Globalisation, Information and Libraries
Ruth Rikowski’s title at first sight seems to put it in the same category as many other books with “globalisation” in the title. However, if you go on to the subtitle, you will realise something else is afoot: “The implications of the World Trade Organisation’s GATS and TRIPS Agreements”. Ah, what has trade got to do with libraries, you may well ask. Well it has.
This significant book achieves the impossible. It is both an impassioned polemic against the self-interest of a globalised knowledge economy, and at the same time a dispassionate dissection of why businesses are gaining control of our most precious intellectual possessions. A lucid analysis of the structures of the GAT S [General Agreement on Trade in Services] and TRIPS [Trade Related aspects of Intellectual Property Rights] in the context of the WTO [World Trade Agreement], lays bare the danger that knowledge will in the near future only be available where it adds value to a profit hungry company.
Thus, the book is about the commoditisation of information, about the inroads of the commercial profit motive into an area that - in the writer’s Open Marxist view - ought to be unsullied by efforts to make money from selling access to information. What will inevitably happen is that information without value [= makes no profit] eventually stops being available at all. The book’s argument reminds us that if we think of librarians as dusty souls quietly date-stamping and arranging books on shelves in mysterious ways, we ought to turn towards the substance of what they do - “they offer us the world’s knowledge” - and we should not need to pay capitalist prices for this.
The early chapters describe the globalisation movements in factual detail, gradually revealing what a naive view of currently state-funded libraries and other such information providers overlooks: they are under pressure to create income streams in order to survive. If they fail, they will be taken over by smart suits who know how to wring a profit out of public demand. But then, only profitable knowledge will be sold.
The systematic organisation and clear writing in the book make the argument very easy to follow. It is often very personal and anecdotal, and the key points are reiterated many times so that they become familiar and plausible. Some charts or diagrams would be welcome in the second edition, since there is a wealth of different kinds of arguments to absorbe, ranging from the relevance of different clauses in GATS to the writer’s own experience of recent trends in the library sector. A competent conclusion sums up each chapter, and the novice reader might well start by reading backwards from the final conclusion in Chapter 12 to the first one at the end of Chapter 1. This will provide a useful overview to underpin a “proper” reading.
The book’s 4 parts deal in turn with:
1. Globalisation and the World Trade Organisation.
2. The General Agreement on Trade in Services, where an overview of the key points in the GATS is followed by very detailed observation of their relation to libraries, their already evident impact, and the position taken by numerous leading library associations across the world.
3. Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, where an overview of the key points in the TRIPS is followed by pertinent discussions of historical and moral issues for libraries, especially in the developing world.
4. An Open Marxist Theoretical Perspective on Global Capitalism and the World Trade Organisation, which argues strongly against the “TINA” view of global capitalism.
The main point is rephrased in various ways. On p. 93, CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) is cited:
...CILIP is concerned at the potentially alarming consequences for the future operation and development of cultural and education services should the priority to preserve our cultural heritage, provide free access to information and the notion of a community-based library serving the needs of the local population cease to take priority over profit margins.
The GATs philosophy is described on p.98 as being
about the trading of all services, so libraries also fall within this remit and could be vulnerable under various categorisations or sectors with the GATS. ... it is about the marketisation, commodification and privatisation of services for the enhancement of global capitalism.
The clearest explanation of the relation between TRIPS and GATS occurs on p. 303, namely that
the fundamental philosophy behind TRIPS is the trading of intellectual property rights, in the same way as that fundamental philosophy behind GATS is the liberalisation of trade in services. So the aim in TRIPS is to transform knowledge, information and ideas into intellectual property rights that can then be traded in the marketplace. Fundamentally, the GATS and TRIPS assist with the process of commodifying more and more areas of social life.
However, this book is not, and does not claim to be, in any sense an objective assessment of the dangers posed by commercial interests to the freedom of information. There is no carefully crafted, balanced argument. The author announces that she is a Marxist, and no benefits of capitalism are set beside its evils.
We are told, for instance, about “companies ‘benevolently’ investing in libraries” (Section 5.4.3, p. 117-118), though only two examples – of Bill Gates and Starbucks – are given, albeit with the author’s warning that “this trend is likely to escalate”.
There is an explanation and discussion of micropayments and their likely impact upon libraries who, like everyone else, will have to pay the information providers even if only in a penny at a time (Section 5.4.4, p.118-125). There are examples of where privatisation of libraries has already started in the UK (Section 5.5, p. 125-132) and of the capitalisation of libraries in the UK (Section 5.6, p. 132-137) where a comparison is made with “education businesses” that, it is claimed, have outperformed the overall level of share prices in the last few years. These various negative developments are well summed up on p.133:
It might not seem, at the current time, that much money can be made out of libraries. But I am describing the logic of capitalism – the path down which it must inevitably go.
Of course, we know that we have always had to pay for information, whether the messenger running breathless into Rome, or the witchdoctor dispensing concoctions, or the cost of printing. Our government supported libraries are not truly cost-free. Is the issue perhaps less that information is commoditised but rather the danger that the price will be too high? I.e. not whether information has to be paid for, but what is a reasonable pricing policy?
Yet it is difficult to resist the strength of the case made. All who are committed to a free society in which knowledge is at least in principle open to all must take Ms Rikowski very seriously indeed. Neverthtless, there is the difficulty faced by any seer, or prophet of doom, or indeed in any attempt to make a risk analysis. How can we assess in advance what the dangers really are, and, even more difficult, how can we persuade others that what we can only point to as current trends are actually pernicious influences? Like the global warming controversy, the debate here revolves around different visions of the future. But neither Ms Rikowki’s book title nor her argument has the benefit of vivid images like the hole in the atmosphere, rising sea levels, and strange weather patterns, that all of us find frightening. The work urgently needs a new title for its second edition, perhaps “The information takeover”, or “The door slams on knowledge”, or some other effective metaphor that a reader of this review might propose.
Anita Pincus is based at the University of London's Institute of Education, where she is a senior lecturer at the School of Lifelong Education and International Development (LEID). She can be reached at: <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
This is a Book Review published on 30 January 2006.Citation: Pincus, 'Globalisation, Information and Libraries’, Book Review, 2005 (2-3) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT).<http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/law/elj/jilt/2005_2-3/pincus/>.