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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Winter 2001

Book Reviews

From Gutenberg to the Global Information Infrastructure

Veronica Calderhead
Physical Sciences Librarian and Collection Development Coordinator
John Cotton Dana Library
Rutgers University Libraries

From Gutenberg to the Global Information Infrastructure : Access to Information in the Networked World. By Christine L. Borgman. (Digital Libraries and Electronic Publishing Series) Cambridge, Mass. ; London : MIT Press, c2000. 324 p. hardcover $40.00. (ISBN 0-262-02473-X)

A recent CIA report both warns about and encourages the exploitation of the information networks criss-crossing around us. This mixed message from intelligence sources strongly resembles the two-sided approach taken by Christine L. Borgman in this book: the strengths of the global information infrastructure (GII) and the troubling downside, if neglected, i.e., the confusion to users. The book demonstrates the magnitude of the GII of today but mostly what it might look like tomorrow and how we must get there from today while making it accessible and useful to our lives. In other words, it is important to provide digital codes and standards that are interoperable, portable and multilingual. The technology will inevitably be there, the bigger challenge will be to make these databases widely available, socially relevant, extremely useful and economically viable. These challenges are as ubiquitous as the bytes.

The generic label "users" is overly simplistic. As Borgman demonstrates we are all users as well as digital creators. We use for different reasons at different times. Creating and diffusing information for "users" is becoming as complex as the world in which these users live. This illustrates another strength of this work; the working definitions of the GII, the digital library, the user, access, behavior, standards and so on are all clearly explained for the reader before the complexities are discussed at length.

Borgman believes that a global information infrastructure is important and upon us, that it behooves us to do it right at all levels; or as she states it "think globally act locally" -- in a digital way. Her point that working towards a global digital library would be good if even only to delineate who all the users or user groups are. The value in further defining their behaviors, their languages, their levels, their information seeking behaviors, their problem solving abilities, benefits the entire network. These are all very important variables in the expanding equation of the GII. And, like all discussions that surround systems, be they local systems or global, the crux of the matter is always the tradeoffs. Borgman further discusses what the tradeoffs would be in reaching the widest of audiences and the losses of limiting the nearly perfect system to a small audience.

It strikes the reader how often the same big global problems of the GII actually come up in our daily practical lives. Borgman's main thesis is that the GII will be most effective if the multitude of systems, databases and networks have "interoperability, portability and data exchange" as their guiding principles. Regardless of the type of library we work in, there are very few of us left who don't have to find answers to this problem.

The illustrative examples used in many theory-based books can be dated, repetitive and limited to a very small corner of expertise. Here too, Borgman surpasses expectations, many examples are library-based, but they are modern libraries with huge and varied databases. Other examples come from meteorology, from early education, from computer and information sciences. Her research takes us to all the corners touched by the global information infrastructure. The validity in the examples alone prompts one to probe the underlying theory and test it further.

This work is ideally suited to graduate students of communications, library and information science, systems and computer sciences. Having said that, on the very practical level, the front-line librarian charged with bringing in any new electronic system, be it e-book packages, large reference networked systems, or a new integrated bibliographic system, will gain a wonderful broad perspective of how one library affects the GII and vice versa. It should be noted that this book is not about technology in the specific sense, it neither discusses a software over another, nor provides technical advice to library systems people. Finally, the book has extensive references in addition to updating and compiling all of Borgman's earlier work on related topics.

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