Archive for October, 2008

Globalization and Its Discontents…and Uses?
October 28, 2008

In the preface to his book, Globalization and Its Discontents, Joseph Stiglitz writes:

“I believe that globalization—the removal of barriers to free trade and the closer integration of national economies—can be a force for good and that it has the potential to enrich everyone in the world, particularly the poor.  But I also believe that if this is to be the case, the way globalization has been managed, including the international trade agreements that have played such a large role in removing those barriers and the policies that have been imposed on developing countries in the process of globalization, need to be radically rethought.” (pp. ix-x)

I feel that this sense of potential, but weariness of its present state, that Stiglitz feels toward globalization is one that must be recognized by those working within global library/information initiatives.  As has been echoed in the last couple of posts, there is no doubt that global libraries owe their existence in part to the phenomenon that is known as globalization.  However, I hope that we can approach—and utilize—global libraries as a response to globalization, rather than merely a product of or reaction to globalization.  For, as Stiglitz writes above, there are elements of globalization that have great potential for use within library/information initiatives—most notably the potential for international cooperation as well as change and empowerment on a grand, global scale—but these elements are not ones commonly attributed to globalization, hence the many “discontents.”  While not directly referring to library and information science, I draw from this text, as I did with Prahalad’s, in hopes that Stiglitz (who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2001) can highlight and make attainable the aspects of globalization that have the potential for good on an international scale.

I believe that a key element of defining global libraries is recognizing how we—as a field, as organizations, as international ambassadors of information dissemination—can utilize and benefit from the potential for good within globalization without becoming a party to its more exploitative elements.

Scalability vs. Uniqueness
October 21, 2008

In his book The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, a book gauged at eradicating poverty through the development of a global market within in the world’s most impoverished areas, C.K. Prahalad creates what he calls the “Twelve Principles of Innovation for BOP markets.”  Principle number three states that:

“…solutions that are developed must be scalable and transportable across countries, cultures, and languages.  How does one take a solution from the southern part of India to the northern part?  From Brazil to India or China?  Solutions must be designed for ease of adaptation in similar [bottom of the pyramid] markets.  This is a key consideration for gaining scale.” (p. 25)

The free-market/consumerist rhetoric aside, this idea of “scalability” or “ease of adaptation” is echoed in the principles and plans of many global library/information initiatives.  Take, for example, the Gates Foundation’s Global Libraries initiative.  Their approach is laid out in the format of “here is how we tackle issues in the U.S. and here is how we will take that template and adapt it to quickly reach a broader audience.”  For example:

Benefit from lessons learned.

Our work to provide free computers and Internet access started with public libraries in the United States and then extended internationally…That lesson shapes our ongoing work with U.S. libraries and informs our international strategies.”

This process of creating a product or template or approach that, at the core, remains the same wherever it is implemented is certainly an product (no  pun intended) of globalization.  Yet, how do libraries and information initiatives use this notion of scalability effectively while also respecting the uniqueness of each culture, country, society, neighborhood, etc. within which they work?  For even C.K. Prahalad recognizes the concerns of uniqueness in the fifth principle: “Product development must start from a deep understanding of functionality, not just form.  Marginal changes to products developed for rich costumers in the United States, Europe, or Japan will not do,” after which he goes on to admit that paradox certainly exists within these principles.  (pp. 26-27)  The Gates Foundation, too, recognizes this issue of uniqueness:

Understand local needs.

In the United States: We’re funding technology improvements in libraries with the greatest need—libraries that serve poor communities and whose computers and Internet services are at risk of becoming outdated.

Globally: Different countries have different needs, capabilities, and priorities. We’re working with our library and government partners to create programs that are sensitive to local and national conditions.”

So, how does one cultivate the fine balance between scalability and uniqueness?  I’ve yet to encounter a completely successful example on a global scale, but to use a local case, which at least acknowledges and acts on this duality, I’d look to the Seattle Public Libraries “Libraries for All” building program.  The universality of the program’s title is actually achieved through highlighting the uniqueness of each neighborhood branch.  At the core of this initiative was the remodeling and reorganizing of the collections of all twenty-seven branches in the system over the past decade.  During the remodels, neighborhood councils and residents were consulted and the collections at particular branches (called “magnet collections”) were cultivated in an attempt to highlight demographic and other characteristics particular to each neighborhood branch.

While Seattle is a large, diverse city, and while SPL’s initiative gets at the core of the question of scalability vs. uniqueness, expanding these ideas to a truly global scale (i.e. operating in multiple countries and regions, rather than, as SPL does, catering to multiple cultures/demographics within one region) has yet to be executed extensively.  Even the Gates Foundation, with their Global Libraries initiative, is only operating in a handful of countries within the area of technology expansion (unlike their Global Development program, which is much more widely spread and involved in issues as diverse and helth and education).  Thus, while I think that all of the ideas discussed here gesture at worthy approaches, much is still to be learned, experimented with, and adapted.

Archives, Totalitarianism, and Milan Kundera
October 18, 2008

Much has been made this past week about the discovery of what appears to be an official police report from Czechoslovakia in 1950 claiming that the writer Milan Kundera informed on a fellow student for, supposedly, being a spy against the Czechoslovakian government.  The Respekt Weekly broke the story, which the New York Times then took up.

The relevance of this event here is that this document was discovered during an archival project for the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes.  Based in Prague, this organization is a state-funded institution that was created with the intention of shedding light on Eastern Europe’s totalitarian past through the archiving, analysis, and publicity of documents that were once deemed official and confidential, most notably in the areas of government and security forces.  The document inculcating Milan Kundera was literally stumbled across by an archivist who happened to be sorting through former police reports.

As to the responsibility of Kundera in these matters—he firmly denies the charges—I am not sure how useful attempting to act upon these claims can be.  While I think that publicizing such a document is merited—it is truly a testament to the purpose of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes—to act beyond making the document known—after so many years, with totalitarianism in the Czech Republic now in the past, especially if those calling for action have had little or no experience living within such a society—seems to me unhelpful, even a bit officious.  This situation recalls a passage from Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate:

“But an invisible force was crushing him.  He could feel its weight, its hypnotic power; it was forcing him to think as it wanted, to write as it dictated.  This force was inside him; it could dissolve his will and cause his heart to stop beating…Only people who have never felt such a force themselves can be surprised that others submit to it.  Those who have felt it, on the other hand, feel astonished that a man can rebel against it even for a moment—with one sudden word of anger, one timid gesture of protest.”

Again, for our discussion here, I find this entire situation so indicative of the necessity and immense potential of organizations like the Institute for the Study of Totalitarianism.

Global Libraries?
October 12, 2008

Perhaps, I should’ve commenced my blog with a post of this sort, but it’s presently difficult to pin down, and the definitional question(s) of “global libraries” are likely to be a set of queries and contentions that persist for a while to come; this is truly a burgeoning field (“field” may even be too generous of a term, at this point).  So, what does it mean to speak of “global libraries”?

I chose to tackle this topic because I find the onset of globally-minded initiatives within the greater sphere of libraries encouraging, intriguing, and necessary; but I also find the situation inchoate, at least in terms of forming a cohesive “movement.”  Do organizations like the Gates Foundation and the Seattle Public Library’s immigrant and refugee programs represent a paradigm shift or are they merely a handful of proactive, globally minded, philanthropic non-profits that just happen to be working within the world of information? Are these initiatives mere extensions of traditional library efforts, or do they represent a sea change not only in ethos but in practice as well?

Some varied opinions:

From the introduction of a textbook entitled Global Librarianship: “…we must first determine if there were general trends or continuities throughout the history of libraries that transcended the particulars of time and place, and then, if such continuities indeed existed, whether they have been disconnected by the emergence of new technologies.”

From the Gates Foundation’s “Global Libraries Initiative”: “Libraries are centrally located, open to all, and charge no fees. Library staff give people access to learning tools and guidance on how to use them…More than 70 percent of those who use library computers say it’s their primary source for connecting to the Internet. Yet revenues at one-third of public libraries are shrinking. As a result, staff get less training in computer skills, people wait to use outdated computers, and slow Internet connections can’t handle streaming video.”

From the Seattle Public Library: “The Library will always be a treasure trove of books and magazines staffed by highly trained professionals who provide excellent service. But we also have a wide array of exciting resources: computers for the public in each Library location; online databases; downloadable books, music, podcasts and movies…Our libraries also are a source of rich cultural and community connections. We offer more than 300 programs and activities a month and we have a wealth of resources for immigrants and refugees.”

While gesturing at similar phenomenon, are these statements at all at odds? The balance that the SPL statement strives for seems to be aiming at a middle ground between the stances of the textbook—questioning whether global, digital, and technological developments are cause for a complete shift in the focus of libraries—and the Gates Foundation—which takes for granted that technology and libraries are, essentially, one in the same.

Regardless of the stance taken, a foundational shift is apparent.  Thus, I am back to the question I pose in the title of my study: what are the duties of libraries within such a global framework?  While this discussion here arguably complicates, rather than clarifies, the question of what it means to refer to “global libraries,” “international librarianship,” “multi-national information initiatives,” etc., perhaps, at this point, a gesture at the trends of initiatives such as the ones mentioned here is as tangible of a definition as one can presently make in regards to what “global libraries” entail.  Whether or not a somewhat cohesive field will grow out of these efforts is yet to be seen, but I do feel that serious thought about this shift—paradigmatic or not—is merited.

Dr. Saad Eskander
October 9, 2008

As a counterpoint to my post last week, which was, admittedly, rather indulgently theoretical, I wanted to highlight the saga of Dr. Saad Eskander, the director for the Iraqi National Library and Archives (INLA).  I had the chance to hear Dr. Eskander speak at Columbia last year, as he accepted an award for “Archivist of the Year.”  As grandiose as this award’s title makes it seem, I couldn’t help but feel that such an award, even if it lived up to its claim, seems a rather small gesture in light of the truly devastating hardships that Dr. Eskander and his staff experience every day in Baghdad.  Regardless, I am glad that he received the award, if for no other reason than it brought him to New York and allowed him to share his experiences with a wider audience—and audience from the country which presently occupies his own.

One of the significant elements of Dr. Eskander’s experience, is that, for about a year, he documented the daily events of the INLA in a diary, which has been published online by the British Library.  The diary can be found here.

As I spent the last post insisting that there is more to being an ethical, globally minded librarian than creating and following a code of ethics, in the case of Dr. Eskander, the fact that he steadfastly exists as a librarian at all, in the wake of such belligerence, is a code of ethics in and of itself: “It was another tense day.  I could hear strong exchange of fires. It was just across the road. I learnt later that the convoy the Deputy Minister of Health, a die-hard Shi I fundamentalist, was ambushed by Sunni extremists in the Al-Fadhel area (just 250 meters away from our building) The American soldiers intervened in the ensuing battle, which lasted for one hour.”  (Monday, November 20, 2006)

There is truly not anything that I can write here that will shed any additional light on Dr. Eskander’s tale, except to champion one of the more amazing tales in the unfolding saga of what, for lack of a better term, I’ve been calling global librarianship.

Code of Ethics
October 5, 2008

“A shortlist of potentially divisive issues with ethical aspects would include globalisation, the digital gap between the information rich and poor, digital inclusiveness, commercialsation of information versus interactive on-line public services, privacy, authenticity, confidentiality, trust and confidence in cyberspace, censorship, copyright, intellectual property rights, grey literature, electronic filters…” Robert W. Vaagan

It’s hard discuss global initiatives in libraries without encountering IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions), for they have been at it the longest, at least in an “official” way.  The quote above comes from an IFLA publication entitled The Ethics of Librarianship: An International Survey, which I spent this past week reading.  Though rather academic, this work is extremely interesting in that it collects various library codes of ethics from around the world, in an effort to create a sense of international solidarity among individuals and organizations in the field of Library and Information Science (LIS).  Yet, this work is also meant to highlight areas in which these codes of ethics are not in concert with one another, as well as draw attention to the fact that many national library organizations still do not possess an official code of ethics.  To further complicate matters, some of the library organizations represented in this text have codes of ethics that are significantly at odds with the governments under whose laws they exist.

A lot of noise is made in this book about those places/organizations that lack an “official” code of ethics.  While I, of course, understand the symbolism and the intentions behind raising such alarm, I found myself wondering what it truly means for a library organization to present an “official” code of ethics, especially in those situations where it is nearly impossible—illegal, even—to strictly follow such a code, or in those cases where following the code, despite all of the meritorious intentions within, does not produce the desired results.

This latter complication brought to mind a New Yorker article a few weeks back about the Russian radio station Echo of Moscow.  Arguably the last significant bastion of free press in Putin/Medvedev’s Russia, Echo of Moscow has remained on the air, some argue, solely for Putin to point to when he needs to defend himself against claims that he censors the press.  Whether or not this is true, a more crucial issue is one broached by Kirill Rogov, a former editor at Kommersant, a respected Russian mainstream daily newspaper, and a supporter of Echo of Moscow, who states: “It’s been the best news service for a long time…But is a free media outlet possible in an unfree country? I would say no. In a free country, the newspaper publishes a story, it influences television, it reaches the public, then it helps to shape the course of policy. In an unfree country, Echo of Moscow lives in isolation, on a kind of Indian reservation. It broadcasts a story or a discussion and it reaches an audience, but then it never goes any further.”

With this in mind, I ask, again: what does it mean to have an official code of ethics for a library organization that exists in a society that will not honor and/or allow for the blossoming of such a code?  Turning to Russia’s code of ethics in the IFLA text, one reads: “[In a] totalitarian state…The development of professional ethical rules was impossible, since the ideological framework strictly determined both external professional space (relations with authorities) and internal ones (relations with users).”  In Putin’s present Russia, has the was in the above statement returned to an is?

Regardless, I think that, in terms of global library ethics, the question above (what does it mean to have an official code of ethics for a library organization that exists in a society that will not honor and/or allow for the blossoming of such a code?) is a crucial one.  While it is exceptionally empowering and noble to create and follow a code of ethics, we must, at times, make the admission that boldly standing-up to those forces that attempt to censor and stymie the very ethics protected by these codes is not enough.  Simply following a code of ethics will not, in and of itself, resolve many of the divisive issues listed above, nor will it even, at times, allow for the freedoms so despertely desired in an unfree society, which libraries strive to provide:  “Ethical considerations, not least the intellectual freedoms of opinion and expression, which are reflected…in the core values of IFLA, have long been a concern for librarians and library associations.”  (Robert W. Vaagan)

Yes, these codes of ethics are absolutely essential and, at times, their employment an act of bravery, but, in combating those forces that censor and divide, and in creating an environment in which information can truly flow freely, they are not an end unto themselves.

What, then, is to be done?