From Digital Divide to Digital Opportunity
by Ross Shimmon
It may not always feel so, but we are the lucky ones in the digital revolution. As a prelude to considering the digital divide, I want to explore some characteristics of the world we inhabit.
We believe that it is changing fast. Those of us in our fifties can certainly look back on our childhood - and realize that it took place in an impossibly different, post-war world. Those black and white clips from British Movietone News we sometimes see on television serve to confirm that.
We believe that we live in an information society. It is a world of multi-channel television, mobile phones, and the world-wide web with unimaginably large amounts of information instantly accessible. Many of us yearn, however, for that information to be organised, retrievable, authenticated and reduced to assimilable proportions. We would also like it to be converted into knowledge and wisdom, so that sensible decisions could be made about the world we live in.
We believe that advancing Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) are revolutionising our lives, our ways of working, our interaction with government and other authorities and our leisure.
We believe that a key to survival in such a world is lifelong learning; that education in school, college and university is no longer enough. Similarly, skills learned in professions and trades need updating or radically changing frequently. In Britain and other industrialised countries, we observe long-established industries like shipbuilding, coal-mining, steel-making contract, decline or even disappear altogether. We have witnessed completely new employment opportunities such as call-centres and e-businesses develop rapidly - and in some cases collapse just as rapidly. Even if we are not directly affected by these developments ourselves, friends and family members may well have been.
It is certainly clear that people inhabiting the world I have described at the beginning need to practise lifelong learning if they are to survive and thrive amidst all the change happening around them.
Lifelong learning is not a new idea. Indeed it has been argued that it has always been present since humans occupied the planet. Those who learned how to exploit the environment, grow crops, understand the weather, explore more favourable locations and so on, survived. Those who did not practise lifelong learning did not.
One institution, which can greatly assist the lifelong learner, is, of course, the library.
As Beverly Sheppard, Acting Director of the (US) Institute of Museum and library Services has said: " The profound changes of the 21st century are transforming America into what must become a learning society. We enter this century in the midst of a bewildering mix of opportunity, uncertainty, challenge and change, all moving at unprecedented speed. Fuelled by dazzling new technologies, increasing social diversity and divide, and radical shifts in industry and labour markets, accelerating change has become a way of life. To navigate the changes, minimise the risks and participate in shaping a new order, all Americans need access to learning throughout their lifetimes." (1)
You can substitute almost any country for America in that quote, of course.
Sheppard interprets this situation as an opportunity for what some people have begun to call the memory institutions (archives, libraries and museums), although I believe it implies an unnecessarily limited function at least for libraries. She argues that: "Never before have museums libraries and the whole of the non-formal sector of educational institutions faced such challenges and opportunities. As the market place moves to exploit the commercial opportunities of new information technologies, the nation’s vital public needs for education and lifelong learning can easily be ignored. The demand is great for fresh and innovative thinking to construct a bold, new learning network. Such a network must empower all citizens to participate. Access to learning across a lifetime may become among the essential civil rights of the 21st century." (1)
Maurice Line, writing in the New Review of Libraries and Lifelong Learning (2) provides a kind of shopping list for an ideal library for the lifelong learning. Some of the items on the list are fairly obvious, such as: an attractive and welcoming building, a friendly atmosphere, suitable opening hours and so on. Others on the list are a little more demanding:
He admits that he is an exceptionally demanding user. But he says that most of his requirements(except those not yet technically possible) should be attainable by 'any self-respecting library' (his words).
I don't know what your experience is. But my local library falls far short of his list. I wonder how his local library fares?
But, if that is a reasonable set of desiderata for a library for a demanding lifelong learner in the West, it is also a reasonable set for an library for a similarly demanding person in the developing world. The needs are the same (and arguably even more urgent), although the content may well be different.
And that thought provides us with a useful measure of the scale of the digital divide. Because, although Maurice Line may not have all those things he would like in his local library. He has the knowledge, skills and wherewithal to have access to most of the components (or substitutes) he lists. What are the chances of a lifelong learner (or someone who needs to be a lifelong learner) in Pakistan, Papua New Guinea or Peru? Chile we will come to later.
Closer to home, it may be worth in this context, reflecting on the difficulties of obtaining vital information in our own communities. I wonder, for example, how easy it has been in Yalding, and York and the other flooded areas of England, for people to get current, accurate information about their insurance status, the need for evacuation, and any assistance or compensation that might be available. To what extent has our profession been able to help, I wonder? To what extent were the Environment Agency, the local authorities and the emergency services using the local libraries to make available information? It is easy to think of other recent examples where people have been in urgent need of up-to-date, current information on, for example emergency railway timetables, flooded roads, and safe food. The most common complaint in such circumstances is: 'why did nobody tell us?'
It is also easy to see the effect of absence of clear, accurate and above all, trusted, information. Rumours, slogans and sensational headlines hold sway. Advice to ring hot lines are often discounted because people's experience suggest that such lines are continuously engaged when they really need them.
Apart from that, within all industrialised countries, there are significant proportions of the population for whom the digital divide is just as real as it is between the countries of the North and the South. And, even in a country like Britain where almost every household has television and radio, a huge majority has a fixed telephone and recent surveys show that a majority of the population has a mobile phone, and conventional literacy is high, many people, I suggest, do not know how to find the information they need.
What I am coming round to suggesting is that we are experiencing information illiteracy on a large scale, worldwide.
Information literacy has never been taught systematically in Britain, although I believe that it is included in the new school curriculum in South Africa. Presumably, it is assumed that it is a natural skill, picked up by everyone as they go along. Or it is expected that comes as a natural by product of modern learning methods in schools, colleges and universities; methods such as group learning, project work and learning by discovery. When the (UK) Library Association proposed that information literacy should be a compulsory subject in the National Curriculum, which was being debated in parliament, it was turned down on the grounds of that it was not a 'proper subject' like mathematics or English.
Perhaps we should now be arguing for an 'Information Literacy Hour' to be introduced for all children to follow the 'Literacy Hour' and the 'Numeracy Hour'.
But until both the providers of information and the seekers of information themselves become information literate, the problem will remain, however.
What I do mean by Information literacy? Well Samuel Johnson described it well in the Eighteenth Century:
"Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information on it"(3)
Today, I suppose, we might be less confident that we know a subject ourselves. But the distinction is useful.
A more recent working definition of information literacy is:
"Knowing how to find information, evaluate it and use it effectively… When you are information literate you know where to find the information you need for greater knowledge and understanding of any subject you choose."(4)
To that I would add greater recognition of the need for the information. It sounds easy and you can quickly imagine civil servants and politicians dismissing it as 'not a proper subject'.
But I leave you to consider how often in your own lives it has not quite worked out so simply.
Now let's turn to the global digital divide.
According to the U.S. Internet Council's State of the Internet Report 2000:
"the monthly connection cost for the Internet in Africa exceeds the monthly income of a significant proportion of the population."(5)
Other problems cited by the same report are:
"low computer availability, illiteracy, lack of trained personnel, disinterest and failure to understand the benefits of Internet access."(5)
Anyone who has lived in the developing world could add a few more factors, such as a lack of assured electricity supply and the sheer need to concentrate on survival. As a recent newspaper headline said: " Poor need Penicillin before Pentiums." (6) In the article, an incident in Uganda was recounted. For years a hospital there had tried to get a telephone connection without success. Eventually it obtained a satellite connection. But a call costs US$ 2.50 per minute (30 times the rate in the West):
" A nurse once held on for 10 minutes trying to find out the date and duration of her next training course, before giving up. Instead she got into a minibus and, six bumpy hours later, was in Kampala where she was able to get the information she needed. The cost of her round trip? The same as a five minute phone call."(6)
That's information literacy. That's also motivation on a scale difficult to imagine in the West.
To turn from anecdote to statistics, I would now like to quote from the Unesco Courier:
"The absolute number of people living on less than one dollar a day in developing countries has remained practically unchanged (slightly fewer than 1.2 billion) over the past decade. The income gap between the richest and the poorest 20 % of world population has more than doubled over the past 40 years and nearly tripled if we look at the world's five richest and five poorest countries. The poorest 20 % only account for 0.2 % of the world's Internet users, whilst the richest 80 % make up 93.3 of users". (7)
That's the digital divide in a nutshell.
Where's the digital opportunity you may be asking. Well, we know that despite the problems I have just touched upon, information, knowledge and works of imagination are increasingly available throughout the world. Electronic transmission and delivery is faster than we could have imagined even a few years ago. It can also be significantly cheaper than traditional methods.
The signs of hope are discernible. Just as governments in the West have begun to realise the need for public access, as well as private and corporate access, in order to bridge the digital divide in their own countries, so the G8 leaders have realised their needs to be similar initiatives to tackle the digital divide between the North and the South
And remarkably, just as some governments have, belatedly, realised that libraries can play an important role in this area in their own countries, so libraries may help in the rest of the world. Is it too much to hope that reinventing the wheel may be prevented?
I quote from the Okinawa charter on the Global Information Society:
"The policies for the advancement of the Information Society must be underpinned by the development of human resources capable of responding to the demands of the information age. We are committed to provide all our citizens with an opportunity to nurture IT literacy skills through education, lifelong learning and training. We will continue to work toward this ambitious goal by getting schools, classrooms and libraries…."(8)
The charter continues by committing the G8 leaders to establish a digital opportunity Taskforce (dotforce) to help bridge the global digital divide with a similar approach.
I believe that this is a unique opportunity to demonstrate to governments that we have a key role to play in this daunting task.
For our part, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) is setting up a 'shadow G8', with representatives from our regional sections. The idea is that the shadow G8 will prepare position statements and working documents with practical proposals for the G8 dotforce.
It seems to me that we need to press upon the leaders both the urgency and the scale of the challenges. A challenge which seems at least as great as than discussed at the regrettably inconclusive climate change conference in The Hague.
We have to ensure that information and communications technologies (ICT) become part of the solution rather than part of the problem. And of course we cannot and should not leave the problem to be tackled only by governments.
It is heartening to note recent announcements in this area by the Carnegie Corporation of New York on revitalising African Libraries (9) and by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to fund the provision of Internet access in 300 libraries in Chile. (10)
These are highly significant steps in the right direction.
But the scale of the challenges is so huge maybe we should consider the need for a kind of information literacy equivalent of Medicins sans Frontières to tackle this desperate situation?
- copying machines on every floor
- electronic service points in post offices and superstores, with direct links to the library
- a wide range of current physical media; print, video, audio, cd-roms (by 'current' that means current, not three months after publication)
- 70 % of his needs immediately available, not on loan or otherwise unavailable
- remote speedy access to resources not in the library, wherever in the world they are held
- sufficient numbers of computer terminals to make a wait of over 5 minutes a rare event
- access to all search engines through a single portal
- access to all electronic material on line with minimal hassle
- access to images of objects in museum and galleries
- to pay as little as possible
- Sheppard, Beverly. Libraries museums the 21st century learner. Washington, Institute of Museum and Library Services, .
- Line, Maurice. The Lifelong learner and the future library. In: The New review of libraries and lifelong learning (1) 2000 p65.
- Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)
- Information literacy. Association of College and Research Libraries, American Library Association, 1994.
- Internet Report 2000. United States Internet Council, 2000.
- Atkinson, Mark. Poor need penicillin before Pentiums. London: Guardian weekly, 31 August 2000.
- Unequal gains. Paris: UNESCO courier, September 2000, p22.
- Kyushu-Okinawa summit meeting 2000: Okinawa charter on the Global information society. Government of Japan, 2000.
- Marton, Betty A. Revitalizing African libraries: the challenge of a quiet crisis. New York, Carnegie Corporatiionn of New York, 2000.
- Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announces partnership with Chilean libraries. Press release, 21st November, 2000.
Ross Shimmon is Secretary General of the International Association of Library Associations and Institutions (www.ifla.org). His paper has been first presented at the London Online conference, December 2000.
Texts published in 'Points of View' may not reflect UNESCO's position.
Axel Plathe, UNESCO Communication and Information Sector