Book Review


D-Lib Magazine
December 2000

Volume 6 Number 12

ISSN 1082-9873

From Gutenberg to the Global Information Infrastructure: Access to Information in the Networked World

Reviewed by: Edward A. Galloway
Edward A. Galloway is the Coordinator, Digital Research Library
University Library System, University of Pittsburgh

From Gutenberg to the Global Information Infrastructure:
Access to Information in the Networked World

Christine L. Borgman
324 pages, including index.
ISBN 0-262-02473-X.
The MIT Press
Cambridge, MA:May 2000
$42.00. plus shipping and handling


Knowledge disseminated through written language to a mass audience has grown exponentially since Gutenberg's time. Today the budding development of a global information infrastructure (GII) -- a system interconnecting computer networks and various forms of information technologies around the world -- has already become integrated into most areas of our lives. Many of us employ digital technology and communication to pay our bills, to shop for products, to communicate with family, friends and colleagues, and even to access news information. The premise of Christine Borgman's book, therefore, is that the success of this GII will not just depend on how fast or efficiently we can utilize new technology, but also how keen we are in recognizing the behavioral aspects of adopting and adapting this new technology into our lives and in establishing policies concerning the distribution and ownership of information.

Borgman describes the complex relationship among information creators, providers, and consumers as well as outlines the problems associated with the implementation of a global information infrastructure. The book is an ambitious attempt to take a “holistic approach to addressing access to information in a networked world,” weaving a complex tapestry of issues surrounding technology, human behavior, and policy. Rather than dissect or analyze the minutia of detail required to discuss the GII, Borgman tackles the subject as a whole from a human-centered prospective, concentrating on ways the GII can be useful and usable to a broad community. She argues that "much is known about the information-related behavior of individuals and institutions, yet relatively little of that knowledge is being applied to the design of digital libraries, national and global information infrastructure, or information policy."

Borgman begins by describing the premise and the promise of a GII, and proposes that our behavior towards embracing technology tends to be co-evolutionary -- we adapt and adopt that which suits our needs and purposes. She examines the multiple definitions of a "digital library," especially the tension that exists between content, collections, communities, institutions, services, and databases. Borgman reasons that the "construct of a global digital library is a way to explore behavioral, technical, and policy issues in information access." She further explains her definition of "access to information" wherein she stresses the relationship of metadata creation to resource discovery, and introduces these issues within the context of electronic publishing.

In the heart of the book, Borgman discusses why digital libraries are difficult to use and how we, as information professionals, can facilitate their use. She identifies and explores four research issues and agenda for the future of digital library design. First, users of digital libraries will expect the delivery of full content, rather than just pointers to content (i.e., metadata). Second, users will move beyond information systems that are fairly independent of each other to systems of interoperability that incorporate related applications. Third, users will expect systems that are navigable in more flexible and adaptable ways than query searching. Fourth, users will experience a system of global computer networks that will foster and support more collaboration between groups, rather than individuals, whose tasks will span boundaries and communities.

Borgman also considers how libraries are adapting to an age of distributed computer networks. She offers four challenges for rethinking the role of libraries in a digital age: " to maintain visibility while being a part of a well-functioning information to manage collections as they become more hybrid and to preserve physical and digital to take advantage of the blurring boundaries between information institutions and information professions."

How can individuals or institutions really make a difference or make any progress in creating a GII? Borgman argues that through our local actions we can contribute to the global community by discussing and agreeing upon standards of data creation and data exchange and also by ensuring the portability and interoperability of our information systems.

Borgman concludes her book with a reexamination of the broader concept of a global digital library "and the challenges inherent in scaling up from the Internet to a GII." To illustrate her holistic approach to researching global information infrastructure, she incorporates a case study about information infrastructure developments in Central and Eastern Europe after the end of the Cold War.

Throughout the book, Borgman uses common examples to illustrate her points; she refrains from using jargon, but defines new terminology and concepts. The book synthesizes her earlier journal articles that were based on extensive empirical research conducted between 1994 and 1998. Her work is complemented by comprehensive literature reviews and analyses. This is evident by the 40-page bibliography, which will serve as a tremendous reference source for the digital information professional. Perhaps a drawback to the constant references to sources impedes the readability of the book and the clarity of her message, but just a review of the preface and summaries at the end of each chapter will provide the reader with concise and substantive knowledge.

Copyright (c) 2000 Edward A. Galloway

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DOI: 10.1045/december2000-bookreview