THE TENTH CONGRESS OF SOUTHEAST ASIAN LIBRARIANS, Kuala Lumpur, 25 May 1996
As the countries of Southeast Asia move towards the 21st century, information and information systems will feature prominently in their plans and programmes for national development. The impact of information on these countries in the social, economic, political and cultural spheres will be tremendous. Throughout the region, the importance given to information and information systems in national development is reflected in the priority given to building, developing and enhancing the Information Technology infrastructure. Nevertheless, it is important for us to make the distinction between, on the one hand, the IT infrastructure, that is the computer networks and telecommunication systems, and, on the other hand, the National Information Infrastructure.
The IT infrastructure is but a component of the National Information Infrastructure. Although many parts of the region are still trailing our major cities in terms of information technology infrastructure, we are confident that we will be able to propel ourselves forward by leapfrogging the various intermediate stages of development. As such we can safely assume that very soon the physical infrastructure of the new information technology will be in place in most parts of the region. Apart from the physical infrastructure, the National Information Infrastructure should comprise also the human resources infrastructure; the knowledge databanks infrastructure; and finally the policies and legislation infrastructure.
No matter how sophisticated the physical infrastructure is, it will not be effective if people who use the systems are incapable of using them through lack of knowledge or lack of skills. Ultimately, the type of education available in the country determines whether or not information or information systems are used efficiently. Basic literacy skills - reading, information retrieval and handling skills, computer skills, should be developed from primary schools to enable people to comprehend database instructions, evaluate and communicate information efficiently. In order for people to use information and information systems proficiently, they must be ,independent learners, to enable them to be information users and processors.
In this regard it is perhaps appropriate to lodge a caveat against the unbridled quest for information for information's sake. Certainly, the creation of an information- rich society is well and good provided always that such a society is not rich merely in amassing information but one which is discerning and discriminating. Recipients of information in such a society must be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. There is information which is knowledge and there is information which is mere data. We should not allow ourselves to be inundated by piles and piles of useless information because we may lose the knowledge in all the information. In 1937, commenting on the West being flooded by the rising tide of nonsensical information, the late Ezra Pound, a prominent poet and social critic of this century, wrote: "Today, the whole Occident is bathed daily in mental sewage, that is, the morning paper in ten millions of copies rouses the Western brain daily. Bunkus is called a philosopher, Puley an economist, and a hundred lesser vermin swarm daily over acres of print.
Teaching strategies must therefore encourage students to seek and use information resources independently. This would in turn encourage a wide and extensive use of information resources in print or electronic form; and in being exposed to a wide spectrum of information, learners can learn to be selective in the types of information they want to eventually use. They then become creative users of information which hopefully will make them creative learners - maybe even creative inventors. To be creative is crucial because otherwise learners become mere clones of their teachers, unable to process and produce information independently.
With regard to the knowledge data bank it is ironical that much of the data or information about Southeast Asia are easier to find in databanks outside of Southeast Asian countries. Researchers find it easier to get information on Southeast Asia from Europe and North America. This situation will have to be remedied and databanks on all aspects of Southeast Asia must be systematically developed by libraries and institutions in Southeast Asian countries themselves which will ensure up-to-date data, and correct data.
In Malaysia, we are currently developing databases which in the next few years will be accessible to all within and outside of Southeast Asia. But accessibility is one thing but communication is another. Information can only be used if the communication process is properly in place. As Leo Frobenius once said: "It is not what a man says but the part of it which his auditor considers important that determines the amount of the communication." Since knowledge is processed information - it is imperative that information is communicated and used effectively.
Information resources in libraries constitute the nation*s wealth - but unless librarians promote information resources and information skills through user education programmes - the society will not be able to see the worth of your contributions to the nation*s knowledge databanks.
It has often been said that with the advent of IT and presence of INTERNET, libraries as we know it would be rendered obsolete and would eventually become "museums of books". This as we know is a misconception of the role of libraries by people who probably have no use for information and therefore libraries. The Internet is not a rival to libraries. In fact INTERNET enhances the library*s role, like laser surgery to medicine - not challenge it. But misconceptions such as this exist and it is up to librarians as information professionals to change this negative image.
In most Southeast Asian countries, the government plays the leadership role in planning infrastructures. It provides the financial and conceptual support which are crucial for any infrastructure to be successful. National policies on information use are necessary which should encompass all aspects of development - economic, social, political and cultural. Information use is effective only if the economic, social, polical and cultural environments for information use are conducive. Information use on a nation-wide basis can best be coordinated at the governmental level. The government must not forget however that information use can also give arise to abuse.
The role of the government therefore is two- pronged - on the one h8and national policies must be formulated to encourage the use of information but on the other hand is duty-bound to regulate use of information, to conform to national as well as international norms and laws.
It is our hope that an information society will emerge in the not too distant future. An information society is one that is informed, knowledgeable and confident. Such a society is aware that information reduces uncertainty, provides the competitive edge in the global market through better products and intelligent marketing strategies, helps countries to avoid being dependent on others and ensure a logical and rational approach to decision-making.
Librarians who have all this while acted as information specialists would understand why the planning of the National Information Infrastructure should be done with urgency and care.