Review: From Gutenberg to the Global Information Infrastructure

Michael Day reviews the book by Christine Borgman: From Gutenberg to the Global Information Infrastructure.

Christine L. Borgman, From Gutenberg to the global information infrastructure: access to information in the networked world. Cambridge, Mass., London: MIT Press, 2000. xviii, 324 pp. £27.95. ISBN 0-262-02473-X.

Christine Borgman's book From Gutenberg to the global information infrastructure was published in March 2000 in the Digital Libraries and Electronic Publishing series edited by William Arms. The book is an excellent introduction to a wide range of issues related to the development of digital libraries and to what is called here a 'global information infrastructure.' It is possible that some readers approaching a book with this title might be led to expect a historical review of the development of information technologies since the fifteenth-century. However, in this book the term 'Gutenberg' is used as a kind of shorthand for 'print-culture' - a usage popularised by Marshall McLuhan in his 1962 book The Gutenberg galaxy [1]. As is often the case, the book's subtitle - access to information in the networked world - gives a better indication of its content.

In her first three chapters, Borgman spends some time defining key terms and introducing some important issues. In chapter 1, for example, she gives a very broad definition of what she means by a global information infrastructure: "a technical framework of computing and communications technologies, information content, services, and people, all of which interact in complex and often unpredictable ways". Chapters 2 and 3 define various meanings of the terms 'digital library' and 'access to information.' Chapter 3 in particular contains a very good introduction to metadata and its various uses. Throughout all of this, Borgman makes it clear that she is not just interested in technological issues, but in the full range of economic, legal and societal factors that can influence access to information in the networked world.

The next few chapters broadly cover the life cycle of information, the use of digital libraries and a more detailed analysis of the role of libraries as institutions. These chapters introduce a very wide range of issues: the role of libraries in selecting, preserving and giving access to content, the usability of systems and institutions, information seeking behaviour, the differences between novice and expert search strategies, interoperability, etc. Chapter 8 concentrates on how system designers need to focus on the identified needs of their content and target audience while also being aware that there may also be a broader global audience for their service.

Two problems that Borgman returns to in her last chapter are digital preservation and scalability. Digital preservation is mentioned repeatedly throughout the book as a serious issue, especially in chapter 7 where she notes that the issue often raises more questions than answers. In chapter 9, she also speculates on the scalability of existing networks (e.g. the Internet) to support the development of a global information infrastructure. These concerns, again, are to some extent technological, but Borgman notes that there are also a range of legal, economic and political problems that will also need to be addressed. In this chapter, Borgman also includes a 'case study' of Central and Eastern Europe based on research carried out in Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia throughout the 1990s. This section will probably be useful for those who have an interest in this particular geographical region, but it doesn't necessarily cohere well with the rest of the book.

That said, this book is very good. Chapter 7, in particular, is an excellent assessment of where libraries stand on the threshold of the twenty-first century. It stresses that debates about the future of libraries are not really about libraries at all, but about how to best facilitate public access to information. The issues that are covered (all too briefly) by the chapter includes: national libraries and legal deposit, the sharing of cataloguing information, metadata standards and content rules and the role of the library as a physical space. It also mentions the potential impact of intellectual property laws on information access in libraries. Borgman notes that "finding the balance between the rights of citizens and the rights of producers may be the greatest challenge we face in providing access to information in democratic societies."

One major theme of the whole book is that of 'co-evolutionary' change. Borgman takes a via media between those who argue that the development of online access to information resources will have revolutionary consequences and those who argue that any changes will be evolutionary, and that existing institutions (e.g. libraries, publishers, etc.) are likely to survive in some form. She feels that the most likely future is co-evolutionary; people will adopt new technologies when they feel that they are appropriate but will not discard all of their older habits. Later on in the book, Borgman points out that the development of printing didn't completely destroy communication through oral tradition or the art of handwriting, and in another chapter notes that - at the moment - electronic forms of communication complements, rather than replaces, many aspects of face-to-face communication. A second major theme of the book is that of usability. Borgman devotes two chapters to this issue and outlines various themes of a potential research agenda.

The book contains summaries at the end of each chapter, an index and forty-pages of references. This list alone would provide a good starting point for students and others who are interested in pursuing the issues raised in the book further.

Inevitably, the book - with the exception of the case study covering Central and Eastern Europe - has a North American flavour, but this is not a big problem. More serious is the lack of consideration of the related concerns of archives and museums, except in a small part of chapter 7. I was also surprised that the discussion of cataloguing rules and standards in chapter 7 didn't mention the report of the IFLA Study Group on the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records [2] and other recent developments.

The book contains a few mistakes. For example, PDF (p. 155) should be the Portable Document Format, while the "British National Lending Library at Boston Spa" (pp. 175-6) presumably refers to the British Library Document Supply Centre (BLDSC). There are also some inconsistencies in the presentation of URLs in the references; i.e., some missing punctuation and inappropriate capitalisation. These small items, however, do not detract from the generally good quality of the book's production.

In short, this is an excellent book. It introduces a wide range of issues that relate to the development of digital libraries and a future global information infrastructure. It should be read by all of those people who have an interest in digital libraries and their development, whether practitioners, researchers or students.


  1. Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg galaxy: the making of typographic man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962.
  2. IFLA Study Group, Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records: final report. Munich: K. G. Saur, 1998.

Author Details

Michael Day
University of Bath
Date published: 
Friday, 23 March 2001
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