'Shaping the Knowledge Society' was the theme of the 6th BOBCATSSS symposium held in the National Szechenyi Library, Budapest 26-28 January 1998. Initially, it seemed a little incongruous discussing recent developments such as Internet connections and the integration of national and local online databases in the grandiose architectural surroundings of a reconstructed magnificent royal palace. The National Szechenyi Library is thought to occupy the site of the famous Corvina Library and is housed on eight floors. The main entrance, on the fifth floor, is approached by passing a series of museums and art galleries in other wings of the palace. This is reached by climbing or taking a funicular railway to a spectacular vantage point overlooking the Danube.
The conference is unique in being organised by library school students as part of their studies. It seemed particularly appropriate that the 1998 symposium, concerned with shaping the future of the knowledge society, should be run by future LIS professionals who will shape frameworks to structure the provision of information and knowledge in the next century. The 1998 symposium was organised by students and staff from the Royal School of Library and Information Science in Copenhagen who took over responsibility from the Hogeschool van Amsterdam who had arranged the previous five symposia.
The symposium is also unique in its emphasis on encouraging and supporting papers from students as well as practitioners and lecturers and some of the clearer and more refreshing overviews were given by LIS students.
In all, there were over 50 papers from 21 different countries of Western and Eastern Europe. Speakers came both from countries with well-developed electronic networks and those which were still devising policies on digitisation to support educational and cultural initiatives. It was interesting to note the number of countries using the year 2000 as a spur to new developments. Many appear to be formulating policies to build information infrastructures which would guarantee local access points to information networked to mark the new millennium. The Hungarian Deputy Culture Minister who gave one of the opening addresses, for example, spoke of a three-year programme culminating in the year 2000 which would move Hungary towards the knowledge society. A new law had recently been passed giving everyone, whether they live in the centre of Budapest or a small isolated village, the same rights to access to information and the use of public libraries. Though, at first sight, this might seem many years behind Britain's Public Library Act, it represents a significant advance on it as information here includes digital/electronic information, thus giving everyone the same rights to these as they have to print information.
It was clear that every speaker and every country represented believed that their future educational cultural and economic advancement lay in developing information infrastructures based upon digital networks. The recent conference trend towards more emphasis on people, quality and social issues, however, rather than technological issues/development was most emphatic at the symposium as should, perhaps, be expected at a meeting representing a wide range of institutions of Education in Librarianship and Information Science.
Warnings were voiced that information specialists need to take responsibility for the quality of management of digital information. Emphasis should always be on the content and not the media. We ought to be an IT-using society and not an IT-driven society.
Conference themes centred around the issues of human resource development, democracy and infuriation literacy, quality, knowledge management and future roles for the information specialist.
A great deal of debate centred around the issue of exactly how 'knowledge' should be defined, and to what degree freedom of access to information necessarily meant free-of-charge access to information., Though the latter was a declared aspiration of many of the countries represented at the Council of Europe, recent cuts and attacks on the public library system in these countries meant it was often far from a reality. Many public libraries face the dilemma that failure to charge for digital information reduces income which cuts opening house which usually results in under-use of all information. Charging for digital information means they fail to attract possible discounts from information providers which reduces access to some digitised sources. Like the British public's belief in the Rule of Law each delegate believed that we should develop a knowledge society while defining knowledge in a different way. Some thought knowledge and information were synonymous while others believed that knowledge was something different, but resulted from information and others that is was to difficult a concept to describe. Everyone, however, believed that every human being had a right to access to it and that every government should develop a national framework of information provision and that these networks should integrate different information systems.
The concept of information-rich and information-poor societies was a recurring theme, but most speakers appeared to believe that their country's successful and prosperous future development lay in developing electronic information provision further. Those from countries with existing well-developed systems spoke of quality, standardisation, integration and technological advances in the realms of speed and security whereas those from countries with less-developed infrastructures spoke of creating national networks and encouraging use at local access points.
Nearly all speakers saw the information society and knowledge society as present and future scenarios and so it was refreshing to hear a few point out that man has always lived in an information society. Information is and always has been necessary for survival. The biggest different toady is the economic value placed on information. We only live in an information age in that information has become a commercial product. Technological development and digitisation have vastly increased the amount of information which is publicly available and the speed with which it can be transmitted. They have also increased the commercial possibility of providing information which may deny access to some groups.
The 7th BOBCATSSS symposium will be held in Bratislava, 25-27 January 1999 on the theme of Lifelong Learning and will be organised by students from Stuttgart.