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- some international perspectives on bytes, books and buildings

L. Voogt,
Secretary General of IFLA

Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen, Colleagues and Friends

As the official representative of IFLA at this seminar, I hope you will forgive me for starting my speech by talking about Beijing rather than about Shanghai, even after the very impressive Opening Ceremony yesterday. Since this is the first time since the 62nd IFLA General Conference that I have returned to your beautiful country, I feel that I can not begin this speech today without first most warmly thanking the Chinese Ministry of Culture, the China Society for Library Science and the full Chinese library community and for their support to the IFLA General Conference in 1996. Thanking all of you and congratulating you at the same time - this Conference was a most impressive achievement that the organizers are to be very proud of. I was pleased to be able to give that same message to Culture Minister Liu Zhongde when I met with him in Beijing earlier this week.

For many of us, IFLA meeting in China was a dream come true. Already in 1934 the first outlines of that dream had been sketched. The IFLA meeting then took place in Madrid. Mr. Hu reported on China and used the following words: "..we want to help all those coming to China to study through advice, recommendations, receptions, working out travel routes, in short in every possibly way, and so we have not given up hope that in spite of the distance the Librarians Congress itself will one day be able to meet in China". And one day it did - as we have shown the international library and information world...

Positive international reactions to the Beijing Conference have been manifold. Although the medium was different (ranging from verbal comments, letters that I received, phone calls, electronic mail messages) - their message was one and the same: grateful recognition for an extremely successful conference, deep respect for the conference planning and arrangements here in China, and of course the overwhelming impressions of the visit to China, with its historical and cultural treasures (many of them highlighted during the social programmes, the tours and the library visits).

Only a few days ago, the IFLA Executive Board met for its December meeting in The Hague at IFLA Headquarters. Board Members fly in to the Netherlands from four continents, and eight different countries - including China - for an intense two days of meetings. This was the first formal opportunity to discuss the results of the Conference by the Executive Board Members, based on the report provided by the Chinese Organizing Committee. Ms. Sun Beixin had an opportunity to highlight some of the most distinguishing features of the report, and those were welcomed very much by the members of the Board. However, one surprise was withheld from the Board for another day. When Ms. Sun had received the definitive word from her colleagues here in the financial department in China, however, that special surprise could be announced: the financial results of the Beijing Conference are so impressive, that the contribution of this Conference to IFLA's general budget is the biggest that has ever been realized. Again, a record for the 62nd General Conference and you will understand that the Board gave Ms. Sun an impressive round of applause.

Ladies and gentlemen, I find it easy to shift my attention now from Beijing to Shanghai. First and foremost, because we at IFLA Headquarters have always come to appreciate the work by the Organizing Committee as work on behalf of the whole of China. In that sense, there was no doubt that the IFLA Conference had the full support of the complete Chinese library community. There was ample proof of this, too, when my wife and I visited Shanghai, Huangzhou and Nanjing in July of this year, and we could sample and tast the interest and the enthusiasm - not only from the library and information professionals involved, but also and as strongly from the representatives of the city and provincial governments.

Let me now continue by bringing all of you congratulations from IFLA President Robert Wedgeworth, the Officers and the Members of IFLA on the opening of this very impressive new building for the Shanghai library. International congratulations, therefore, for a building that deserves international respect and recognition. Secretly - and as an aside - I am pleased and proud that my colleague and friend Piet Schoots has been involved as a consultant for this huge project. It shows that the people from the Netherlands still live up to the image that the Chinese developed of them when they started doing business with China early in the 18th century. Then it was said: all foreigners are blind in doing business, Dutch people have one eye, and the Chinese have two!

This new building will house and bring together two of the strongest Shanghai information institutions: the Shanghai Library and the Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of Shanghai. As the Chinese saying goes "everybody can buy a good house, but good neighbours are priceless". Neighbours in the same building and in a new organisational framework - a framework that will attract growing attention, both within and outside of China.

To combine the opening of the building with a forward-looking seminar is a very good idea indeed, since the opening of a building of this magnitude attracts a lot of attention. Attention that will come with questions too, I hasten to add. Those are the same questions that will be asked of the new Bibliotheque Nationale de France, the new British Library and the new San Francisco Public Library, to mention only a few examples.

As the topic for my lecture today, I have therefore chosen to look at the future of library services in the context of new library buildings and the new information environment that is developing rapidly. So rapidly, in effect, that one may think its impact is not yet visible in the new important library buildings that go up around the world.

As Brian Lang, Chief Executive of the British Library, has put it: "The late twentieth century is a period of paradox for libraries. On the one hand, the closing decade will be recalled, in Europe at any rate, as a time of great new library buildings. The national libraries of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Denmark are all opening new buildings; some of them, as in Paris and London, are monumental in scale, the largest public buildings of the century in each country. On the other hand, libraries are living through an information revolution, the fruits of which could suggest that centralized book repositories are redundant."

In other words, critics might argue that in the world of growing electronic publishing and increasing electronic library services, libraries should become smaller and smaller. The issue here is a highly significant one and goes well beyond matters of building size and space: Have we as librarians and library builders not kept up with the pace of change in our enviroment, and, have we become the proverbial frogs at the bottom of the well, looking up and seeing only part of the sky, not able to climb up for the full complete view?

As Han Suying has said: You can not pick a problem as a flower, and then approach it apart from its environment, its historical sources, and its deepest roots. Therefore, we must look back upon the history of the library and its role as the 'treasure house of knowledge'.

Large national, public and academic libraries in the twentieth century owe much of their national and international reputations to the sheer magnitude of their collections how many pounds and pieces of printed matter are available on site to their users. Ownership of information was the key to a successful acquistions policy and the basis for the widest possible appeal to the library's constituency. For much of this century, access to remote information was hampered in libraries by the length of time it took to procure it and by the associated costs, that were sometimes even passed over to the user by the library. Large networked computer systems have drastically changed this situation. The drop in the cost of locating remote items, through the use of a large, shared bibliographic database, and the availability of alternative methods for fast delivery (fax delivery and courrier services most notably), have led to a marked shift in values for some types of libraries. Academic libraries increasingly are emphasizing quick access to print information anywhere rather than attempting to own all known print information locally, on site. Public libraries try to achieve similar goals, often through more pragmatical means of resource sharing. The power of technology has not only allowed libraries to share resources more easily and less expensively, it has also allowed the library to bring more information and more up to date information to its users. This brings us back to our original question: in what way have the 'bytes' have had an impact on the books and the buildings?

Access to electronic information is highly dependent on access to computers and to networks. Much has been written about "wiring the last mile" (that is, bringing the network to the home) and about making computers more available to those who can least afford them. While issues of connectivity are important, Nancy John - former IFLA Professional Board member - points out that three more fundamental forces limit access to electronic information. These are:

  1. how much older, print based information has been and will be converted to digital format

  2. how much new information is published in digital format only

  3. whether electronic information is network accessible

The lack of data conversion usually can be traced to a perception of the actual value of information in the marketplace. Since the information is usually available in one format (generally print), it must be shown that there is some extraordinary added value to re issuing it in another (digital) format. From much of the knowledge thus far collected, organized and preserved in libraries, this added value will simply be impossible to define.

The second category, new digital data, is more complex. Commercial considerations are very real, intricate and heterogeneous. Also, the market for electronic publications is by far not as developed as the one for print publications, dissemination mechnanism and pricing, for instance, still require lots of attention. In some cases, the lack of the means to use electronic formats will further reduce the number of potential users and customers for digital information. Simply put, it just doesn't pay to digitize information that only few people want, and even fewer can use. Before the current era of digitized and digital information, librarians addressed the need for dissemination of information by persuading publishers and authors to create books using the forces of demand and supply. Publishers helped librarians by reprinting out of print books and by encouraging authors to create books on certain topics. Librarians helped publishers and their editors to identify key topics that needed to be addressed with new publications. In the digital era, these same techniques are being applied but in slightly different ways. For example, the efforts of librarians have contributed greatly to the development of large bibliographic databases, to the creation of electronic versions of print texts and also to the publication of electronic journals and full text repositories of journals articles.

The final area, whether electronic information can be used over the network, presents a different set of considerations. What is needed is the ability to convert data from a proprietary to an open format and to provide a low risk access method. As librarians have become more involved in addressing these issues, a new role for the library has emerged. A significant group of libraries, particularly in Europe and the America, has decided to begin to create electronic information, not just provide access to information made by others. At this moment it is unclear what the consequences of this strategy will be, particularly in regard to relationships with other key players in this area - notably the publishers and the subscription agents.

Despite these constraints on access to electronic information and the lack of clear strategies for libraries to follow, is it also clear that those who have prophesised the fatal decline of the library in the 'post-print age' have been wrong. In many cases, the library itself is developing into the central locus of access to high-technology information storage and retrieval systems. Libraries have indeed worked hard on exploring the possibilities and potential of the new technology, but we can not ignore that this does not address many of the remaining difficult cultural, legal and socio-political issues.

Libraries make knowledge accessible - not books or electronic records, but knowledge. Knowledge requires organization and context. As there is no such thing as a single wave in the oceans - as Chinese philosophy has it - knowledge can not be seen and treated in isolation. To parafrase the Chief Executive of the British Library: the actuality of our libraries in this state of flux is that demand for library reading rooms continues to rise. Libraries house great treasures, whether these be 18th century encyclopedia's from the Ming dynasty (as I was priviliged to see one in Huangzhou) or the latest treatise in thermodynamics - and they have the staff that is willing to increasingly employ old and new technologies side by side.

There can be no doubt, in sum, that the library of the future will be a hybrid institution that contains both digital and book collections. Although some library leaders envision purely digital libraries without walls, there will be a continuing role for the library building. Public libraries, in particular, will demonstrate a growing societal role. They will be enjoyed as central and valued community meeting space, will act as an integrator within the comminities, crossing barriers of race and language, and a focus for of community information. Public libraries are generally respected and trusted. As the City Librarian of San Francisco said: "The public considers a great library system to be an essential part of a great city". I am sure Mr. Ma will agree that the same holds true for Shanghai.

The new building of the Shanghai library crowns a period of intense library building in China. Hundreds, possible thousands of new libraries have gone up -among the 2,500 odd public libraries alone, nearly 1,000 were newly built. On the occasion of the IFLA Conference, an impressive book on 'Chinese Library Buildings' was published, giving 230 ex. of library buildings, all built in 80's and 90s. Introducing the book, Mr. Li Minghua analyzes the tremendous progress in design and construction of library buildings in China, and points at four significant factors:

This new building for the Shanghai library will not be the end to this upward trend. As we speak, many other libraries in China are under construction. They will not be as impressive as this library, but they will help to strengthen the total library system in China, that covers 15 provinces, 4 autonomous regions and 34 languages.

The job for the architects and the librarians is not an easy one - but then, these are challenging times and - as it is said in China - everyone can sail a ship on a calm sea. As I think Confucius has once remarked: we do not have to fear if we only make slow progress, we have to be afraid when we stand still! The challenge of change has not been laid to rest...

I would like to end, therefore, by giving you a quotation from the Director of the Cleveland Public Library, that is highly appropriate: " To find our way in a comtemporary world of knowledge, we need the latitude and the longitude, the yin and the yang, the book and the screen. Digital information is not a revolution but a development, albeit a fast one, and information is only part of what it takes to achieve knowledge. In the end it is not the speed of the information or even the information itself that will give our lives meaning. It is still what we do with it that matters most."

I wish the Shanghai library a vigorous future - may its holdings contribute to an informed and knowledgeable constituency in this vibrant city and may it be a role model for librarians and architects alike in the Confucian' sense: Only they who cherish old knowledge and constantly gather new, may be a teacher to others!