Rafael Capurro

This paper was presented at the Third International Conference on Conceptions of Library and Information Science (CoLIS 3): Digital Libraries: Interdisciplinary Concepts, Challenges and Opportunities. Eds. T. Aparac, T. Saracevic, P. Ingwersen, P. Vakkari, Dubrovnik, Croatia, May 23-26, 1999. Zagreb, Lokve 1999, pp. 39-53.




I. Digital libraries as an ethical challenge     
II. From interface design to interspace design    



The paper gives a short account of the rise of information ethics as a major discipline within information science (introduction). The first part presents some of the ethical challenges of digital libraries as stated in some recent conference announcements and projects. The main part of the paper deals with the question of how cyberspace in general and the space of digital libraries in particular could and should fit into the life-space or life world of people. This phenomenological approach is connected to an ethics of care. The overlap between both spaces invokes the question of interface design into the larger one of ‘interspace design’ (T. Winograd).

With such a design comes an awareness of the gap between the information poor and the information rich within a society as well as between countries and regions. To deal with these inequities, we offer two suggestions: the establishment of community freenets and terminals in public spaces. Some of UNESCO’s activities, achievements and projects in the field of information ethics are presented as other avenues to redress these inequities. We also highlight questions of interpretation and of situational relevance with regard to written records. Access and preservation are seen as the two main ethical challenges of digital libraries. The question of preservation is briefly discussed.


"En vn lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, no ha mucho tiempo que viuia vn hidalgo de los de lança en astillero, adarga antigua, rozin flaco y galgo corredor." 

(OBRAS COMPLETAS DE MIGUEL DE CERVANTES SAAVEDRA DON QVIXOTE DE LA MANCHA. TOMO I. Texto electrónico por Fred F. Jehle Copyright © 1928 Rodolfo Schevill Copyright © 1996 Fred F. Jehle & Purdue Research Foundation ; OBRAS COMPLETAS DE MIGUEL DE CERVANTES SAAVEDRA. DON QVIXOTE DE LA MANCHA TOMO I EDICIÓN PUBLICADA POR RODOLFO SCHEVILL Professor en la Universidad de California (Berkeley) Y ADOLFO BONILLA Profesor en la Universidad de Madrid. MADRID GRÁFICAS REUNIDAS, S. A. M., CM. XXVIII, p. 49, 8-10) 

"IN a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind, there lived not long since one of those gentlemen that keep a lance in the lance-rack, an old buckler, a lean hack, and a greyhound for coursing. (DON QUIXOTE by Miguel de Cervantes Translated by John Ormsby)" 

Source: Don Quixote (editio Princeps). Textual Image (Gif) edition: 


The ethical issues associated with digital libraries can only be discussed relative to the major research achievements that exist in the field of information ethics. The rise of information ethics as a major discipline within Library and Information Science is attested in the increasing number of publications and public events.   

The Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science edited by Allen Kent has published comprehensive articles in this field, namely Richard Rubin’s and Thomas Froehlich’s Ethical Aspects of Library and Information Science (Rubin/Froehlich 1996) following the one by Lee Finks and Elisabeth Soekefeld on Professional Ethics (Finks/Soekefeld 1993). There are several articles on special themes like:   

Censorship by Edward Cline (Cline 1998),    
Teaching Ethical Computing by Tom Jewett (Jewett 1998),    
Ethical Issues in Information Systems by Vladimir Zwass (Zwass 1996),    
Public Interest Ethics by Bradley Chilton (Chilton 1996),    
Organizational Ethics by Sarah Sanderson King and Donald Cushman (King/Cushman 1995),    
Information Malpractice by Marianne Puckett and James Craig (Puckett/Craig 1993).    
And there is finally Frank Webster’s The Information Society: Conceptions and Critique (Webster 1996).   

Martha Smith has recently published a state-of-the-art report Information Ethics in the Annual Review of Information Science and Technology (Smith 1997). Thomas Froehlich has published his highly recommended UNESCO report Survey and Analysis of Legal and Ethical Issues for Library and Information Services (Froehlich 1997). Robert Hauptman should be particularly acknowledged as editor of the Journal of Information Ethics.   

I would like to mention also the contributions in the Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics edited by Ruth Chadwick which includes articles such as:    

Internet Protocol by Duncan Langford,   
Computer Security by Eugene Spafford,    
Information Management by Richard Mason,    
Accounting and Business Ethics by Harold Langenderfer,    
Confidentiality by Mary Armstrong,    
Corporate Responsibility by Celia Wells,    
Ethics in Corporations by Francis Aguilar,    
Freedom of Speech by Larry Alexander,    
Freedom of the Press in the USA by Stephen Klaidman,    
Informed Consent by Jonathan Moreno, Arthur Caplan and Paul Wolpe,    
Science and Engineering Ethics by R. E. Spier,    
Scientific Publishing by Beth Fischer and Michael Zigmond,    
World Ethics by Nigel Dower, Privacy by Edmund Byrne and    
Research Ethics by Caroline Whitbeck (Chadwick 1998).   

Many schools in our field offer courses on ethical and legal aspects of the profession. At the Fachhochschule Stuttgart we have integrated information ethics in the undergraduate curriculum both as a general course as well as a special course (Capurro 1998). We have organized three workshops on information ethics so far, dealing with: Information rich/information poor (1996), Digital Libraries (1997) and Cyberculture (1998).   

In 1995 Klaus Wiegerling, Andreas Brellochs and I edited a multilingual reader Informationsethik (Capurro 1995). We have created a website on information ethics  and we will open a web space for international information, interaction and discourse under the heading International Center for Information Ethics (ICIE). We invite our colleagues to take an active part in this project by creating an international network for teaching and research on information ethics.   

The Fachhochschule Stuttgart was one of the partners of the MURIEL-Project which was a collaborative project set up in the framework of the European Union’s Telematics Libraries (LIB) Programme (LIB 3-3007). The project included industrial companies like TELES in Germany and Euromédia Formation in France, and research centers like Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche in Italy, the FH Stuttgart in Germany, The British Library in the United Kingdom and the Hogeschool Maastricht in the Netherlands. The Fachhochschule Stuttgart delivered multimedia contents on information ethics which we will soon make available through the ICIE platform.   

A major recent international event in our field was the UNESCO-Virtual Forum on Information Ethics which culminated in UNESCO’s Second International Congress on Ethical, Legal and Societal Challenges of Cyberspace from 1-3 October 1998 in Monte-Carlo. Areas such as information in the public domain, multilingualism, privacy, confidentiality and security as well as social, economic and multicultural responsibilities were discussed and some practical recommendations for an information policy of UNESCO were made.   

Digital libraries are indeed an important field of practice and research in the growing cyberculture. In the following presentation I will first point to the general issues of the ethical debate on digital libraries. In a second step I will explore the notion of space, as a key ethical aspect of digital libraries. In the conclusion I will refer to the question of sustainability. All this analysis goes back to simple but not easy questions such as: What are we doing when we create, develop and use digital libraries? Do we consider enough the consequences of digital libraries with regard to local and global cultures? And what are their effects in the long term? Is it possible to see this now? How far? What are the challenges with regard to human rights? And, finally, who is responsible for what concern(s), and what is the impact of ethical thinking on such concerns? These questions can only be answered through an international and interdisciplinary discourse. My remarks are an invitation to this discourse, and hopefully, an incentive as well.

I. Digital Libraries as an Ethical Challenge

There is an increasing number of international congresses and projects dealing with digital libraries. A quick review of some of the announcements shows that ethical aspects are a pervading question. The ASIS Annual Conference 1997 on Digital Collections was announced with the following statement:     
"Poised at the intersection of research, scholarship, communication, publishing, entertainment, and commerce, digital collections have the potential to combine the ideas and methodologies of wide-ranging disciplines in unique and creative ways and of effecting technological and social change. This integration can enrich perspectives and expand our ability to understand how the various sectors could benefit from and participate in emerging global networks. But it can also lead to social, economic, and political isolation, control, and mediocrity." (
Such a description raises all sorts of questions: How will access be guaranteed? What returns can be expected on the investments? What are the issues of intellectual access? How can the authenticity, validity, and reliability of objects be identified and maintained? Theses questions are simultaneously technical and ethical. They concern the interests and impacts of digital collections on users, fund-providers, developers, and maintainers.   

The same can be said with regard to the announcement of the ASIS Annual Conference 1999 dealing with Knowledge: Creation, Organization, Use. Note the boldfaced keywords:   

"Ethical, Cultural, Social and Behavioral Aspects of Information Acceptance vs. Rejection, behavior modifications, policies and politics, value assessments, corporate and national information cultures, etc. Knowledge-seeking behavior, training needed for effective utilization. Search and browse behavior. How to manage the knowledge management within organizations."    
The Journal of Global Information Management. An official publication of the Information Resources Management Association announces its 1997 issue on Global Information Technology IT in Library and Information Management (Associate Editor: Patricia Fletcher, University of Maryland) with the following statement:   
"The role and function of the libraries in a digital world is uncertain and evolving. How libraries respond to the many implications of the information technologies will have a determining effect on their sustainability. Ethical issues of privacy, intellectual property, censorship, and knowledge organization are of major concerns to libraries in today's networked environment. Policy issues pertaining to first amendment rights, telecommunications and universal internet service, and the national information infrastructure will help shape the digital future for libraries."    
  An excellent overview on digital libraries research is provided by the website of the Digital Libraries (D-Lib) Program which is based at the Corporation for National Research Initiatives and is sponsored by the Defense Advances Research Project Agency (DARPA) on behalf of the Digital Libraries Initiative under Grant No. N66001-98-1-8908 ( As an example of best practice in this field I would like to highlight the Cervantes Project 2001. The Cervantes Project 2001 housed at Texas A&M University is a joint collaboration of the Department of Modern and Classical Languages, the Centro de Estudios Cervantinos (Alcalá de Henares), the Center for the Study of Digital Libraries (CSDL) and Dr. Fred Jehle of Indiana-Purdue University (   

With respect to such projects, we can ask the following questions. Why are ethical or legal issues particularly relevant in relation to the Internet in general and to digital libraries in particular? The answer lies in the realization that in a global environment, the national legal regulations are, contrary to their nature, a weak tool for shaping human action. Local customs or moralities and their political, religious and/or military agents tend to feel endangered by an anonymous, global and non-controllable communication system. This is a kind of second order paradox if we consider that freedom of the press was one of the key achievements of modernity. In a second step of its evolution, the technical written word became also a technical spoken word through mass media and a major force within democracy. This process has reached a new turn in the sense that the local political agents are now more objects than subjects of a potentially universal access to a global and decentralized information and communication structure. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of access become now, at the end of modernity, simultaneous rights (Capurro 1996a).   

This new turn has consequences for individuals as well as organizations and societies as a whole. We have arrived at a rather unique historical situation where traditional hierarchies of expertise between elder and younger generations in families and educational institutions are being undermined or challenged by digital forms of knowledge production, access and distribution. This is no less the case in companies, where the change from hierarchical to networked organizational structures leads to new forms of knowledge distribution and access. Knowledge becomes a key asset to be shared and protected in different ways by stakeholders and shareholders. To what extent this situation can be compared to the ones brought about by other media revolutions is an interesting question for research. Optimists and pessimists are equally right insofar as the questioning of knowledge monopolies, including their censorship and selection practices on the basis of networked storage, brings new opportunities for overcoming space and time barriers but also new forms of power and control.   

We can summarize these challenges by saying that the question of knowledge, its selection, storage and accessibility, is a key ethical and legal issue in a society which predicates for itself the attributes of information and knowledge. In contrast to paper libraries, digital libraries are obviously not accessible in the same way. The global character of the Internet would give the opportunity, one may hope, to a higher degree of freedom of information and communication as was the case with paper libraries in their inception and evolution in light of their geographical and political constraints. Are we going to take a step further towards the achievement of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)?:   

"Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas to any media and regardless of frontiers." 
 Or are digital libraries a new and even a more subtle form of knowledge segregation and colonialism? Will digital libraries On the Threshold of the 21st Century become Gateways to an Enlightened World quoting the topic of the 65th IFLA General Conference in 1999? These are global questions indeed. But they are also local questions. Digital libraries are located in the kind of global space we use to call cyberspace. But their access is always local. It seems as if the question of space should play a major role in ethical thinking.

 II. From interface design to interspace design

It may seem prima facie odd to explore the question of space under an ethical viewpoint. This impression vanishes as soon as we think about the significance of public spaces in people’s lives and particularly about the significance of the public spaces we call libraries. But what is space? We usually think about space in Cartesian terms. We dissociate the way we live in space, our life-space, from the neutral and objective measurable space that we could call scientific or metrical space. We do the same with time. In addition, under the domination of the scientific viewpoint, we also tend to assort that space and time in the first sense are purely subjective. Phenomenology - Husserl’s lifeworld and Heidegger’s being-in-the-world - has taught us to see more clearly this difference and to think the relationship between both views in a non-usual or non-cartesian manner by inverting their relationship.   

In his commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time Hubert Dreyfus makes the point of spatiality as an existential concern and stresses the priority of public space over individual ways of structuring space (Dreyfus 1990, pp. 128ss). As social beings our life is always entangled in a network of relationships with the lives of the others, i.e. with the ways the others take care of things in space and time. Individual and social concern about space are not separable. Existential concern about space means eliminating or to maintaining in different ways and degrees the distance between each other and between ourselves and other beings or tools in everyday life. The very possibility of being able to ‘dis-tance’ other beings, bringing them into nearness or leaving them in remoteness, is a function of this specific human way of being involved in space, by articulating it in different ways. Dreyfus uses the word de-severance for translating Heidegger’s Ent-fernung. In both cases the hyphen stresses the meaning of overcoming or establishing a distance. What is near or what is far depends on the kind of attention we give to beings. Although my glasses in physical measurement are very near to my eyes, with my attention I may be absorbed in, say, the magnificent Cervantes-website and the possibilities opened by its digital library. In this case, the website is thus closer existentially or phenomenologically to me than my glasses.   

Where are we when we are in cyberspace? In what kind of space are digital libraries supposed to be? If we take a Cartesian viewpoint we split life-space where we physically are, from a kind of pure symbolic or knowledge space separated from the individual minds. It makes no fundamental difference if we connect this world of ‘knowledge in itself’ or World 3 as Karl Popper called it, with the physical and the psychic worlds. This schema may be useful for other purposes but it does not allow to grasp our ‘being-in-space’ under an existential viewpoint. The counterpart to this is looking to people as subjects having an internal world of mental states which they manage to change according to new representations that may come to their minds through their interaction with computer devices. This is, indeed, the usual Cartesian way to look at ourselves (and our selves!) as well as at our knowledge and at the physical world ‘out there’. For a detailed criticism of this view see my (Capurro1992) and (Capurro 1986). It takes little effort to conceive not only the autonomous world of ‘knowledge in itself’ but also of its technical infrastructure as having its own life, building a kind of super intelligence. This is, of course, nothing but cybermythology.   

Let us consider the phenomenological approach. What happens with distances in cyberspace? What kind of spatiality is being instantiated? How do things become present to or remain far from our attention? Of course there is the computer device itself which, as in the case of my glasses, is normally not primarily the object of my care and attention, at least as long as there is no system breakdown! In contrast to the ways we take our bodily distances to things, say, in a room, the Internet allows us to overcome distances to things and people in a way similar to the telephone or the TV. In which way? By eliminating distances to digital things located in different places and bringing them to the same place i.e. to the interface. But the cyberspace is not a separate space with regard to the life-space. We are still dis-tancing and orientation is given through our attention to what we get on the screen, for instance, in the form of frames and hyperlinks. What are the existential or, as we could also say, ethical consequences of this?   

In his contribution to the workshop on Cyberculture at Stuttgart in 1998 the Australian philosopher Michael Eldred reminded us of the origin of the word ethics coming from the Greek word ethos which means habit or way of dwelling, depending on whether it is written with a short or a long E, respectively. The Latin word for ethos is habitare , which is the source of the word inhabitants as dwellers of a country. To dwell has to do with the ways we create common living places through customs. We call this activity a culture. According to Eldred the English word haunting means originally something we usually do or the place we usually go to. It also refers to the activity of beings we call ghosts, particularly when they disturb the places where we usually live! Cyberspace is not a kind of separate space, as the Cartesian view would suggest. We are still in a room or, say, in a cybercafé when we surf on the net which is a metaphor that real surfers, who are exposed to the risks and fascinations of this sport, do not like very much. But at the same time our actions in this medium allow us to have a kind of ghostly feeling or a haunting experience as Eldred says. There are millions of places on the net and there will probably soon be hundreds of digital libraries, but their common place is the interface, i.e. the place where we eliminate the distance from our life-world. In other words, the interface is not the door to a kind of mythical or objective space of ‘knowledge in itself’, but, on the contrary, it is just another part of the tools of our everyday life. Through it cyberspace becomes a part of our life-space.   

When we are in cyberspace, at the website of the Cervantes digital library for instance, we have indeed a kind of haunting experience. But it would be a Cartesian split to dissociate the ‘ghostly feeling’ from the very familiar experience of being in a place of everyday dwelling. In the case of digital libraries the ethical challenge is, on the one hand, to design them in such a way that we can feel at home in their homepage. Not just that we can use their devices in a way that they have a tendency to disappear when we manipulate them in order to get what we want, but that they become part of a worldly structure of public interrelations, i.e. that they can be considered and used as belonging to the public life-space. This entanglement produces, on the other hand, dramatic changes in our local life-space as far as it becomes part of the cyberspace’s referential grid. But it would be, again, a mystification to consider the cyberspace separate from the life-world. The life-world is not merely the local world of everyday life but the world-space itself, open to everybody and to every body. We would never become astonished about our haunting experiences if we were not be able to regard them as a specific form of our original spatial di-stancing being.   

An important difference between our spatiality in a symbolic medium like the Internet and the printing medium is the fact that in cyberspace we can do things with words. I call this digital doing actio digitalis in distans. This possibility of our digital being questions the modern split between linguistic symbols and actions. The Enlightenment conceived the printing medium as a free space for information and communication. The classic medium was, of course, oral speech. The classic public space was, for instance, the oral space of the Greek marketplace (agorá) but also the theatre. The cynical school was fond of their freedom of speech (parrhesía). For Kant the freedom of thought depends on the freedom of communicating our thoughts. Thinking is nothing that happens in an isolated spirit, which is either pure speculation or madness. Thinking is the product of receiving and communicating messages according to one’s own judgement. This would imply that there should be a space or medium free of censorship. This space was for Kant the Gutenberg marketplace, the communication of printed thoughts. The price for this was not only the split between thinking and action but the renunciation of directly interfering in the political sphere through the printing medium (Capurro 1995, pp. 110-112, Capurro 1996a and Capurro 1996b).   

The Australian philosopher Alec McHoul argues in his Internet article Cyberbeing and -space that cyber devices are part of our being-in-the-world but that we are involved with them in a different way than with real devices. Managing real devices is of the kind of a practical use or skill, a knowing how; we uses them as the real devices they are. When we operate with cyber devices, however, for instance, when we play golf with an electronic glove, there is a switch to an as if it were a real golf ball. He writes:   

"To understand cyberbeing "as" would be to over-normalise it; to understand it purely "as if" would be to over-virtualise it. Instead, because cyberbeings rapidly fluctuate between these actual and virtual understandings, they may be said to have the characteristics once ascribed to ghosts. (...) Cyberbeing is (...) to use Derrida’s term "spectral" (Specters). (...) There is no just one cyberpractice but many; though each is held together by a loose kind of family resemblance; and that resemblance is the unbounded or fuzzy space between the virtual and actual." (McHoul) 
A web of hyperlinks is a potential constituent of the "spectral" or cyber environments, cyber performances, MUDs and MOOs or dildonics (coupling of devices and human-body movements). E-mail and hypertext, -links, media retain certain pre-spectral forms of equipmentality, leaving open such possibilities like being-here-and-being-there, virtual-actual transitions, etc. Both equipmentalities, the real and the cyber, give rise to different, negative and positive, moral perspectives, as we know it from the history of other media revolutions like the change from orality to writing in Ancient Greece or the invention of the printing press. One morality will see in, say, digital libraries, the loss of real public library spaces. Another will only see the possibility of universal access or instant global sharing. A spectral library would be one of unpredictable capabilities on the basis of hard- and software combinations. But there is, of course, also an ethical dimension of care for the possible and potential in this case.   

The digital dimension is a kind of overlap between the real and the cyber or spectral in the sense that things can be done in cyberspace which are neither purely of the kind of the real ‘as’ nor of the spectral ‘as if’. We can do real things with digital symbols at a distance in a quasi spectral way. Documents in a digital library have a kind of ‘haunting presence’. The ethical question is then, how do we manage to bring digital libraries existentially near to people? Who will use them and who not and why? This means the awareness that the cyberspace as a whole and digital libraries as part of it is not a kind of separate space but that it belongs to people’s life-space and to their possibilities of being. We do not just individually or socially interact first in a separate world called cyberspace through an interface, but rather, this interaction is embedded or situated in a life-space from the very beginning. This is also the case with regard to all kinds of spectral possibilities. Quoting a term coined by Terry Winograd, interface design should be regarded as belonging to the people’s interspace. In his article From Computing Machinery to Interaction Design Terry Winograd explains the shift from interface to interspace as follows:   

"Taking seriously that the design role is the construction of the "interspace" in which people live, rather than an "interface" with which they interact, the interaction designer needs to take a broader view that includes understanding how people and societies adapt to new technologies. To continue with our automotive analogy, imagine that on the fiftieth anniversary of the "Association for Automotive Machinery" a group of experts had been asked to speculate on the "the next fifty years of driving." They might well have envisioned new kinds of engines, automatic braking, and active suspension systems. But what about interstate freeways, drive-in movies, and the decline of the inner city? These are not exactly changes in "driving," but in the end they are the most significant consequences of automotive technology. Successful interaction design requires a shift from seeing the machinery to seeing the lives of the people using it. In this human dimension, the relevant factors become hard to quantify, hard to even identify. This difficulty is magnified when we try to look at social consequences." (Winograd 1997)
According to the Stanford Digital Libraries Project the following services should be provided by digital libraries: resource discovery, retrieving information, interpreting information, managing information and sharing information. Each service is technical and ethical at the same time. Under an ethical perspective, tool design means helping people to master their lives. According to Winograd interspace design should be as practical and rigorous as the engineering disciplines, it should place human concerns and needs at the center like the design disciplines, and it should take a broad view of social possibilities and responsibilities like the social disciplines.   

How do we manage to bring digital libraries existentially close to people? Or, better, how do people manage by themselves to bring digital libraries near to themselves? This question cannot be isolated from the following question: How do we learn to become citizens of cyberspace? How do we integrate cyberspace in general and digital libraries in particular into everyday public space? This is a question that concerns the growing gap between the information poor and the information rich at a global and local level. Cyberspace is in fact a space shared mainly by rich countries and by rich users in poor countries. We discussed this in the UNESCO Virtual Forum. As a chair of this topic I summarized the discussion by making the following recommendations:   

  • Bring net access to poor countries by putting existing resources to sensible use in order to promote the development of global and local information cultures and economies.
  • Support the development of a World Information Ethos
  • Support concrete projects in information poor countries in order to create country-specific information centers.
  • Promote public awareness on these matters through virtual forums, publications, and conferences.
  • Provide permanent, specific, and detailed knowledge of existing information activities in information poor countries
  • UNESCO should promote the rights of non-English-speaking-countries and their economic interests.
  • UNESCO should promote topics in information ethics to be included in curricula at all levels.
  • Promotion activities through international organizations should be based on grassroots efforts as well as on a decentralized and well-coordinated basis.
  • These recommendations were emphasized by the statements of the participants of the Second UNESCO International Congress on the Ethical, Legal and Societal Challenges of Cyberspace.

    Not only UNESCO but also other UN organizations such as the World Bank with the Information for Development Program and the UNDP, and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), particularly the Internet Society, are engaged in different developing projects for which digital libraries are already developed or of which they should become a part. Digital libraries as public spaces for the developed countries should be shared as the public space of the information poor. But this is, of course, only half the challenge. The other more important half is how information poor countries can create and use their own digital knowledge.   

    This is also a vital question between the information poor and rich within a country. How do we allow the cyberspace to become a part of people’s space? Vincent Bosco suggests in his UNESCO contribution the establishment of freenets and the installation of terminals in public life-spaces. He writes:   

    "The establishment of community nets or freenets which bring together people in a city, town or neighbourhood, providing essential information about public services, in addition to all of the material normally found on the Internet. Freenets provide two essential elements missing in most of the commercial networks. First because they make use of servers provided by educational non-profit or other donor organizations, freenets offer low cost access for users. This is particularly important for low income people who, even in the most developed societies, have little chance of making use of the net. Secondly, they locate terminals in public spaces like post offices, libraries, schools, and markets, enabling people to make use of the net without having to purchase a computer." (Bosco 1998)
    In other words, Bosco suggests that cyberspace be treated as a constituent of the life-space. Developing an ethics of care with regard to digital libraries means acknowledging the ethical imperative or, to say it in a less Kantian manner, the ethical indicative to integrate digital space within the life-space and, particularly, within the existing network of paper libraries (Capurro 1996c). This should be seen as a complementary aspect to the possibility of sharing digital libraries within private life-spaces. But in both cases the challenge of democratic accessibility remains. This symbiotic relation will change the character of both spaces, the local and the global. The question is, how far? How fast? And who will be the beneficiaries? The sense of community in general and of the research community in particularly will change as it did with printing technology and paper libraries.

    Due to the specific spatial and, of course, temporal character of digital libraries they have a higher potential of universality than in the case of books. They bring us potentially near, on the one hand, to the ideals of Enlightenment. But there is, on the other hand, no determinism in this process. We have to locally shape this potentiality. And, finally, the character of European Enlightenment changes at the end of modernity. The Internet is not the completion of the French Encyclopedia or an embodiment of the ideal of a global transparency. But it does open local communities to global access and it creates new kinds of global communities, both on the basis of digital libraries, particularly in the fields of education, culture, scientific research and economy but also, although not visible at present, in various fields of everyday life.  

    In 1935 the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset spoke at the international library congress. He said that the contents of books need to be interpreted and shared within a situation or a circunstancia as they contain decontextualized propositions. In order to understand what they say the reader must bring, as the theory of interpretation or hermeneutics states, a pre-understanding. He writes (my translation):  

    "Now, writing by fixating a narrative is able to preserve only the words, not the living intuitions that make up its meaning. The vital situation from which they have grown evaporates irremediably: time, in its constant gallop, takes it up on the back. The book, preserving only the words, preserves only the ash of real thinking. In order for it to be reborn and to live further, the book is not enough. It is necessary that another human being reproduces in his (her) person the vital situation to which that thinking was an answer. Only then is it possible to say that the sentences of a book have been understood and that the telling of the past has been redeemed. Plato says this when he states that only the thoughts of the book are legitimate sons (‘huieis gnesíous’ Phaidr. 278 a) because only then are they really thought and can recuperate their native evidence (‘enargés’). But this is something that can be done only by someone who is following the same track as the author (‘to tauton ichnos metiónti’ Phaidr. 276d) and who therefore has thought by himself before reading the book and knows its subject as well as its courses. If this is not done, when one reads a lot and thinks little, the book is a terribly efficient device for the falsification of human life." (Ortega 1962, p. 88-89)
    This is true with regard to both kinds of libraries, the paper and the digital ones. Both need a living context of access as well as of interpretation. The public accessibility as I have been discussing it in this paper, is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the process of creative reading and thinking. This is by no way a plea for traditionalist paper thinking. Neither was it Ortega’s intention. In the Preface to the Diccionario Enciclopédico Abreviado bearing the title The Book-Machine ("El libro-máquina"), Ortega writes in 1939 that human memory can be relieved on the basis of "book machines" or "cultural machines" ("máquinas culturales"), but encyclopedias do not aspire any more to a global (Greek: ‘enkyklos’) and definite knowledge. Knowledge is and will remain fragmentary. This is not vulgar Postmodernism but it is Ortega’s diagnosis of the knowledge situation in the 20th century in contrast to the encyclopedic spirit of 18th century Enlightenment. Knowledge is not something we can master as a whole. Culture and wisdom are not a key that would allow us to dominate chaos but are themselves "a forest where we get lost". Ortega writes in 1939:    
    "Whether we want to or not, we have to manage our knowledge" (Ortega 1962, p. 139). 
    On the basis of global knowledge accessibility, thinking is apparently easier than it was with Gutenberg technology. The new kind of post-Enlightenment digital globalism suggests, on the one hand, that with good retrieval techniques and a comfortable text processing system, the question of interpretation i.e. the question of asking oneself what is the unspoken situation to which the text is a possible answer as well as the question of application, i.e. the question of asking oneself what is the situational relevance of global knowledge resources become easier. This is not the case. Both practices are not easier, they are different with regard to the problems of decontextualization and lack of intermediation.

    There are some aspects of orality, like e-mail interactivity, that are integrated in cyberspace on a global basis and that can be connected to the services of digital libraries, in order to help, for instance, with the interpretation of Don Quijote. We think differently since we have paper libraries and particularly public ones. But, obviously, a new ethos of sharing digital knowledge and information is not something we can create with ethical imperatives. We should be careful in the face of moral diversity and propose ethical indicatives i.e. recommendations indicating possible alternatives, open to revision according to different kinds of arguments and situations. Declarations, like the ones of UNESCO, should be followed by programs as well as by a continuing debate. Cyberculture and digital libraries are not necessarily a uniform outcome of the Western cultural program but they should be seen within a wide range of possibilities for contamination with other media traditions. This is a big ethical challenge for design and use. The answer to it is a question of interface as well as of interspace design. We should do this on the basis of the World Information Ethos as expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But, as every written word, these rights need interpretation and application. This is the task of information ethics. UNESCO has created an Observatory on the Information Society that might become a major source of practical critical appraisal in our field:
    together with the Infoethics website.

    In her paper for the UNESCO Congress Nancy John, Vice-President of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) stressed two critical roles of libraries in modern society: the access role and the preservation role (John 1998). The preservation of local and global cultural heritage is indeed, together with the issue I have discussed, the second big ethical issue with regard to digital libraries. It is not my intention now to present the opportunities and constraints of this medium with regard to the responsibility of knowledge preservation for future generations. I have made a small contribution to this subject at the international conference Knowledge for the Future organized by the Institute for Philosophy and History of Technology of the University of Cottbus (Capurro 1999 and Kornwachs 1999). As my colleague Wolfgang von Keitz remarks, the question of long-term digital archiving should be stated and discussed, otherwise it could become like the situation with nuclear energy and its lack of social acceptance due to the unsolved question of waste management (Keitz 1997).   

    This question includes not only the preservation of paper heritage in paper and/or digital form but the one of digital heritage as well. The last point was discussed at the seminar Convergence in the Digital Age: Challenges for Libraries, Museums and Archives sponsored by the European Commission and a satellite event of the IFLA General conference 1998. The challenge of archiving, restoration and communication practices in the digital environment will be a major theme of the Joint Technical Symposium (JTS) to be organized in the year 2000 by the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF), the International Federation of Television Archives (FIAT) and the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives (IASA), three Non Governmental Organizations whose prime responsibility is the preservation and restoration of original image and sound material collections. UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme is an important international effort to solve this problem.


    The ethical problems of digital libraries are of both a global and local nature. They are closely related to fundamental human rights and, at the same time, they are of major influence at the local level. The question of inequality of access due to various kinds of constraints (economic, cultural, political) is a major ethical and legal issue along with the question of knowledge preservation and its transmission to future generations. In this paper I have considered the question of access as a spatial problem or, more precisely, as a problem of integrating cyberspace into life-space. The ethical problems of cyberspace and, consequently, the ethical problems of digital libraries concern the question of how to create a culture of sharing and preserving digital knowledge. I call this kind of ethical approach, an ethics of care.   

    How do we manage to bring digital libraries existentially close to people? I have mentioned some possibilities of dealing with the challenge of democratic accessibility such as integrating digital libraries through community freenets and terminals set up in public spaces, particularly in public libraries. There is, of course, the economic problem at the local level, particularly in the case of developing countries. International governmental and non-governmental organizations have a special responsibility in this regard. Digital libraries should be considered under the democratic premise of basic information provision or "informationelle Grundversorgung" as we call it in German. From this ethical perspective the question of interface design should be considered as a question of democratic interspace design. This means, again, considering cyberspace in general and digital libraries in particular, as belonging to people’s life-space. The management of information and knowledge becomes an ethical imperative in a world of growing inequity and, at the same time, of growing superabundance of digital information and knowledge resources: 'Manage knowledge and information in order to reduce inequity of access and support cultural diversity'. 

    Due to the cultural complexity of human life-spaces and media traditions, this imperative must be translated into ethical indicatives, i.e. into options for practice and research. It is not possible to decide a priori how this medium for sharing knowledge can be integrated within existing media environments, legal, economic and political constraints, and moral milieus. We need various kinds of international digital and real forums in order to further discuss the growing ethical and legal challenges of digital libraries.


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    Thanks to Thomas J. Froehlich, Michael Eldred and Wolfgang von Keitz for critical questions and corrections.

    Last update: Augst 17, 2017

    Copyright © 1999 by Rafael Capurro, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. and international copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the author is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author.   


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