuable, and not available from any vendor in any form, virtual or otherwise. This information can become the content for original databases and other online resources that can promote national development, and give libraries a new and important role as points of information provenance.

Paper in the Paperless Society

The new online direction for libraries I am proposing will not be at the expense of the other information formats libraries have assembled. The consensus now is that the "virtual" library is much more remote than once thought, and that libraries of the next decade or longer will continue to utilize many information formats, especially print, CD-ROM, and online (Ray; LaGuardia; Halman; Jacobsen; Watkins). Each format will be most appropriate for a certain type of information and a certain type of user.

For example, paper is still very convenient and relatively economical. But it is not easy to search, making it unacceptable for data extraction. For libraries of the future, paper will be best suited for texts meant for breadth of coverage. This includes background readings, abstract treatments that require extensive reflection, aesthetic readings, and other literary works.

CD-ROM Offline

Because CD-ROM is computerized, it supports sophisticated searching techniques and data extraction just like an online resource. But despite these advantages, CD-ROM has many drawbacks, too. Its major weakness is that it is actually off-line data storage. It is not updated continuously, as online resources are. Usually, new CD-ROM disks arrive from the publishers once a month, making them no mor e current and no more dynamic than printed periodicals.

As a result, in the modern research library, CD-ROM is most appropriate for less dynamic information, and for information of insufficient user need to justify the expense of accessing it from an online source. CD-ROM will also continue to be used for preliminary searches of off-line backfiles of expensive databases before going online to retrieve the most current information.

The Great Online

Online is the most acceptable format for extracting the most current data from extremely dynamic information resources. These are the resources essential to modern research. They are updated often, in some cases daily. Through various combinations of data connections and protocols, online users can access many widely dispersed current information resources from a single workstation. And because of these distributed computing configurations, we don't have to worry about building computers enormous enough to hold multiple, massive databases.

Nevertheless, most of the online resources available today themselves have drawbacks that impede research and the discovery of new knowledge, as explained below. Research libraries of the next decade, therefore, need to exploit the strengths of online technology to minimize these drawbacks and make online an even more effective research tool.

Models of Information Distribution

To envision the next phase of library development, we need to review the relationship between libraries and publishers. It seems very simple and efficient: publishers provide research information and libraries acquire it for their users. But of course, publishers are not the source of research information. Researchers are. And researchers work in research institutions, agencies, and universities .

This model applies to information published in every format because even most CD-ROM publishers and online database vendors are either themselves publishers of print resources, or else they get the information for their electronic resources from providers of print publications such as journals and proceedings. So even the online databases we prize so highly are not as dynamic as they appear, nor as current as they could be. Because they depend on traditional publishing methods, they are not taking full advantage of online capabilities, nor of the community of researchers who daily make new and important discoveries.

A New Model

To capture the most current information in highly dynamic fields, research libraries of the next decade and century must adopt a new model of acquiring research information and making it available to their users. It is a method that better exploits the potential of modern online and data communications technologies.

In this new model, libraries establish their own local online databases, and deal directly with researchers, beginning with those in their own institutions, and with researchers at partner institutions as well. In effect, this new model by-passes the commercial publisher and all of the enormous expense and lost time that traditional publishing entails, whether the format be print, CD-ROM, or con ventional commercial online services. Following this model, research libraries will create their own online databases specifically pertinent to their institutions. These specialized full-text, full-image resources will contain the latest original research, submitted online and updated regularly by the researchers themselves.


A well-known example of a local online database is the Human Genome Data Base (GDB) at the Welch Library of Johns Hopkins University (Levin). Designed and managed by librarians, the GDB is used by perhaps as many as 10,000 researchers world-wide. Accessing the GDB through the Internet, they read the latest research on human genetics and submit reports of their own studies by e-mail to the editor ial boards that have been organized for each of the 23 chromosomes. The appropriate board reviews each contribution, and approved submissions are entered full-text into the database by the librarians who serve as system managers. Librarians worked with geneticists, computer experts, and many others to develop this important resource.


Another example of a local online database is the Birth Defects Encyclopedia Online in Dover, Massachusetts (Kaneshiro). Entries in the BDEO were written by leading experts on each birth defect in the encyclopedia. These same researchers also update their entries whenever new research becomes available. The database can be accessed by physicians, researchers, and clinicians, and any other intere sted person. The BDEO is actually based on the print version of the Birth Defects Encyclopedia, but the online version allows continuous updating, and permits immediate access from remote locations.

The University of Hawaii

At the University of Hawaii, the Kapiolani Library has begun development of three local online resources. The first is the Asian Studies Development Database (ASDD). This is a full-text Internet/World Wide Web database of Asian studies curricula, course syllabi, bibliographies, and other instructional documents collected by the prestigious East-West Center in Honolulu during its annual Asian Stu dies Institutes.

These intensive institutes are attended by faculty from universities and colleges across the United States. As part of their activities, institute participants contribute instructional materials to the Center's rapidly growing collection. The Center then shares these materials with participants in subsequent institutes. The Center's purpose in collecting and sharing these materials is to help pa rticipants incorporate Asian studies into the curricula at their own institutions.

By converting the materials to electronic format and creating an online resource for them, access will be greatly extended well beyond the institutes. In addition, the database will attract online submissions from other Asian studies faculty and experts around the world, causing the database to grow even faster. The East-West Center staff will provide the editorial services for the database, whi ch will be managed by the librarians at the Kapiolani Library. The Library received a research grant for the project, and creation of the database and conversion of the materials is underway. We expect the database to be launched this spring.


Our Emergency Medical Services Database is now in planning. Funds have been requested from the Hawaii Department of Health to create this full-text resource that will provide document delivery services to two audiences. First, the database will serve all the major Hawaiian islands where training is held for EMS students and professionals, and for physicians and nurses who provide emergency medic al care in their communities.

The second audience for this document delivery service is the entire Pacific area. The head of the EMS department at Kapiolani College has consulted with officials in Beijing, Hainan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. These government officials have come conferred with our EMS department seeking assistance in designing quality EMS services, and in obtaining information about EMS medical procedur es, EMS administration, and curricula for EMS training programs.

Hawaii's excellent EMS department, which is composed almost exclusively of Kapiolani graduates, is of particular interest to developing nations in Asia because foreign tourists are more likely to visit a nation that can provide excellent emergency medical services. Accordingly, an online resource to support EMS practice and curricula in Asia and the Pacific is of extreme interest to EMS professi onals in these same nations.

Our plans are to establish a cooperative relationship with the U.S. Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C., which has a vast collection of EMS curricular materials; with the EMS Clearinghouse in Florida, which also has a rich store of EMS information; and with the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), also in Washington, D.C., which also deals with EMS matters.

Our intention with the EMSD is to acquire information from these partner agencies that is especially relevant to Asia and the Pacific, and add it to our database in the Kapiolani Library for delivery when requested in this hemisphere. The database will also develop a distinctly Asian-Pacific orientation as a result of original contributions we will solicit directly from EMS professionals, instru ctors, and physicians in this hemisphere.

Tourism and Travel Industry Database

The Tourism and Travel Industry Database will be our next online objective. Hawaii is one of the premier tourist destinations in the world, with Waikiki at the center of Hawaii's tourism industry. Kapiolani College and Library are near Waikiki, and we have built a firm relationship with Waikiki's hotels, restaurants, and other tourism establishments. Our graduates work for these firms; their man agers and professionals receive advanced training from us; and our faculty consult with their owners and administrators.

We intend to gather records, statistics, and other pertinent raw data from the foremost of these establishments to input into the database where it will be available for study and analysis throughout Hawaii and across the Asian-Pacific hemisphere.

We expect to cooperate with the Hawaii Visitors Bureau (HVB), which also has accumulated considerable information about Hawaii's tourism industry, and which is looking for an appropriate means to disseminate this information more broadly than the HVB has been able to do in the past. We also hope our cooperation with the Waikiki hotels and the HVB will include funding assistance from them for thi s project.

Online Resources and Asia-Pacific Development

These three online resources are all appropriate to Kapiolani College because we have certificate and degree courses in each of these areas. We have international experts on the faculty, we have the resources for the databases, and we have local and international users who need them for many purposes, including social and economic development.

Development in Asia, as with everywhere else, depends on the availability of information. The creation of local online resources by research libraries in Asia's universities and research centers can be an invaluable step to creating a critical mass of online research that will aid social and economic development and attract contributions from interested researchers internationally. Asia is in a perfect position to launch multiple databases of this type. For instance, universities and research centers in Greater China, which includes the Mainland, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau, produce a wealth of new knowledge that is also of great value to the broader region and beyond.

Online resources built on the original research produced here can make major contributions to the development of Asia and the Pacific. First, they would provide international exposure to the research being performed here, and will attract recognition as well as notable contributions. The availability of the current research would also be an incentive to increase research output among the faculti es; it would provide an important resource for students to enrich the content of educational programs, and would promote a research culture at higher education institutions. In addition, these same research studies, by being online, would also make the expertise of the research institutions immediately available to the larger professional communities to spur more rapid and prudent development.

Environmental Research

For example, environmental control and protection is an especially important consideration in development projects for Asia and the Pacific, and indeed the world. The Centre for Environmental Science and Technology at the City University of Hong Kong consists of about 20 staff who conduct research intended to solve local, regional, and even global environmental problems. A database contributed t o and edited by this Centre would be of immediate interest and value to government agencies, businesses, and other researchers. It would be instantly recognized, and would attract research contributions from around the world. Subjects could include air pollution control, marine and freshwater clean-up, hazardous waste disposal or neutralization, bioremediation, and many others.

Building Materials Research

The earthquake in Kobe, the collapse of public buildings in Korea, and the bombing in Oklahoma City confirm the need to rethink the way we build and the materials we use. This is particularly important in Asia and the Pacific, where rapid development requires sturdy, economical building practices and substances to sustain growth with minimal risk. A database of research produced at the Civil Eng ineering school at Tsinghua University in Beijing would almost certainly become an internationally prominent resource used by architects, engineers, and public administrators, as well as researchers and faculty from many universities.

Partnerships in the management of such databases is a very attractive possibility that would promote cooperation between research institutions. For instance, the City University of Hong Kong's Materials Research Centre engages in the fabrication and testing of building materials. Their cooperation with Tsinghua would only enhance the value and the content of an online database on building materi als and practices.

Comparative Law

Close academic cooperation and exchange relations of this type already exist between Beijing University and the Centre for Chinese and Comparative Law at the City University of Hong Kong. Working together, researchers at these institutions are conducting studies to identify differences between the current laws of Hong Kong and the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, which w ill take effect when Hong Kong reverts to Chinese sovereignty. The impact of these colliding legal systems could be monumental. Social and economic patterns could be greatly disrupted.

An online database of the researchers' findings, jointly managed by the combined research teams, constantly updated by new research, and supplemented by reports of court actions and rulings that will transpire over the next several years could smooth the transition, and would be of inestimable value to attorneys, courts, law faculties, and civic administrators. A large part of the value of this database would be its immediate accessibility and currency. It would expedite proceedings by providing the corpus of precedents that will emerge during this unique period in legal history.

Collaborative Online Resources

Similar online resources could be developed for a variety of other subject areas or research institutions as well, drawing upon and emphasizing their areas of specialization. Links could be established between databases where appropriate. Or, instead of separate databases for separate subjects or institutions, databases can be created on broader subject areas or for research from several institu tions. For example, a database on International Development could contain

Another subject database on China Studies could be created to contain research on cultural development, educational changes, comparative law, financial and commercial trends, infrastructure development, and many other topics relating to Greater China assembled from the research work of several institutions.

The point is that local universities and research agencies can decide which subject areas these databases will address. The databases would be more inclusive and representative of the institutions' research pursuits than any existing library collection, and would spread the research findings farther and more quickly than any other form of publication ever could.

Librarians, Researchers, and Practicing Professionals

Librarians are well-qualified to manage the new online databases and lead the way in developing them as an alternative to traditional publishing. Librarians are familiar with the structure and searching conventions of online technologies, and are acutely aware of the need for and absence of interoperability between existing vendor-supplied online resources. Librarians will strive to achieve genu ine system transparency and standards in the new online resources, and will manage to navigate between disparate online resources in the meantime.

Perhaps more importantly, librarians are trained public servants. They are experienced in assisting information seekers and mediating some very inhospitable information resources. This training will serve them very well in creating and managing new online resources. With the interactivity that is possible on the Internet, management of online resources now has a much larger public relations resp onsibility, much like the person-to-person encounters librarians routinely conduct at reference desks. Librarians who are webmasters, for instance, are finding that they must respond to large numbers of online requests and suggestions. The type of database I am proposing will attract inquiries, contributions solicited and unsolicited alike, and volumes of chat, which must be answered or re-direct ed.

Nevertheless, librarians will need to make certain professional adjustments. For one, they must become better team players to interact well with researchers and computer experts who will share the duties of creating and managing these online resources. Similarly, librarians must also become more aware of and active in the research process; they must become more expert in subject areas; and they must learn cross-disciplinary conventions and methodologies to assure the greatest efficiency of the databases they will design and mediate.

Researchers, too, must adjust to the idea that exposure of their studies is no longer limited to print publications, professional meetings, and conference proceedings. They must also realize that local online databases will present a new wealth of information that must be consulted. But I have no worries about researchers making these adjustments. I believe that local area databases of the type I propose will only stimulate more research and discovery.

Together, librarians and researchers also must learn to interact more effectively with the professional community, and even make partnerships with practicing professionals, government representatives, and business persons. This type of community involvement is alien to many university librarians and researchers, but it is essential if the online research resources proposed here are to have a rap id effect on social and economic development. Researchers can no longer be content to remain disconnected from the general community and conduct dialogues only among themselves.

Also, close cooperation between research institutions and the business and professional communities can result in better support and funding for continued research and for further development of the online resources.

But a word of warning to librarians and researchers is necessary: if they do not take action to provide this type of information and thereby secure the direction and open accessibility of the new online resources, private information vendors will eventually take charge of the untapped research, and impose all the constraints, restrictions, and marketing mentality that characterize existing onlin e resources. The technology for new online movement is ready, and the need for the information is real. If librarians and researchers fail to pursue the development of these new resources, we will once again be left out of the design and decision-making phases of a vital new field of information delivery just as we were with integrated systems, educational television, CD-ROM technology, and many others.


The information explosion has a new epicenter. It's not only in the established publishing industry any longer. For a long time, only publishers could afford to make information broadly accessible. Now, the information explosion is also occurring among independent online resources and database creators. And this explosion will be larger than any other before because it is not under the control o f publishers; it is under control of the researchers themselves. This will make information available immediately--there will be no lag time. And the information will be universally available--to students, researchers, and the entire professional community.

This constitutes a major shift in research practice and in library management and professional librarian duties. But we're not changing our role as librarians; we're adding to it a very necessary dimension in response to the advent of new information technology and an epic effusion of research, inquiry, and discovery more insistent than that of the Reformation or the Renaissance. The library's j ob has traditionally been to acquire and organize information. In the modern research library, the job will also include producing information and providing access to it electronically.

In this new task of librarianship, the lines between librarian, researcher, and publisher will become very flexible in order to capture information the university needs. In a way, the university, through the modern research library, becomes an online research publisher (LaGuardia).

So while continuing to acquire information from the traditional sources, research libraries that are intent on promoting a research culture within their universities and institutions must exploit online technologies further. Working with subject specialists and computer scientists, librarians can create and manage these databases, and make them accessible online to researchers, students, and pra cticing professionals. By cooperating with businesses, professional associations, and other community organizations, libraries will enrich the content of their online resources and build support for their continued development.

The Human Genome Database, the Birth Defects Encyclopedia Online, and other "knowledge bases," as they are sometimes called, can serve as models for any forward-looking library that aspires to the highest level of research service. The universities and research centers in Asia produce a unique body of knowledge that, if accessible on well-managed online databases in research libraries, would be of instant worldwide value. They can bring international recognition to their institutions, provide course enrichment to university curricula, disseminate information widely and quickly to practicing professionals, and assure more prudent and expeditious social and economic development for the general population.

Soon, leading research libraries, and their universities, will be known for the quality of their local online databases as much as for the excellence of their book collections. Development of such databases is the most important work that research libraries have to undertake in the next decade, certainly more important than retrospective conversion, given the rapid rate at which new knowledge is being discovered.

Works Cited

Halman, Talat S. "From Babylon to Liberspace." American Libraries 26.9 (Oct. 1995): 895-898.

Jacobson, Robert L. "Desktop Libraries." Chronicle of Higher Education 42.11 (10 Nov. 1995): A23-26.

"Researchers Temper Their Ambitions for Digital Libraries." Chronicle of Higher Education 42:13 (24 Nov. 1995): A19.

Kaneshiro, Kellie N. "Birth Defects Encyclopedia Online (BDEO): A Knowledge Base." Medical Reference Services Quarterly 11.1 (Spring 1992): 17-30.

LaGuardia, Cheryl. "Virtual Dreams Give Way to Digital Reality." Library Journal 120.16 (1 Oct. 1995): 42-44.

Levin, Aaron. "The Log-On Library." Johns Hopkins Magazine 44.1 (Feb. 1992): 11-19.

Ray, Ron. "Crucial Critics for the Information Age." Library Journal 118.6 (1 Apr. 1993): 46-49.

Watkins, Beverly. "Many Campuses Start Building Tomorrow's Electronic Library." Chronicle of Higher Education 39.2 (2 Sept. 1992): A19-A21.