Digital Libraries and Sustainable Development?

Amanda Spink

School of Library and Information Sciences
University of North Texas
P.O. Box 13796 Denton, TX 76203
Tel: 1-817-565-2187

    1. Neoclassical view
    2. Cultural relativism view
    3. Cognitive order view


The international debate surrounding sustainable development centers on sustaining global industrialization versus a down scaling of industrialization to preserve humanity. This paper challenges the digital libraries community to consider the implications and impacts of these alternate futures to modernity and global industrialization to the development of digital libraries.

KEYWORDS: Sustainable development, information, digital libraries


In response to the problems of modernity, many social scientists and economists are projecting views of the future based on differing philosophical, social, political and economic perspectives on the nature of sustainable development. Thus, a new challenge is emerging for the digital libraries community. How to develop digital libraries within the framework of this evolving sustainable development debate.

One view within the debate advocates sustainable development as a set of policies and methods to sustain global industrialization, through sustainable technological and economic development. An alternate view presents a scenario of global scarcities, conflicts and decreasing natural resources. The international economic and social transformation to modernity is associated with global population growth, migration to the cities, mass death, depletion of natural resources and energy fuels, and environmental degradation. Future crises are projected to facilitate a down scaling of global industrial production to sustainable levels of development based on regional self-sufficiency to preserve humanity. Sustainable development within this view represents a radical rethinking of the current social, economic and political dimensions of development.

The scientific precursors to digital libraries, including computer and information science research, evolved during an expansionist period of unparalleled social, economic and technological development. This research has facilitated western industrialization and information transfer within stages of an evolving information society. This paper examines the nature and implications of the sustainable development debate and the potential impact of each alternate future for the development digital libraries.


What is sustainable development? With the development of modernization theory [1,2,3], sustainable development emerged as central to a debate about the limits of growth [4], nature of development and problems of overcoming endemic world poverty. The difficult question challenging participants in the debate is "What form of development is sustainable?". The debate continues to attract many different disciplinary approaches and views. Commentators mean different things by sustainable development, including strategies to conserve natural resources, sustained levels of production, consumption and economic growth, or the development of minimum conditions for sustaining life.

Lele [5] provided a semantic roadmap for sustainable development within the broad literature and identified many fields of application including: economics, ecological studies and sociology. He distinguished two broadly different notions of sustainable development, as either the process of economic growth or as a set of strategies or objectives based on the idea of basic human needs. Wallimann also identified two broad views of sustainable development, as first the neoclassical view and second, the cognitive order view [6]. The next section discusses various dimensions of these two views.

Neoclassical view

The neoclassical view represents the common and pervasive attitude to sustainable development, based on a future vision attributing the market and technology as centerpieces of social change. This view includes rational objective assumptions about sustaining global industrialization, within a mainstream view of economic reductionism and a economic cost-benefit analysis approach [7,8,9]. The neoclassical view relies on continuing and sustainable high levels of economic growth and technological progress within northern hemisphere quality of life issues [10].

This view represents the mainstream view of U.S. corporate and government leaders, reflected in the makeup and mission of the President's Council on Sustainable Development [11]. The 25-member council of government officials, academics and CEOs examine the economic dimensions of sustainable development and develop policies encouraging economic growth, job creation and effective use of U.S. natural resources.

Economic and industrial issues are the central concern of the neoclassical view. Sustainable development is described as an extension, on a global scale, of eurocentric models of economic modernization emphasizing technological development to avoid potential environmental degradation. But the neoclassical view has been criticized as ignoring important social, political and cultural needs of humanity related to the sustainability of development [6,9,12,13].

Currently only one fifth of the worlds population lives in an industrialized economy. As LDCs further industrialize, requiring a greater share of the world's resources, increasing disputes may arise over resources allocation. Every day on an international level we see scarcity of food and natural resources, wars, overpopulation, pollution and ecological disasters, genocide and mass death, and imbalance between industrialized nations and less developed countries (LDCs). In the long term the global industrialization assumption of the neoclassical view may not be realistic or desirable for the future survival of humanity.

Cultural relativism view

The cultural relativism view of sustainable development emerged in the 1987 Bruntdland Report to the World Commission on Environment and Development [6,14]. This view attempted a counterweight dimension to the neoclassical view, emphasizing the need to consider the cultural and political aspects of sustainability. But as Wallimann [6] asserts, the basis of the cultural relativism view still rests on the assumptions of western rationality [15] and similar to sustainable development as conceived under the neoclassical view.

Cognitive order view

The cognitive order view [6] or the new cognitive order [16], represents a reaction against the architecture of modernity [17,18] (within both free market and planned economies) and uneven global development. This alternate view ascribes a sustainable future based on collective action and local communities as autonomous subjects within a self-reliant pattern of social organization. The core value of the cognitive order view assume the survival of humanity as the moral and strategic focus for a radical redefinition of the neoclassical view [6]. This means a rethinking of development away from western rationality and economic reductionism, and a reevaluation of the role of social actors in constructing and representing reality.

The cognitive order view attempts to sustain humanity within a framework of changing cultural, social, economic and political movements, and avert a projected future of increasing scarcity, overpopulation, conflict, resource depletion and impending genocide [19]. In geopolitical terms, this view represents the southern hemisphere views of less developed countries for cultural identity and collective survival against the penetration and problems of modernity and global industrialization [15,20,21]. This view of sustainable development is an important social tensions of our time. It reflects the development of new social movements based on a concern for the environment and the betterment of global social living.

This view brings a new dimension to sustainable development [17,22,23] emphasizing an interplay between micro local and global action. A political project within a humanist framework, this view goes beyond the nation state and social movements. New patterns of authority and a profound reexamination of human priorities are proposed within an endogenous and self-reliant society [24,25,26]. Ecological sustainability [27,28] emphasizes the need to develop minimum conditions for sustaining life and reevaluate economic modernization and underdevelopment [29,30,31,32,33,34].

Thus, two different views of possible future directions for humanity are emerging. Each view is based upon different meanings ascribed to sustainable development forming the basis for an ongoing international debate, not only in development theory, but within economics, ecology, social sciences and political agendas. What has been the nature of the sustainability debate within the literature related to the development of digital libraries?


Some information science researchers have begun to explore the dimensions of sustainable information services and technologies. Recent research funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) of Canada focuses on the development and evaluation of information services and technology projects in LDCs, to strengthen the information infrastructure and industrialization [38,39]. The success, appropriateness and sustainability (within a neoclassical view) of information services and technology projects in developing countries has also been the subject of some recent discussion amongst information scientists. Recent research has explored sustainable information systems in LDCs [40,41,42] and the role of agricultural libraries and library automation to sustaining LDC industrial development [43,44]. Recent resolutions by the 47th General Assembly, Conference and Congress of the International Federation for Information and Documentation (FID) held in Tokyo, October 2-9, 1994 called for more research and strategic alliances of international non-governmental information organizations to serve better the world community [45].

But as Saracevic [46] suggests, there are many studies, but limited data, analyzing the connection between information and levels of development. Research is required investigating the importance, availability, accessibility and use of information in developing countries, and the role and importance of information in development. The informational aspects of sustained global industrialization and development, or the informational needs of an industrially down scaling society are also open for research. We are just beginning to explore the information needs of the alternate approaches to sustainable development.


Why should digital libraries researchers be concerned with the sustainable development debate? For a number of reasons. First, because we have a vested interest in seeing our research survive and develop. Digital libraries research is an outgrowth of post-modern scientific disciplines and problems. The digital libraries initiative follows a period of unprecedented economic growth and scientific development in the United States, cradled in the arms of computer technological.

Vannevar Bush's [35] 1945 vision of the Memex or the need for a technological fix for the information explosion drives the digital libraries initiative. Bush described the Memex as "a device in which an individual stores all his books, records and communications which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility" [35]. But in the spirit of post war optimism Vannevar did not address the social and cultural dimensions of Memex, nor the impact of social or political change on the Memex vision. Vannevar Bush didn't mention social change!

The vision of Memex and the information explosion continues to capture the imagination of information scientists after 50 years [36]. Bush's vision was right for his time, but is it right for today? In our rush to consider and reconsider the technical feasibility of Memex, let us not forget the social and cultural feasibility. Our Memex vision rests on neoclassical assumptions of sustained high levels of economic growth, development of national and global information infrastructures, "Big Science" [37] and increasing levels of education and literacy.

Second, we need to consider whether we are encouraging and participating in the development of an unsustainable vision of a global information infrastructure and possibly contributing to a future crisis of human survival? Is the current imperative is toward global industrialization, the development of national and global information infrastructures, the "information society", digital libraries, and the technological development of LDCs sustainable? We need to consider the possible role of digital libraries within alternate futures for humanity?


We need to understanding the informational dimensions, impacts and implications of sustainable development for digital libraries research. What are the implications for digital libraries if social change and movements diverge away from modernity? What is the relationship between digital libraries and the sustained development of global industrialization? Will our contribution to the solution of global problems through digital libraries evolve or disappear - if the neoclassical view proves unsustainable? What could be the role of digital libraries in down scaling industrial economies to a sustainable society within a basic needs approach?

This is a crucial juncture, as digital libraries enter an exciting period of growth and development. At this time, a reassessment of the underlying assumptions and research agenda should begin to be articulated to consider: how digital libraries may evolve within either view of sustainable development? Are digital libraries consistent with either view? Are digital libraries an enabling technology within either view?

Scientific fields are sustained by certain problems and the interdisciplinary field of digital libraries is currently sustained by the need for technological solutions to the information explosion. But the digital libraries initiative must survive and sustain itself within changing societal frameworks or not be sustained. The information explosion driving our vision exists within broader social problems. The problems of sustaining development and humanity represent the larger challenge.


Industrialization has seen increasing specialization and complexity and individualization, particularly in the United States. Computer technology and information services have developed to support industrialization. Human information needs continue to change with the current development of national and global information infrastructures.

Libraries and information services have developed with industrialization and continue to assume greater importance with LDC industrialization. Phases of centralization, and as Resnick [47] suggests, decentralization of industrial society, produce different information needs. A future under the cognitive order view may mean industrial down scaling and less specialization. What approaches to the collection, storage and dissemination of information would support regional agricultural and social self-reliance via community-based information services? The concept of local control of information services and the establishment of freenets or community networks may be a first step in the development of our understanding of digital libraries and industrial down scaling within forms of local self-reliance.

We need to consider what level of tools and technology are sustainable? What is the role for digital libraries within societies evolving or even rapidly moving away from computer-based initiatives? What underlying theory and approaches to information storage and dissemination transcend social change away from modernity? If, at core, digital libraries research is concerned with the effective communication of knowledge [48]. Then as Saracevic suggests, information is an integral aspect of any society as "the organic process of development, in addition to human, economic, technical and physical factors, involves information as well" [46]. The tools may change, but information and humanity remains.


Digital libraries and sustainable development are both now emerging as key concepts politically, socially and intellectually within an international debate surrounding differing assumptions [49] challenging the nature of science [50] and society. These two concepts need to be reconciled through contributions by digital libraries researchers to the sustainable development debate. What is the relationship between the Clinton Administration's Initiative on Sustainable Development (through the President's Council on Sustainable Development) and the Digital Libraries Initiative? At present there is no obvious connection - or is there? Let's make the connection. An interdisciplinary research agenda is required to begin to examine the relationship between sustainable development and digital libraries.

In this paper I have attempted to provide an overview of the growing sustainability debate and raises a number of important questions for digital libraries researchers to consider. The questions and issues raised form an important challenge for the long term future and survival of the digital libraries initiative. The new challenge for the digital libraries community goes beyond Vannevar Bush and Memex to encompass the development of sustainable digital libraries within a sustainable future for humanity.


The author thanks Isidor Wallimann, Tefko Saracevic, Phil Doty and the anonymous reviewers for their contribution to this paper.


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