Promoting Information Access – and Creation – in All Mother Tongues by Laurie Bridges

The Internet has allowed for a giant leap towards overcoming the challenge of information scarcity. By almost eliminating (marginal) distribution costs, and through rapidly growing server capacity around the world, it has never been so easy to get hold of so much information.

 However, this is meaningless if the information received is unusable, for example because it is not in a language a person understands. This blog, based on a presentation by Laurie Bridges of Oregon State University at WLIC 2017, looks at the issue of language dominance – or near-absence – online.

 A Grand Potential

Much has already been written about the possibilities that the Internet creates – for trade, for communication, for entertainment, for accessing the basic information that makes life easier and more efficient. Digital technologies are behind the ‘third industrial revolution’, changing the way we live and work as much as steam and electricity did in the past.

 In science, the Internet has allowed for the rapid growth of the Open Access (OA) movement. This benefitted from the fact that there was no longer a need for costly printing presses or distribution networks. In some countries, around half of articles published are now OA, with these publications available to researchers – and citizens – all around the world.

 Yet while only around 20% of the world’s Internet users are first-language English speakers, over 50% of its websites are. While the dominance of English is not as total as it was in the early days of the web, it remains the case – in science in particular – that no other language comes close.

 An Unequal Impact

 This has important knock-on effects. The services built on top of the information available on the Internet – social media, Wikipedia, scientific journal databases – also tend to be in English. Some, such as ScienceDirect and Scopus, are still effectively monoglot. Indeed, it was only from 2007 that non-Latin text could be used for URLs.

The impact on speakers of other languages can be easily imagined. Where learning a foreign language is the privilege of the well-educated, it can reinforce socio-economic divides. Those who write in English enjoy greater impact, regardless of the relative quality of their work. People using languages which have only a small number of speakers – such as the languages of first nations in North America, or indigenous languages elsewhere in the world – struggle to make their heritage live.

 A Way Forwards?

 Libraries are committed to providing users with information which they can use in order to improve their lives. For our institutions, it looks like an irony, even a tragedy, that the potential created by the Internet can remain unrealized because one language – or a few languages – are dominant.

 Yet it is important to remember that the Internet was created in order to give all users an equal possibility not only to receive, but also to create information.

 Smartphone apps offer interesting possibilities for creating tools to help with language learning. Websites such as Wikipedia are looking to develop new versions. The technological development of the Internet may yet make it easier for unwritten languages to find their place online.

 Libraries can also help. As set out in Laurie Bridges’ presentation at WLIC 2017, half of the answer can come from libraries’ own resources.

Recordings or writings in minority languages can be used to develop tools and materials for learning and practicing. And librarians themselves may have language skills that they can put to use to ensure that the library serves the whole community.

 The other possibility is to work with faculty and students, in academic libraries, to ensure that abstracts of the articles they write and publish are in more than one language. This can potentially increase accessibility for tens, if not hundreds of millions of people.

 The dramatic technological changes of the last thirty years have created both possibilities and risks, especially as regards the fate or future of minority languages. Libraries can help ensure that the positive potential of the Internet is realized for all.

One thought on “Promoting Information Access – and Creation – in All Mother Tongues by Laurie Bridges

  1. News In Kandy

    Dear human rights activist/ member of the civil society,
    We condemn all forms of violence, racism and human right violations. We would also like to convey our heart felt sorrow to all who suffered and effected by one way or other by the recent civil unrest which happened recently in our country.
    Telecommunications regulatory Authority of Sri Lanka have imposed a total and indefinite blockage of Social media in the country. Freedom of expression and right to information are the corner stones of democracy and good governance. Social media is a sheep and a effective tool that has given millions of people a voice and effective means of communicating and expressing themselves. Total blockade of social media would effectively silence millions of people wouldn’t have any other way to raise their voice and express themselves. This social media blockade was done at a time that we should promote healthy dialogue among different religions and ethnic groups. These measures are counter productive as this prevents dialogue, friendship and better understanding among different religious groups. By blocking the active flow of information among individuals and communities this decision is propagating misinformation, mistrust and misunderstanding at a vital moment in our country and society. This blockade also prevented the peace activists and human rights activists from challenging the so call racial remarks that certain individuals have already made in the social media. This had blocked a vital mode of communication between fallow Sri Lankans and their friends and relatives living abroad at a critical time when they are worried about their safety. These measures are out of proportion, ill targeted and its effectiveness cannot be properly demonstrated. This decision of total blockade of social media also goes against the ‘Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and countering violent extremism’ made by OHCHR. Through this decision, government of Sri Lanka and the relevant government authorities are intentionally or unintentionally promoting and propagating violence and racism by preventing healthy dialogue and opportunities for communities to interact with each other and get to know each other. This decision of total blockade of social media is not only a violation of right to information and the freedom of expression of Sri Lankans but it a violation of right to information of the entire human raise living all over the world and those who imposed this blockade should be held accountable and responsible for their action.
    So we appeal to all the human rights activists and civil society organizations and pressure groups to insert pressure on the government of Sri Lanka to;
    1. Lift this total blockade of Social media in Sri Lanka
    2. Preventing them from imposing a such a irresponsible blockage in the future
    3. Publically apologies for this mistake and hold those who tuck this decision accountable to their action
    4. Request the government, politicians and all other relevant parties to refrain from gaining narrow political agenda and silencing their opposition at this critical moment

    With High regards,
    News In Kandy

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