An Ethic of Equitable Access

An increasingly complex technological, social, legal, and economic environment defines many boundaries within which “digital library” services will evolve. Librarians may discover that “libraries-without-walls” are actually only libraries with new walls – technologically bounded, legally restricted, and administratively hamstrung.  (Kuny-Clevelend, The Digital Library: Myths and Challenges, p. 1)

I found Kuny-Ceavland’s article useful in identifying  myths and obstacles present in the evolution of digital libraries.  As with debates over electronic vs print collections, many assumptions are made that transforming materials into digital collections will be of unquestionable benefit to users.  The article identifies a number of “myths” that are important to keep in mind and helpful issues to address. Among them that the internet is a “digital library” in terms of its potential to create broader access to information for everyone.  This claim conflicts with the reality that locating useful information on the open web is a rather inefficient and at times daunting task, mediated by poor support practices and wide variances in the quality of found information.  Another challenged myth concerns the claim that digital libraries will insure more equitable access, both geographically and in terms of hours available.   The evidence remains that worldwide the vast majority of citizens have very limited internet access.  This reality holds true for large portions of inner-city and rural Americans, so one cannot assume that your digital material will be freely accessed based on these technological inequalities.

I appreciated the following summary proposal from Kuny-Ceavland, wherein they suggest the affordances that developing ethical practices for digital librarianship might deliver:

A different view of the future might be one where a “digital library” is more like a “knowledge center”, where a complex system of professionals whose expertise supports access to information and acts as an intermediary to a variety of digital and other sources. These digital librarians/knowledge workers, who imbued with an ethic of equitable access, would function as well-trained intermediaries in an heterogeneous information environment -an environment that if not actively hostile to users is certainly confusing -to find and make sense of the masses of data for their users.  (Kuny-Clevelend, The Digital Library: Myths and Challenges, p. 11)

Though its certainly important to consider the potential that digital libraries promise, it is of equal importance to recognize the challenges inherent in creating them in terms of equitable access and technological discrepancies to overcome.  Finally, we should keep in mind how we as information professionals may intercede.

Some final thoughts/questions? 1) How can we support each other in becoming ethical stewards of digital resources? 2) Is it important to develop in pace with other communities, create standards that are universally accepted?  3) Does this suggest we need to accept a slower pace in evolution, one that hopes to address issues before they are further complicated?

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