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Libraries—The Information Society in Action
by
Posted On November 14, 2005
The WSIS pre-conference, Libraries—the Information Society in Action, was held Nov. 10-11 in Alexandria, Egypt (http://www.bibalex.org/wsisalex). It was organized by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA; http://www.ifla.org) in co-operation with the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and was supported by several sponsors. The pre-conference presented some of the best practices from libraries around the world in the areas of health, education and training, media literacy, preserving of cultural heritage, and disaster preparedness. Several hot-button issues emerged during the event.

Internet Governance

The strong feeling among the developing nation librarians in attendance was that Internet governance should be under international control, not under U.S. control. The IFLA delegation to the Tunis, Tunisia, meeting, led by current IFLA president Alex Byrne, will formally state this position to the Summit. However, IFLA members are not optimistic that their position will prevail. They believe the U.S. feels strongly that since the Internet evolved in the U.S., the fruits of its efforts and investments should justifiably be returned to the U.S. But the librarians, especially those coming from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, believe that certain functions of the overall governance mechanism could be controlled by a world body, while certain other functions could continue to be controlled by the U.S. To a lesser extent, the same view is shared by the European librarians, especially those from Northern and Western European countries; the Central, Eastern, and Southern European countries tend to side more with the U.S.

In any event, the IFLA delegation will attempt to negotiate the matter in Tunis. Failing in that attempt, they will try to ensure that world librarian views on the matter are accorded a very visible place in the final reports.

Social Inclusion

At least half of the presentations made to the pre-Summit delegates involved, in one way or another, the notion of social inclusion. That is to say, governments need to work much harder to find ways to reach out to immigrants, the under-employed, the unemployed, and other "unstable" populations. Governments should begin to see libraries as a tool to help reduce social unrest and terrorism. Thus far, the librarians conceded, the traditional view most governments have had of the role of libraries and librarians in a terrorist age has been to see them as rather passive and unresponsive players (i.e., they provide a safe oasis for the homeless but are not proactive institutions that have much to offer to unstable populations). By encouraging unstable groups to come into libraries and access the Internet and read books and periodicals, the belief is that libraries—especially public and school libraries—could become much more valuable to their governments and countries.

The other aspect of social inclusion is more closely related to the traditional library role, but it is placed a little more squarely in the context of the Information Society. It is that libraries and information services share the common vision of an Information Society For All (analogous to UNESCO's Information For All and Education For All programs), which might be viewed as a restatement of the "Haves versus Have Nots." But, it has the added objective of libraries helping all citizens to create, access, use, and share information and knowledge.

IFLA urges national, regional, and local governments, as well as international organizations, to invest in library and information services as vital elements of their Information Society strategies. The claim is that, in so doing, an informed and literate citizenry will not only be more stable, but more productive and thus able to participate more effectively in the democratic process and also be helpful members of their respective local communities.

Proactive Assistance

A third major issue had to do with exhorting the developing countries to be more proactive to their less fortunate country brethren by teaming developed country libraries and information services with their counterparts in developing countries. The term "Sister Libraries" was heard often, and the idea has already been fairly extensively pursued, but in a rather ad hoc and disconnected way. Two libraries team up primarily as a result of one librarian from a developing country meeting another librarian from a developed country. The two initially commit to a closer relationship, which sometimes results in a contractual agreement between their respective home institutions—a university, a library, a professional society or association, or other institution. Now the librarians want to see direct government support and encouragement of a major initiative to prevail on developed country libraries to assist libraries in developing countries.

Cultural Diversity

Lastly, there's an area that used to be called "cultural inundation." There was considerable unhappiness with the U.S. position on cultural diversity taken in a recent U.N. vote, with the U.S. and Israel (except for a few abstentions) lining up on one side of the vote and all other nations lining up on the other side. The IFLA librarians believe strongly in cultural diversity and believe it should be a sovereign right of every country to invest in and exploit cultural assets for both social and economic advantage. Many librarians in attendance were resentful that the U.S. view was too parochial and narrow and did not appreciate the tremendous cultural diversity expression opportunities that, in their view, should be regarded as a core element of the overarching Information Society concept.

We will have to wait and see how these issues play out in Tunis. Librarians are members of the Civil Society, and they have many allies in the many public interest groups that have been very active in the preparatory work going on since the Geneva first phase WSIS meeting. Their strategy seems to be to point out that if nations and the international institutions really do see the Civil Society as a co-equal player in the Information Society and are not simply paying lip service to the Civil Society, then commercial interests and governments must make concessions to the interests of the members of the Civil Society.


Forest Woody Horton Jr. is an independent management consultant retired from the federal government.

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