Public Libraries, Portals and Power

Speech at the International Conference EVA'2000 on Digital Convergence: New Technologies for Museums, Galleries, Libraries & Archives,
Moscow, The State Tretyakov Gallery, Friday 3 November

by Mikael Bk, Director of Katto-Meny Cooperative Society (, Helsinki, Finland. E-mail:




Virtual libraries

'Virtual library' is a doubly problematic concept. The meaning of the word 'library' may seem clear enough at the outset. On closer inspection, however, it turns out that it can be taken to mean a great many things. The flexible and changing meaning of 'library' has been well documented by Roger Chartier and other library historians.

If 'library' leaves us a just little bit insecure as to what it means, 'virtual' is almost incomprehensible. What is virtual? Is it unreal? Or almost real? Or just possible? Or is it the ephemeral, as contrasted with the lasting and eternal? Or, is it simply something which is electrical, electronic and/or digital instead of something which used to be tangible and touchable, i.e. the "bits" of the present instead of the "atoms" of the past?

It will be worthwhile here to briefly look at three somewhat different conceptions of the virtual library.

1) The popular view

The first, which is the most popular view, parts from the above-mentioned distinction between computer-screen and paper. A library which offers its contents in digital format is a virtual library.

Such a virtual library resembles the traditional library, it is almost like it, only that it is it is constructed with the help of a different (digital) technique. So, in the popular view, virtual means almost real. Paper is seen as more real than screen, which is only virtual.

That the virtual library is digital means, on the other hand, that it is out there somewhere in cyberspace. Therefore, it seems to be a library which is no longer in a place. The internet, as Tor Norretranders puts it, "is the place which is no place". Thus the popular conception of the virtual library is related to the idea of "a library without walls", i.e. a library which needs no longer be located in a physical building. A library embedded in cyberspace.

2) The dream of the complete Library

A second conception of the virtual library is the traditional intellectual dream or myth of the Library which includes all available knowledge and information: the complete universal library. That conception of the virtual library rests on the notion of an inclusive totality.

The complete and universal ( read virtual) Library is in a quite different sense also a place which is no place, namely the place called Utopia. This is the Schlaraffenland of information and knowledge which, in our time, has moved into Cyberspace.

Although it is imagined to include all the information, such a virtual library may be socially quite exclusive. It is sometimes projected for exclusive utilization by an elite of researchers and philosophers (or, in earlier epochs, only for the King). Of course, the virtual library has also been part of noble dreams of universal learning and education.

The virtual library also happens to be a metaphysical and melancholic place. Nobody has caught its feeling better than Jorge Louis Borges, the Argentinian writer of short stories such as The Library of Babel and The Book of Sand.

Information technology has given the virtual library in this sense an extra kick. We seem inclined to think that the old dream is now more likely than ever before to come true with the help of the new technique. The word virtual here takes on the sense of the possible, the potential. In this regard, James J. O'Donnell, an American professor of classical studies, has put forward the following critical reflection, in Avatars of the Word (1998):

"the dream of the virtual library comes forward now not because it promises an exciting future, but because it promises a future that will be just like the past, only better and faster".
According to O'Donnell, "the virtual library may already be obsolete" because the idea of an inclusive totality is rapidly dissolving in the age of the networks where every reader is also potentially his own publisher. "What would be the contents of the electronic virtual library? Everything? Every what?", O'Donnell asks.

3) The virtual library as information service

O'Donnells' question can be, and it is indeed being answered in the following way: in the future, just like in the present and the past, the content of the library will be a collection of information which both includes and excludes a whole lot. It will certainly not contain all the information.

This third conception of the virtual library is in fact based on the notion of an exclusive totality.

Another important notion here is metadata ("data about data"). The International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) gives the following definition:

"The term [metadata] refers to any data used to aid the identification, description and location of networked electronic resources. Many different metadata formats exist, some quite simple in their description, others quite complex and rich." (see

Their discussion and development of "metadata" and related things indicate that the professional librarians are already well aware of the fact that, as O,Donnell puts it, "the forms of organization of knowledge in electronic media do not resemble those of the traditional codex book".

Assumedly, librarians do by no means represent a dying species. "Knowledge organisation" continues to be an indispensable activity.

But to what extent is it indispensable? Indispensable for whom? The answer lies in the word service. The library, virtual or not, which selects and organizes knowledge, is in its essence a service to certain groups of people.

The virtual library in this third sense, as a selective and exclusive information service which makes full use of computer pogramming and digital networks, has hitherto primarily been thought to serve the academic community, especially the scientific researchers. An example of what has already been done in this field in Europe is the DESIRE project (1998-2000) and its "guide to creating high quality portals on the Internet" (see - It is interesting that the library community here uses the word 'portals'; i will come back to this in a while.

In some countries, the staff of the public libraries are equally busy building virtual libraries in more or less the same spirit as the academic virtual libraries are being constructed. Their goal consists in providing information service to all citizens who then, at least in some respects, are also admitted to be "researchers". It should be added that the virtual library, be it academic or public, also indirectly serves the library as such. The virtual library provides, of course, very useful new tools to the librarians themselves.

The website of the Finnish public libraries is a good example in point (see One of the new services to be found there, the so called the "Link library", aims at a classification of webpages according to the Dewey Decimal System. In principle, the staff of all public libraries in the country participate by adding new links.

Interestingly, the number of links in the "link library" is only slowly increasing (by a couple of hundreds per month) , as compared to the extremely rapid growth of webpages (hundreds of thousands new webpages per month?) out there on the WWW. There may be several reasons for this slowness. Yet one key explanation is, I think, that the service of any "Link Library" must consist in its being selective and exclusive.

Additional view of the virtual library

Ranganathan's famous five laws of library science are:
1. Books are for use ;
2. Every reader his book ;
3. Every book its reader ;
4. Save the time of the reader;
5. Library is a growing organism.

Timo Kuronen, a Finnish library specialist, has formulated two complementary laws, both intended to cover the new situation of a library which is going "virtual":

6. Every reader his library ;
7. Every writer his contribution to the library
(Kuronen (2000), see his e-book (the book is in Finnish, but it includes an English Summary)).

According to this view, the digitalized, virtual library is characterized by a new flexibility, and a new degree of participation. But it still is a library.

Or is it? How can one be sure that the library will continue to grow, or even to exist, in the so called information society?

Portals and libraries

During the last two or three years 'portal' has been a buzz-word of a number of institutions and organisations which struggle for visibility and influence on the World Wide Web. The information portal expresses commercial or social power, it is a symbol of hegemony, at least in its own field or sector.

We have already seen that the developers of virtual research libraries, too, have so to speak resigned to the temptation to call their own product "high-quality portals". Should 'portal' and 'virtual library' perhaps be considered overlapping concepts? Or are there any decisive differences between portals and virtual libraries?

I think we should be careful to distinguish between these two phenomena. I shall illustrate my pont with a number of dichotomies:

  1. to sell vs. to serve - Compare the ethos of the librarian to the spirit of the salesman.
  2. commerce vs. culture - Could it be that the Net, just like the library, is not there to sell us things for money?
  3. corporate portals vs. virtual libraries rooted in civil society - Can portals of media corporations and telecom operators avoid being biased by their special commercial interests in the internet?
  4. state vs. civil society - Should we trust the "organization of knowledge" to local or national governments, to ministries and orher official bodies, not to speak of institutions like the World Bank? Why not let the public libraries play the key role?
  5. information amateurs vs. information specialists Who are information specialists if not the librarians?
With the help of these dichotomies and more or less rhetorical questions, I have wanted to sketch a critique of the portal as compared to the virtual library.

More fundamental critical arguments remain to be made. A library is much more than a gateway, or portal to information. Originally consecrated to the cult of the muses, the library is a meeting-place of the seekers of truth and beauty, a mouseion. The ethos of the librarian consists in improving that place and to serve those seekers.

Secondly, libraries do not only provide catalagues, links, databases and metadata. Functioning also as depositories they play a key role in the preservation of information and knowledge. This, of course, is a strategic issue in the so called information society.

The library as one of the state powers in the information society

These reflections lead to the following conclusion:in the information society the public library ought to play the role of an Informational power which balances and checks the traditional Legislative, Executive and Judicial powers.

And this, in turn, leads to the question whether the Moscow Manifesto is too modest in its recommendations.