From Book Economy to Network Economy

Björn Bjarnason
Minister of Education, Science and Culture, Iceland

From Book Economy to Network Economy
Frankfurt Am Main, 17 October, 2000

It was Goethe who was the first to state at beginning of the 19th century that it had little meaning to talk about national literature as mankind was entering a phase of Weltliteratur, globalised literature, and it should be up to each and anyone to facilitate this development.

Today at the beginnig of the 21st century we wonder if we are moving from book economy to network economy and in doing that we must define the framework of our discussions. Is it certain that we are moving in this direction?

It is pointed out in our background documentation, that most media conglomerates are interested in the convergence of music, audio-visual and text-based industries, leading to the commercialisation of the great bulk of content. Some warn of the danger that the current trend, consisting of associating content and networking, may lead to the exclusion of other producers from the main channels of networked distribution. Moreover, that in electronic publishing the shift from property to an access paradigm is already a reality, and that temporary access, negotiated between clients and servers operating in a network relation, is in fact the main form of commercialisation of electronic publications.

I do not doubt the validity of these assumptions but do not sense any danger from them. The other side of the coin is that, due to the new technology, a greatly increased number of people now have an opportunity to publish and distribute their material, without being dependent upon a large publisher. It has also become much easier to gain access to information, regardless of physical distances.

My viewpoint is based on the position of someone from a small, geographically isolated country, inhabited by a small nation, speaking its own language. Yet we have embraced information technology to such an extent that more than 80% of the population have access to the Internet at home, in school or at work. We define our cultural roots and independence on the basis of an 800 year-old literature, written in the same language as that used today. Book publishing is thriving, with no decrease in recent years, in spite of the Internet, video, international television channels, and the greatest cinema attendance in Europe.

Book publishing in Iceland supports itself, without government grants, although selected works are supported with small sums, and there are funds that encourage translations and support individual authors. The need for this will not diminish even when works are being published in other forms than books.

To my mind, the electronic environment only serves to create new cultural and educational opportunities that are there for the taking. In my view, the most important issue is the way this medium is organised and whether people can use their own language. Then they don’t have to depend on other languages and can maintain the cultural independence, that provides the best condition for abundant growth This is one reason why the government of Iceland has placed such great emphasis on language engineering, that is to preserve the position of the Icelandic language in the computer environment.

Secondly, we have placed great importance on developing an electronic education system, by the use of metadata. Educational metadata is descriptive information about the context, quality and characteristics of educational data on the Internet. It will also contain information on the location, association and ownership of educational content, and how it can be acquired. My Ministry will work with all producers of educational material in Iceland to encourage them to tag their material with metadata according to standards and guidelines provided by the Ministry. This material will then be made available on the Internet. Due to its small and technologically advanced population, as well as for the easily mobilised network of institutions, Iceland is viewed as an ideal test-environment for the development of future technology for opening access to educational content on the Internet.

Thirdly, work is under way on establishing a new electronic library system that will serve all libraries in the country: the national library, academic, specialized and public libraries as well as school libraries. The new system will not only contain a common catalogue of books for the whole country, but also provide access to various databases using latest technology.

Fourthly, just last week, I signed an agreement with the information technology company Bell and Howell that will provide all Icelandic citizens with online access to key resources for journals and literature. Now, institutions, libraries, companies and home users can access various reference databases and over 5000 periodicals, journals and newspapers. All the texts are cross-searchable and users can search for abstracts and the full text / full image of articles. This system also includes access to online literature a fully searchable library of more than 290,000 works of English and American poetry, drama and prose, plus biographies, bibliographies and key secondary sources. Related to this resource is a special database for schools with online service for the teaching and study of English language and literature. It provides instant access to hundreds of primary texts plus the full text of secondary materials. Texts are supported by an online reference shelf, which provides a glossary of terms and The Concise Oxford Dictionary.

This will serve to show that I am not of the opinion that we should resist the shift from book economy to network economy. This may, however, be easier for a small nation, which for centuries has published books on its own terms, without the intervention of others, than it is for large nations, where much greater financial interests are at stake, and where the spread of electronic technology and computer use will likely be a much more extensive undertaking.

These changes will only serve to bring new opportunities, not dangers.

I began by posing the question whether we were about to move from a book economy to a network economy. My answer is that we are not excluding the book economy, but that we have got new opportunities, they do not exclude any of the methods we are already familiar with, unless they turn out to be far superior. We should not fear change, but rather welcome and make use of the opportunities they provide.