Biblioteca: A series of articles about international information

by Aaron Bowen, MLIS Day

John Donne’s idea that “[n]o man is an island” never rang truer than in today’s globalized world. A global exchange of information pervades an increasing number of regions and countries, and it is an increasingly international community which carries on this exchange. Furthermore, this exchange magnifies a range of issues concerning the transfer of information from one part of the world to another, what policies govern that transfer, and how that information is received when it reaches its destination. Who develops guidelines concerning the organization and architecture of information, given that different peoples organize information differently? How will people of one culture understand or interpret information generated by another, particularly when the cultures in question have very different world views? How may intellectual property rights be protected through international information policies when one country’s copyright laws differ from another’s in their scope or enforcement? To what extent does language impact, either as a boon or a hindrance, the exchange of information between countries and cultures?

The idea of studying these types of questions prompted me to put together a double-masters degree between the iSchool and the Jackson School for International Studies. I believe a combination of these two fields will be of considerable importance as the global information exchange expands, particularly through the use of the Internet. Information from over 50 centuries recorded in dozens of languages is digitally accessible around the world. Access to this information can be complicated, however, by such technological needs as a multi-lingual means of data access or browsers that can display characters and interpret search strings in foreign alphabets. These technologies exist for many languages but have yet to be developed for many more. While it is unscientific and leaves questions of measurement unanswered, this page of statistics on the completeness of the translations offered by Google shows that much online content is unavailable or only partially available in certain languages, at least with the content Google indexes. Certain systems will have trouble recognizing accent marks, letters in foreign alphabets, or relatively new characters such as the Euro character (€).

Access to information can be further complicated by the digital divide between those regions with ready access to digital information retrieval systems and those regions without widespread access. The obvious issue in this situation is the (lack of) physical outreach of the Internet or other networked information retrieval systems to certain parts of the world, which cuts off populations of potential users from information they might wish to access. But there are further issues, such as how people perceive online resources in regions with less exposure to technology. Writing in January of 2003, Rowan Philp recorded the reactions of residents of the village of Cwili, South Africa, to their first exposure to the Internet. In his article Curiosity Cures the Knowledge Gap he describes Cwili resident Sindiswa Rini’s initial perception of a computer as being “ only a video game place for kids,” and how, upon watching another resident surf, her perception changed to a realization of the Internet’s power as an information sharing tool.

Access to information can also be complicated by the cacophony of official policies regarding access. While the European Union is working towards a unified information society, outlined in their Towards a Knowledge Based Europe document, the Chinese Communist Party still maintains centralized control over Internet access in China. Much has been written about official Chinese policies towards the Internet, as well as the non-Chinese world’s reactions to it, and Jonathan Zittrain and Benjamin Edelman at the Harvard Law School are conducting a research project called “ Real-Time Testing of Internet Filtering in China,” which by extension gets into issues of government access policies.

Issues of this nature affect the ways in which populations around the globe interface with, seek, gather, process, and use information. As globalization affects an ever-growing percentage of the world’s regions and peoples, information issues in an international context will gain in intensity and immediacy. Accordingly, consideration of issues common to the two fields will be increasingly relevant and useful. Biblioteca is a project I developed to write about issues I’ve examined during the past year. I’ve got a host of ideas for future articles, including such topics as:

  • Cross-lingual Google Searches in English and French
  • The American libraries in Cairo and Paris
  • The proliferation of WiFi across Europe
  • The differing states of libraries and their collections in the developing world
  • Courses offered at the UW that merge these fields

And of course I’ll encounter multiple other issues like this over the course of the school year. My friend Deb Raftus and I will also facilitate the UW chapter of SIG-III, an ASIS&T special interest group dedicated to these types of issues (SIG-III stands for Special Interest Group – International Information Issues). Deb maintains the website for the UW chapter (which is separate from the national site), and we’ll hold periodic meetings to discuss issues like those mentioned above, as well as related international services and organizations working on them, and any related web resources and job resources we encounter. If you would like to check the organization out or get involved, come to a meeting, sign up for the iWorld listserv, or contact either one of us (me at; Deb at We look forward to your ideas!


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