Transnational Democracy in the Making

This is more or less what I said in the workshop "Transnational Democracy in the Making" of the Inter Citizens' Conferences (ICC), arranged by Kansan Sivistystyön Liitto / Civic Association for Adult Learning (Helsinki, Finland) and the Europahaus Burgenland (Eisenstadt, Austria) in Helsinki 11 October 2003. - The text is also maintained here

Free information is transnational, or it is not free. In nations run by dictators, national borders tend to become the walls of information's jail.

While speaking about democracy (D), we tend to forget its roots in the civil society. The parliamentary process is, of course, a necessary condition of D. But that process is in turn based on the existence of a free public sphere, i.e. a public sphere which , in its turn, is based on the freedom of speech and the freedom of information.

The freedom of information (I), or rather the liberation of information is a necessary social condition of D, and it is almost as young a D itself. It is an ongoing process. Many of our predecessors sacrificed their own lives in this process without ever seeing D coming into being.

The freedom of information is granted by the public library system. Other preconditions of D are, for instance, universal literacy, a free press and the womens' right to vote.

Although the role of the library system in the making of D is crucial, it is often underestimated or forgotten.

"The trend of library policy is clearly toward the ideal of making all information available without delay to all people". This means that the library offers its customers limitless amounts of I , more I than any individual could possibly take in and process. This is freedom of I from the quantitative point of view. But the democratic trend of library policy also implies intellectual freedom. This has been ultimately confirmed by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) in its Statement on Libraries and Intellectual Freedom (1999).

Jan Ristarp observes that the freedom of information which is provided by the public libraries resembles a physical law of nature, too self-evident to be always remembered. Rooted as it is in more than a hundred years of public library history and the history of popular education, the freedom of information is nowadays taken for granted "in our countries". The contribution of the public library to the basic rules of democracy is probably only equalled by the significance of general compulsory education, Ristarp notes. (See the anthology Bibliotek - mötesplats i tid och rum, edited by the Swedish Library Association's special working group on democracy, BTJ Tryck, Lund 2000, p 105-106.)

The information service provided by the public library is not-for-profit. It is free in the double sense of gratis and unbound. It does not demand its user to pay a price, nor does it put limits on the content and the amount of the information. During the one and a half century of its existence, the non-commercial public library has managed to coexist with the commercial information services, which are provided by book-publishers, journals and mass media. Since the last ten years, however, the internet is rapidly and radically changing the conditions of existence of both the library, the book market and the media.

The internet is a new public library. To be a library is a main feature of the internet. Transnational democracy is in the making.

Many still fear the novelty of the internet and try to cling exclusively to older technologies of writing and reading. That fear and conservatism, however, is bound to vanish in less than one generation.

Others (including the present writer) look upon the internet with a different fear: will the public library principle prevail on the internet? Will the internet continue to be used as a library by an ever growing number of citizens? Or, will the the library and the internet be crushed under the power of transnational corporations? The transnational corporations of this "Information Age" strive to enlarge their markets. "Progressively higher levels of liberalization of trade in services" and "Intellectual Property Rights" (to quote the standard phrases from the WTO-negotiations) are two main points on their agenda. In short, will the commercial information services of the transnational business corporations swallow the public information services of the citizens?

At the World Summit of the Information Society (Geneva, 10-12 December) there will probably be too much talking about the digital divide. The divide is not digital, it is social and economic. The way to overcoming the divide, however, passes through the library.