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Associations and InstitutionsAnnual 

64th IFLA Conference Logo

   64th IFLA General Conference
   August 16 - August 21, 1998


Code Number: 082-78-E
Division Number: 0
Professional Group: Contributed Paper Session I
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 78.
Simultaneous Interpretation:   Yes

To be or not to be: Public Libraries and the Global Knowledge Revolution

Qihao Miao
Shanghai Library
Shanghai, China


Beginning with an introduction to the global Knowledge Revolution and the related concepts, the paper argues that while National Information Infrastructure is somewhat technology-centered, the new concept of National Knowledge Infrastructure is biased to human, the current focus of the international community on knowledge assessment and National Knowledge Infrastructure provides an opportunity for the library community, especially public libraries, to recover and expand its role in the society. So far, however, most public libraries have not yet involved themselves fully in the Knowledge Revolution. To be proactive, public libraries should assume their role as knowledge server by interfacing knowledge with people, organizing knowledge, consolidating information and networking global knowledge.
The paper then follows up the points with case study in China, including an initiative started from a most impoverished province and a re-engineering effort of a leading public library in this country. Both are aiming at mobilizing information and knowledge for social and economic development through public library system. The experiences of China prove that public libraries can be critical players in the National Knowledge Infrastructure, and the current efforts can be substantially upgraded if making full use of available information infrastructure and cooperating with counterparts elsewhere and other knowledge institutions. To conclude, the paper appeals IFLA for taking the responsibility to alert and organize the librarians all over the world, in order to participate pro-actively in the global Knowledge Revolution


1. Introduction

In May 1997, a simple ceremony was held in the new building of Shanghai Library. The front compound, surrounded by Roman-styled pillars, was named "The Knowledge Plaza" during that event. It was an appropriate naming choice, given that libraries often sport the banner of knowledge as their logo. Knowledge, after all, is one of the core missions of the library.

Now, knowledge has been placed in the spotlight of the international arena. We are told that the developed world is entering an era called "The Knowledge Economy" (or Knowledge-based Economy), that a "Knowledge Revolution" is occurring which may have significant impact upon not only developed but also developing countries. Ironically, however, many libraries seem to be indifferent in this revolution. The key question for the library community today, therefore, is to be or not be participating in the global Knowledge Revolution on a pro-active basis.

To answer this question, the paper will provide analyses and evidence to show that the "Knowledge Revolution" can be another renaissance for the library community. The library can be an integral part of the information highway, allowing people to access the untold wealth of knowledge available electronically from diverse sources. At the same time, the library can serve as a humane and people-centered place of rest and relaxation. It is a local base, plugged into both the global knowledge economy and the micro-realm of its immediate surroundings. In effect, it becomes a bridge linking powerful computer networks with even the most impoverished end-user.

2. The Coming of the Knowledge Revolution

To understand what is the Knowledge Revolution and its relation with library and librarian, we should start from some basic concepts.

3. Public Library As a Part of Knowledge Infrastructure

4. Public Libraries in Knowledge Revolution: the Chinese Case

Although the term "Knowledge-based Economy" is gaining popularity among learned societies of China due to the publication of the Chinese version of the above-mentioned OECD report, the Chinese "knowledge industries" in general, and the library community in particular, may not be aware of all that is happening under the umbrella of the Knowledge Revolution in the rest of the world. But independently, a parallel development, driven by indigenous momentum, can also be found in China.

China is an economy with a dual structure. A few industrializing provinces and cities in the coastal areas are catching up quickly to the developed world, while for many other regions, poverty and illiteracy are still the urgent problem. Both, however, are facing the same dilemma concerning information and knowledge. The following story explains what the public library system in China has done and is going to do as an integral component of the knowledge infrastructure of this particular country; and how the cooperation of library community can help in this process.

5. Library and Knowledge Revolution: Conclusions

The Knowledge Revolution provides an opportunity for the library community, especially public libraries, to recover, and indeed expand, its key role in the national knowledge infrastructure:

  1. In the last few years, with the ever-growing availability of technological tools that enable easy and inexpensive transmission, distribution and transformation of codified information, the third millennium of human existence will witness an era in which knowledge will become vital, and the tacit knowledge will be the bottleneck.

  2. The focus of the international community on the Knowledge Revolution is both necessary and timely. It is critical that the library community understand the opportunity presented by the process of paradigm shift. They should be not onlookers but full stakeholders in this revolution.

  3. The experiences of China are a case study to show that public libraries can be a critical player in the social knowledge chain. As the world moves toward the information age, libraries can make contributions to the economic and social development in both less-developed and comparatively rich areas. The Chinese case tells us that some of current efforts are lacking, and will continue to be insufficient without the full use of available telecommunications and network infrastructure. The lessons from China also reveal that cooperation with library community and other knowledge institutions may greatly upgrade the current efforts.

  4. A global collaboration of libraries can make a tremendous contribution in enhancing and facilitating knowledge networking. Public libraries, with their traditional relation to ordinary people at large, can have a unique role of channeling latest information and knowledge to those out of the other terminals. IFLA, as a representative body of the international library community, should undertake the responsibility to alert and organize the librarians all over the world, particularly those in the developing countries to participate pro-actively the global Knowledge Revolution.


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  23. Gericke, Elizabeth M. Serving the Unserved in the Year 2000, 63rd IFLA General Conference, Booklet, 48-58

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  25. Li, Xiaobing. Survival and development of village and township libraries, Library World, no.3, 1997: 39-41, 45, September 1997 (In Chinese language)

  26. Wen Hui Bao, July 18, 1997, p.10 (In Chinese language)

  27. Miao, Qihao. Automation, Digitalization and the beyond: Re-engineering Shanghai Library, In: Proceedings of the International Symposium on Academic Libraries in the 21st Century, Shanghai Jiao Tong University Press, September 1996: 32-39