The Digital Full Monty? Issues in Global Information Access


It's a truism that the information world is getting smaller. We are linked in an information society in a way probably only realised by some science fiction writers. Clarke (1967) portrayed a future vision of information access which he believed would benefit the underdeveloped areas of the world. He wrote in a chapter in that book 'Everybody in Instant Touch' that satellites will bring "above all, education into the heart of Africa, the endless steppes of Central Asia, the jungles of South America". The physical embodiment of this global information world which Clarke envisaged may come about through the Microsoft/Intel/Boeing alliance of low level satellite blanket provision in the early years of the next century. This may put in effect what Bill Gates has called the global digital nervous system. Let's hope there are no digital nervous breakdowns! The first year of operation of Papua New Guinea's Internet operations has seen many power failures due to the worst drought in recent times affecting power supply and "outages" for 50% of the last six months - an Internet breakdown.

However what if the end result of this globalisation is trivialisation of media and information access. Compare the global media coverage of the death of Princess Diana to that of Mother Theresa? Clarke also envisaged what he called the "Electronic Blackboard" but global soap has so far out blacked out Shakespeare. Sociological studies have revealed the decline of local ethnic rites by indigenous populations around the world and the counter prevailing influence/impact of American T.V. soaps. The Non Western world yearns for Coca-Cola, Satellite TV, McDonald's, the Internet and Hollywood (Appiah, Gates & Vasquez, 1997). Professor R.M.W. Dixon (1997) of the Australian National University has identified in his latest book the rapid decline of aboriginal languages in Australia in the twentieth century.

The Web site for the 1998 Winter Olympics at Nagano registered a record 646:3 million hits. If this can be achieved for such relatively unpopular games (although it could be linked to non prime time America access), and for sports such as curling, then the future Net trends could be dramatic. The World Wide Web is dominated by American useage - 84% in the March OCLC Research Institute figures. Yet no more then 10% of the world's population use English to communicate.

Globalisation or Americanisation?

Thus we're seeing, in general terms, an English language dominance (and largely Americanisation) of the global information world, not only of content but also of the distribution mechanisms. Cees Nooteboom, the distinguished Dutch author, stated in March 1998 at the Adelaide Writers Festival that foreign language writers increasingly need English translations of their works if they are to impact upon a global readership. Does it matter that American information dominates many of the electronic services Australian libraries offers? I think it does - local content is just as important whether it be Korea, France or New Zealand in information as it is in television and the movies. IBM's Internet supremo John Patrick regaled listeners at the Brisbane WW3 meeting in April 1998 with a story from an earlier World Wide Web conference held in Paris several years ago where the hosts insisted on a quota of papers delivered in French. Patrick recalled how he told the organisers: "I can speak two languages, English and HTML (hypertext mark-up language)".

Huntington (1996) in his best selling book argued global politics are both multipolar and multicivilizational and that modernisation is distinct from Westernisation. His arguments on like societies bonding together and the continuing rise of Islamic forces still holds true, but his words "the survival of the West depends on Americans reaffirming their Western identity" is clearly happening on the Net. This book was also written in the context of the Asian tigers boom, and while Asia will re-emerge, it does emphasise the dangers of general predictions of cyclical trends.

In that context of prediction, the 1998 US Congress Report on Electronic Commerce reported and predicted that

  • $6 billion in goods and services were sold on the Internet last year
  • Trade is forecast to boom to $300 billion by the year 2002
  • 7 per cent of all airline tickets in the US are expected to be bought over the Internet in 1999
  • 20 per cent of all books sold in the US will be sold over the Internet by 2000
  • Internet usage in general is doubling every 100 days
  • 1 billion people expected to be on the Internet by 2005

Societal Changes

Globalisation will be accelerated by the development of virtual organisations which might also become virtual feudalisms. Castells (1996) urges us to address the cultural and institutional effects of such rapid changes in the access to and exchange of information. The segmentation of knowledge encapsulated in the Net may be reflected, Castells argues, in an extreme flexibility of work patterns and the individualisation of labour. Will societal structures be fragmented in consequence? Castells writes "the struggle between diverse capitalists and the miscellaneous working classes is subsumed into the more fundamental opposition between the bare logic of capital flows and the cultural values of human experience".

Local providers will have to provide niche markets in either service or content, which, of course, in turn can be global. The corner store will be replaced by the hypermall, the local bank by on-line commerce, the local bookshop by the Internet super bookstores, while the local library could be challenged by the future super information providers. Will librarians facilitate communication in the new cyber communities or be left on the side of the Information Superhighway?

The Net world of social obligation may grow smaller but the social implications and responsibilities will be more and more apparent. As Ursula Le Guin has written: "but need alone is not enough to set power free - there must be knowledge". Where does global responsibility come in? Where are the Ten Commandments for the Millennium? What are the belief systems of the twenty first century information society? Is all that remains the quick sand of cultural relativism and rampant consumerism? Is the Net to provide the wider curriculum of information/education?

Generational Changes

Future generations will reflect in Net use their current use of computer games, multimedia habits of accessing information. Tapscott (1997), who coined the term "paradigm shift" to describe the impact of the information society, has indicated that as the current generation has grown up "bolted in bits", they will not only be familiar with the Net environment of non sequential access, but they will also demand highly customised products.

Virtual medicine or Internet medical web pages are now troubling some doctors as users can get expert information on the Net. Why wait for ages in a doctor's surgery and then pay a lot for a basic diagnosis if the Net doctor can help you? British Telecom's prototype of a cardiac monitoring wristwatch is just one example of medical technology to come. Why do we need a local library, except in physical terms like a surrogate creche or meeting place for pensioners, if it becomes virtual? Local, indeed national providers, will have to compete with the providers in the global marketplace.

As Manguel (1997) has written the cyber generation returns from the book centered Hebrew traditions of Augustine to the bookless Greek tradition. If virtual three dimensional super market shops are inevitable on the Net allied to home delivery what will be the future consequences for the virtual information profession? In terms of such geography what will be the consequences of the explosion of interactive Net working? Will workers continue to travel into high cost city centres when all the costs of commuting in time and money are weighed up.

Will we, or can we, adopt what might be called calming or restraining technology, ie, personal filters which block out the world rather than allowing 'push' types of information. Netscape's Aurora, billed as the next generation browsing interface, allows integration of websites, bookmarks, e-mail, local desktop files etc. "Push and pull" becomes integrated. Voice interfacing with A1 agents will become inevitable.

Geography will not be the controlling variable although the delivery will depend on global economics. The 'iceberg' of input has to come globally, perhaps from the vast array of information thinkers, currently hidden by the massive American "tip". Ghosh's (1996) novel, The Calcutta Chromosome, which won the Arthur C. Clarke award for best Science Fiction Novel in the UK, links an Internet society and provides an alternate view of the development and dissemination of Western scientific advances and cultures. Given the ubiquity of Indian programmers and sub-contracting, where is the Indian sub-continent in the predictions of the information future? Will India's population leap from vast non-literacy to a visual post literate Net and TV future in an expansion of their information "Bollywood"? If so what will be the division between entertainment and what infotainment?

Predicting the Future

Science fiction writers of the 1950's like Isaac Asimov predicted information would be delivered via punched cards and inter library loans in the far future would be via fax output. Sooner rather than later CD-Roms will be seen as an interim technology like microfilm. Only twenty years ago Digital's former CEO predicted there would be no use for home computers. In 1982 Bill Gates was predicting that 640K of main memory would be sufficient power for user workspaces in operating systems and Microsoft failed to recognise the importance of the Internet in the early 1990's.

If the future is access then John Patrick's vision expounded at the Seventh International World Wide Web Conference in April 1998 in Brisbane, Australia will be awesome and awful. Patrick, IBM's V.P. for Internet Technology, believes in the relatively near future telephones, pagers, churches (Dial a God?) and vending machines will be all web connected. Patrick cites the 3 'C's as most important - Content, Commerce and Collaboration.

In contrast to that future vision I think back to 1960 when Oxford University Bodley's Librarian J.N.L. Myres was still using the ink quill pen of his nineteenth century predecessors to write letters to users. Now the Bodleian well and truly is linked by the Net to the world. Yet less then four decades have passed. How does one predict accurately the future when the pace of change is accelerating so fast in technological and societal change? What will be the pace of change in the next four decades?

Denning and Metcalfe (1997) in their book provide some significant pointers to possible future realities.

  • by 2047 almost all information will be in cyberspace (cf Lesk's (1997) 2010 digital and library/museum comparisons)
  • one-chip fully networked systems will be ubiquitous at very low cost. The issue will be to define the interface between physical and cyber space. Will we have a body network - the mobile phone/watch communicator?
  • speech (English?) recognition will do away with keyboards and allow universal access by all ages and nationalities
  • Visions can be achieved - the underlying technologies may be different (cf Babbage and Vannevar Bush analogies)
  • Those in work work harder and longer while those out of work increase?
  • Work will be independent of location - outsourcing allied to individual life styles. Piecework on the Net. Globalisation will be by interest not location.

Concern has often been expressed, as mentioned earlier, as to the nature of the American content in global information provision. Major American ILMS providers often shape their deals and practices in the US and then trying to impose them on to other global environments. US historical rigidity or practices may not be "best practice" and comprise more flexible approaches internationally.

Having said that regions are not always homogenous as mentioned earlier. Are Australia and New Zealand part of Asia is an issue that has been much debated not least by Prime Minister Mahathir of Malaysia? Incidentally will the cultural background of Malaysia be a detraction to the success of the much vaunted Malaysian hi-tech corridor. Why has Ireland or rather Dublin succeeded in I.T. development and Kuala Lumpur so far not? Has culture got something to do with it in terms of entrepreneuralism and failure? Did the structure of Japanese society and language inhibit the Silicon Valley type of invention and entrepreneuralism? Will Japan's face to face business method fail on the Net? What might work in France might not in UK, eg. in terms of copyright and privacy rules.

Resource Discovery and Intelligent Agents

In an era of increased co-ordination the constituent elements will include electronic library facilities, multimedia interactive classrooms, virtual reality laboratories, design and innovation centres which sit within or by the side of traditional print libraries. The Abilene Internet Protocol Network expected to be fully completed by the end of 1999 should provide the US platform for the development of multimedia applications as the research and education network and provide the basis for the "next generation Internet".

Resource discovery will increasingly be a global activity with the focus of information access being in ever expanding circles rather then focussing back to a local print library, as has been the situation in the past. My colleague Tony Barry at ANU has indicated that the net will empower centralised services such as OCLC and the search engine facilitators and that small groups will be effective globally in niche markets. (I note incidentally that the Net selling of meteorites is a booming niche market!) It will be the middle ground, Barry argues, which will be weakened and libraries fall into that space!

Who provides the "intelligence" in the searching is the key factor in the future digital library environment. In future indexing services will be less and less popular unless they are linked to full text sources, either of the original creator direct, or by document access. Traditional catalogues are equally endangered unless seen as multi-source entry points to full texts and/or include metadata resources. Why spend funds in the future to simply document the outside physical characteristics of a book item when it is the "inside" text which is important. Is it more important to provide access to the material on-line then in a physical repository where use is restricted.

Twenty four hour electronic reference "intelligence" services could be available from our libraries but how many currently offer them? They could be funded on a fee for service basis. In other areas of electronic access services, where funds are tight, there has been established definition between 'core' and "value added services". Intelligent agents or "data miners" in many areas will replace some services by librarians. As users can delineate their requirements in terms of access to 'x' or 'y' topics in their specialities then commercial and non-commercial providers will increasingly provide customised access profiles. Material inside that profile delivered by the agents will either be free, available under an institutional site license, or at a price as the user pays to open a particular envelope of information.

Pricing models however will be crucial for future subscriptions as budget cuts dig deeper and some major publishers continue to maximise profits over delivery of services to their academic providers.

Global Information Access Necessities (The Digital Full Monty?)

Features which will exist in a global electronic information market will include (in no particular order):

  • ubiquitous desktop access (cf the future "wristwatch" access)
  • tailored and flexible gateways to information
  • ease of access to information with location no barrier
  • interchangeability, interoperability and compatibility
  • 24 hour access to information ie. when the user wants it
  • public library gateways to the Net provide citizens "rights" to information
  • inclusion of local content alongside global material
  • Slices of information eg. chapters, contributions to symposia, articles will be the norm for electronic access rather then the simple replication of books or journals
  • value added databases and features in the academic arena such as multimedia hot links (ie. sound, images etc.)
  • Increasing ease of economic network print delivery with authentication, copyright protection, electronic payment facilities
  • Customised personal information filters both for data screening and quality ratings
  • An increasing jungle of complexity of electronic licensing in the short term
  • The academic community reclaiming the copyright and their distribution of their research output to combat rise in costs of much "essential" electronic information eg. in law, medical and engineering

If the above factors emerge in the early twenty first century what will be the impact upon

  • libraries

Academic User Access Requirements

Users don't want system obsolescence in software (cf Microsoft) and will need efficient migratory pathways. Seamless accessibility is clearly another message coming from academic users. Analysis of the PSLI (Pilot Site Licence Initiative) in the UK affirms that users prefer subject gateways and one stop shops (outside of Webpac links in OPACS) to access data rather than having to remember which publisher produces which journal title. What is required for future access in institutional terms, in no particular order, are customised slices of information at lower prices, individual customisation of services, fair use provision, co-operative mechanisms and less monopolistic "fait accomplis". The issue whether to collect or to access data is an increasingly important and contentious one. In the research academic community the general dependence on print bears little relevance to useage but generations of scholars brought up before the Net have been reluctant to move to on demand access.

It is well understood that monographs at the present time are unwieldy on the Net yet increasingly expensive for university presses to produce. Scholarly communication patterns will need to implement developments whereby books and chapters are available on line (eg. Columbia's International Affairs Online) but with an easily available network print access outlet at reasonable cost and with appropriate copyright protection. The subsequent movement to organic Net production will then follow.

Article access is relatively easy but the costs of monographic loans are expensive on staffing and insurance costs. The average surface mail from UK to Australia for a book in 1998 is 3 months and is a worse delivery time than the late nineteenth century when the 'clippers' sailed with the Indian Ocean winds. US to Australia surface mail has deteriorated in the last few years from 45 days to 75 days on average. The cost of airmail postage of monographs is often prohibitively high for return postage. The cost of a large folio volume of runic inscriptions requested from a Scandinavian library to ANU for example ran into over a hundred dollars.

In the context of future book production and attention spans it is relevant that many of the conglomerates are multimedia providers. Dr Peter Cochrane (1997), Head of BT Research writes "Thirty years ago I could have found time to read "War and Peace" or any other tomb (sic). Even 10 years ago I might have attempted such a laborious process, but not any more. I just cannot find the time to work through 10, 30-page (or more) chapters, let alone 2 or 3 chapters in one go. So this book is written and organised in subject bytes of about 600 words. These 24kbyte monologues can be read in less than 5 minutes while you wait for a cab, have lunch, a coffee, an Internet download, or perhaps more likely while you journey by car, train or plane."

Virtual Universities and Global Learning Access

Physical universities will not die because of the need for social interaction but the mode of mass learning and research will. Already discipline boundaries are breaking down on the Net. Groups of connected scholars globally have more in common with each other than their increasingly managerial university environments, where there is an emphasis on performance and delivery rather than the historical collegiality. The Net web of intellectual "anarchy" replaces campus "anarchy" - the wheel barrow of academic frogs analogy!

The Gartner Group estimate that by the year 2000 more then 75% of traditional colleges and universities will use distributed learning technologies in one or more traditional academic programmes. Lifelong learning, or lifelong retraining, will become the norm so the underpinning of such needs for structural information will be required. In the UK 70% of jobs now require cerebral skills and less than 30% manual skills. Fifty years ago the reverse was true.

Will organisations such as OCLC want to go into the virtual education market - and become a sort of "Infobarn"? The virtual universities will need virtual delivery of content. Mass physical lectures are clearly outmoded in the future. Students should be able, particularly as many have part-time jobs, to access to their lectures, plus associated material, whenever they want and increasingly it may be (given global accreditation facilities) from whomever they want. I liked Bernard Naylor, the Librarian of Southampton University's, reuse of RBL (Resource Based Learning) as Relocate the Beggars (Buggers?!) in the Library as quoted in a recent UK Dearing Conference.

In a higher education market research collections will have to be linked at a global co-operative level. There will be an associated growth of specialists in organising knowledge and the development of niche markets. "Cybergurus" will wander the Web dispensing information like the medieval scholar or minstrel. Sir David Puttnam at the Singapore Virtual University Conference in August 1996 compared the development of the video industry with that of global virtual education and called for visions to be held now for the twenty first century. Puttnam cited his desire circa 1970 to gain venture capital to buy up the Rank movie stock and was asked by British bankers for what purpose. His response of arguing for control of movies for future video dissemination was treated with disdain, yet by 1980 film rights were major bargaining video chips. He was a decade too early for the British funding agencies whose vision was limited.

Picking the right trends a decade ahead is the key. The availability for entrepreneurial capital is limited in Australia and comes back again to the balance of risk capital and vision in the Net world. If, as Puttnam now states, the British film industry is an oxymoron then what is the case in the virtual university and global information arena?

Copyright and Archiving

Goldstein (1994) of Stanford University Law School titled his book Copyright's Highway: From Gutenberg to the Celestial Jukebox. He uses the term "celestial jukebox" to incorporate a console/terminal which allows access to online text, music and video. In such a multimedia environment the nature of copyright, eg, in interactive visual images becomes more complicated but the concept of 'fair use' in a university environment is one which is in need of universal protection. Electronic access rights could actually inhibit free flow of information in a number of cases. The lobbying of librarians at the WIPO Geneva Copyright Summit was important as has been the continuing work of ECUP, the European Copyright Users Platform.

Global copyright of material is important. Academics will have to retain their intellectual property particularly the electronic rights. One published it was noted many publishers initially did not allow electronic retention of an archive. In the current Australian round of negotiations with Academic Press, the firm was unwilling to allow retention of their electronic archive. Even if electronic archives are available does each university need to retain an archive or can they rely on national or international servers to hold relevant files for them? OCLC's electronic archiving role will be an increasingly important one and may be also a link in global sub-partnerships in terms of mirror sites?

As Esther Dyson (1997) has indicated the Information Age may see a return to the pre-industrial Revolution values. As individual themselves become producers and distributors of information, the dichotomy between gigagiant conglomerates and cottage industries will be evident and be mixed.

In this context one could cite the example of Brewster Kahle, who incidentally has termed himself a "digital anthropologist". When Kahle came to the April 1993 Canberra Conference on Scholarly Communication he could be excited by his first cross Pacific United economy flight! In 1998 he sold his Internet Wide Area Information server to America Online for $15 million US. US pioneering individual efforts are merging into the conglomerate in rapidly diminishing time frames.

Specific vendors such as Reuters and Dow Jones have moved away from dedicated static interfaces to open Web access. The need to reevaluate and restructure is clear. When ANU Library began pioneering electronic newspapers in 1993/4 with Reuters data, Reuters management, at least in Australia couldn't grasp the potential of the Net, nor that a system which could deliver newspapers to e-mail addresses just as easily in Taiwan or Scandinavia as in Australia. Their regional office monopolises prevented globalisation possibilities but information flow can no longer can be tied to a country or region. The dissemination profile has to be global. Chadwyck-Healey's Periodical Contents Index initiatives in 1998 recognise both the need for global access and the need to sell 'regional' bits.

The rise of ICOLC (The International Coalition of Library Consortia), currently comprising about sixty library consortia, shows how the building bricks of library organisation might be erected vis a vis the well known multinational information providers. Thus the Australian and New Zealand university library community carries relatively little weight on their own but allied to the European and American groups it can provide increased leverage. Partnerships and strategic alliances may well be the way of the future. Can librarians broker multi-national deals as the Council of Australian University Librarians is currently attempting to link in with SOLINET (the Southern Library Network) in the USA for an across country deal? There is relatively little interaction between the various Innovative world wide user groups but what if they banded together for consortia deals? What is the power of the user community?

Net Bookshops into Libraries

The linking of libraries from their catalogues and/or web sites to the major providers of new books like or Barnes and, or to the antiquarian book providers like ABE, Antiquarian Arcade and Interloc, opens up new dimensions to material which transcends the traditional library networks. It may be cheaper in the future to buy a volume from the Antiquarian Net than borrow and return on a one off basis the item from an overseas library. The US Net is far more advanced in this context than the UK where secondhand booksellers seem less organised and more idiosyncratic despite the richness of the collections there. Global traffic will follow the best value, irrespective of country loyalties, and this pattern will be reflected in content access and dissemination. It is easier to buy British second hand imprints from America rather than UK because Net co-ordination is better in the former country.

In the physical sense bookshops of the superstore variety are generally open longer than Libraries and are often more attractively designed to include reading areas, cybercafes etc. Authors come in to do readings and signings perhaps more than in their local library. Those who have been to the Tattered Cover bookshop in Denver or Elliott Bay bookshop in Seattle will realise what an attractive venue a bookshop can be. In addition bookshop staff probably cost less in staffing but obviously the library in theory gives more added value services and reference facilities. If the bookstores moved into this sphere of influence maybe the libraries influence could be significantly challenged.


The twenty first century will provide "the digital full monty" for the traditional library and information profession. We will need to strip bare the shibboleths of the routines which have been practised for most of the twentieth century as global commerce and niche markets respectively will provide the needs of the end user in the Net TV environment. Lifelong learning and "infotainment" will be required on a twenty four hour basis. Clearly that cannot be done given the large reductions in real funding in many countries (althought the recent Blair Government UK initiatives in library and information provision are a welcome sign from a beleaguered Australian cultural scene) without dramatic reprioritisation of activities or by new commercial alliances, many of which will be global in nature.


Appaih, K., Gates, H.L., & Vazques, M.C.eds. (1997) The Dictionary of Global Culture, Knopf, New York.

Castells, M. (1996) The Rise of the Network Society, Blackwells Publishers, Cambridge, MA.

Clarke, A.C. (1967) The Coming of the Space Age, famous accounts of man's probing of the universe, Meredith Press, New York.

Cochrane, P. (1997) Tips for Time travellers: visionary insights into new technology, life and the future by one of the world's leading technology prophets, Orion Business Books, London.

Denning, R.J., & Metcalfe, R. (1997) Beyond Calculation. The Next Fifty Years of Computing, Copernicus, New York.

Dixon, R.M.W., (1997) The Rise and Fall of Languages, Cambridge University Press, New York.

Dyson, E. (1997) Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age, Viking, London.

Ghosh, A. (1996) The Calcutta Chromosome: a novel of fevers, delirium and discovery, AA Knopf Canada, Toronto.

Goldstein, P. (1994) Copyright's Highway: From Gutenberg to the Celestial Jukebox, Hill and Wang, New York.

Huntington, S.P. (1996) The Clash of Civilisations, Simon & Schuster, New York.

Lesk, M. (1997) Practical Digital Libraries: books, bytes and bucks, Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, San Francisco.

Manguel, A. (1996) The History of Reading, Viking, New York.

Tapscott, D. (1997) Growing up digital: the rise of the net generation, McGraw-Hill, New York.

Updated:  20 March 2013/ Responsible Officer:  University Librarian/ Page Contact:  Library Systems & Web Coordinator