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Information for Social Change

Information for Social Change

"an activist organisation that examines issues of censorship, freedom and ethics amongst library and information workers..."

ISC 17. Globalisation, libraries and information

Ruth Rikowski

Globalisation is a phenomenon that is pervading the world. Yet, what exactly is 'globalisation'? More accurately, it should be referred to as 'global capitalism'. 'Globalisation' has been defined in a variety of ways and some of these definitions have been highlighted in a report on 'Globalisation', which has been produced by the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs. The report refers to a cross-Government departmental memorandum, for example, which suggests that: an economic context [globalisation] is normally understood to mean a process of increasing international interactions and accelerating international trade, capital and information flows [but that] globalisation can also be seen to have a political dimension, including the diffusion of global norms and values, the spread of democracy and the proliferation of treaties, such as international environment and human rights agreements. (Ev 1, p.1, in House of Commons report on Globalisation, 2002, p.12)

Meanwhile, it also refers to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) comments, which says that:

In general terms, globalisation describes the process of increasing economic integration among nations through cross-border flows of goods and resources together with the development of a complementary set of organisational structures to manage the associated network of economic activities. (Ev 1, p.360, in House of Commons report on Globalisation, 2002, p.13)

The House of Lords Select Committee concludes this section noting that it does not offer a simple definition of globalisation, but that: is our view that the period of globalisation represents a new departure in world affairs. Partly this is to do with what has been called 'the death of distance', assisted by the absolute and relative decline in transport costs...We have one world in an economic and cultural sense, which has not existed before. (House of Lords, 2002, p.18)

Thus, there is a clear recognition here that what we are witnessing and experiencing is something significantly different from what has taken place in the past.

Where then do libraries and information fit into this global scenario? The area that I have been focusing on in particular, in regard to globalisation, are the agreements that are being developed at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The WTO is a powerful body that establishes rules for international trade. It has nearly 150 member countries, of which the UK is one (via the European Union that operates as a single entity). Many agreements are being developed at the WTO, and strengthened versions of these are due to come into effect in 2005. Two of these agreements are likely to have significant implications for libraries and information. One of these is the GATS (the General Agreement on Trade in Services), and the other is TRIPS (Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights). The GATS is about the liberalisation of trade in services, and therefore threatens the state-funded provision of libraries. I have written extensively about the GATS and have sought to raise awareness about this topic in a variety of ways (see, for example, Rikowski, 2001a, 2002a, 2002b and 2002c).

The TRIPS Agreement, on the other hand, is about the trading of intellectual property rights, and it is the copyright section that is particularly relevant for libraries and information. As the IFLA Committee on Copyright and other Legal Matters (CLM) says:

Of course, the most important type of intellectual property as far as libraries are concerned is copyright. (CLM, 2002)

The CLM also notes the need for a 'balanced' approach, and says that:

It is important to remember that copyright law exists for the benefit of society as a whole
(CLM, 2002)

IFLA and EBLIDA (the European Bureau of Library Information and Documentation Association) are concerned about the likely implications of these agreements for libraries and information. As IFLA says:

There is growing evidence that WTO decisions, directly or indirectly, may adversely affect the operations and future development of library services, especially in the not-for-profit institutions (IFLA, 2001)

What is clear is that through the GATS library services could become internationally tradable commodities, and through the TRIPS the free flow of information - one of the cornerstones of an open information world - is under threat. Library and information workers should monitor both GATS and TRIPS closely in order to work through the consequences of these WTO agreements for their work and the values underpinning their practice. With these goals in view, I am giving talks on these issues at library and information events this year. Firstly, I spoke about TRIPS at the Library and Information Show on the 30th March. Secondly, I will be talking about GATS at the CILIP Umbrella Conference on the 5th July.

Department of Trade and Industry, HM Treasury, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development.

EBLIDA (2003) EBLIDA response to the EC consultation document on WTO members' requests to the EC and its member states for improved market access to services, Jan. Available at:

House of Lords, Select Committee on Economic Affairs (2002) Globalisation Session 2002-03, 1st Report, London: Stationery Office. Includes a CD-ROM, which contains the Main Report and 2 volumes of evidence.

IFLA (2001) The IFLA position on the WTO treaty negotiations, International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, Sep. Available at: http://www.ifla/org/III/clm/p1/wto-ifla.htm

IFLA Committee on Copyright and other Legal Matters (CLM) (2002) TIPS for TRIPS: a guide for libraries and librarians to the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). Available at:

Rikowski, Ruth (2002a) The corporate takeover of libraries, Information for Social Change, No. 14, Winter 2001/02, pp. 25-60

Rikowski, Ruth (2002b) The WTO, the GATS and the meaning of 'services', Public Library Journal, Vol.17, No.2, pp.48-50 (Part 1 of a 2 part article based on talk I gave entitled The WTO/GATS Agenda for Libraries)

Rikowski, Ruth (2002c) Takeover by stealth? Public Library Journal, Vol. 17, No. 3, pp. 73-76 (Part 2 of a 2 part article based on talk I gave entitled The WTO/GATS Agenda for Libraries)

Rikowski, Ruth (2001) GATS: private affluence and public squalor? Implications for libraries and information, Managing Information , December, Vol.8 No.10, pp.8-10.

WTO (1994) General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) , World Trade Organisation, at:

WTO (1995) Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) , World Trade Organisation, at:


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