Book title: From Guttenberg to the Global Information Infrastructure. Access to information in the Networked World
MIT Press, 2000, ISBN 0-262-02473-X
This item is not the definitive copy. Please use the following citation when referencing this material: Dillon, A. (2002) Review of C. Borgman's From Gutenberg to the Global Information Infrastructure. Publishing Research Quarterly, 17(4), 59-60.
The present book is an extended analysis of the nature and role of digital libraries, considered broadly as both the collection and the contexts of information resources. It contains nine chapters that run from a detailed definition of the term 'digital library' to an exploration of the future prospects of information in a networked, digital world. At just under 270 pages (excluding references) the book cannot cover everything in detail but what it covers is sufficient to demonstrate that we are at an exciting time socially and technologically.
The real strength of this work is its historical perspective. As the title suggests, Borgman is keen to draw parallels between what is happening today with information technology and what Guttenberg launched upon the world. Strong on history, the author makes clear that even that revolution really was built on the antecedent work of others who wrestled with similar ideas. Similarly, while all eyes now focus on the World Wide Web, Borgman notes that the convergence of tasks and technologies over the last 25 years has led us to the place we now find ourselves. Decisions on policy and design taken now will have consequences for many more people that we might expect.
This scholarly work aims to cover the technical, the political and the behavioral aspects of information creation, storage and access, while pointing us towards the near horizon to see what libraries may become. Such an ambitious agenda could easily have resulted in book that fell flat or skipped over crucial details. However, it is to the author's credit that she covers this terrain authoritatively, providing a resource that will, for the most part, satisfy serious readers. Case in point, the chapter on access could have become tediously bogged down in issues of metadata, yet, always keen to emphasize the bigger picture, Borgman makes clear that without usability and a concern for the needs of the user, the concept of access is meaningless. Indeed, it is the repeated message that such issues are intertwined and must be considered as such in any analysis of digital libraries that raises this book above the pack.
Downsides are few. The writing is academic in tone, there is far too much self-citation for my taste, and the prose occasionally can becomes bogged down, dealing with minute details or differences that are not essential to getting the message across. For example, the definition of digital libraries is not resolved until we are a fifth of the way into the book, and even then, the resulting definition is so long-winded (and in two parts!) that I doubt many readers will care to use it or even remember it. Obviously this is a difficult balancing act, providing detail without losing sight of the big picture, but I feel a more conservative approach at times would have enabled the author to move sooner into more interesting research areas or to explore more deeply the opportunities and implications of this revolution. That aside, the book represents considerable intellectual work on the part of the author of which many readers will be appreciative. If you want history and a perspective on digital libraries and you have only time to read one book, this is it.