The Wolanski Foundation Project


Paper no 20 - Part 1









List of papers








The ALIA conference, Sydney, May 2002

by Paul Bentley


Article originally published in Online Currents July/August 2002 and reprinted with kind permission of the publishers Enterprise Information Management Pty Ltd. 

Part 1: Introduction | Contexts | Knowledge Economy & Information Industry

Part 2: Up the Next Curve | Conclusion 


Charles Handy in The Empty Raincoat draws our attention to the sigmoid curve – the metaphor that describes the ebb and flow of civilisations, organisations and personal relationships. 



They begin slowly, experimentally, then wax, then wane.  By the time they reach point A, they must exercise forced discontentment, anticipate the next curve, re-invent themselves.  The past is not necessarily the best fertiliser of the next curve, but the past should not be abandoned too quickly.  As well as a sense of direction, the next curve needs a sense of continuity.  New ideas must co-exist with the old. 

Technology has forced the world into the experimental land between point A and point B.

The Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) explored paths out of this experimental territory in its 2002 a conference, Powering the Future.  In the words of rapporteur, Neil McLean, the conference was designed “to listen to leaders in key service sectors as a means of challenging our mind-sets, as a way of rethinking our business, and as a catalyst for the development of an information agenda”.  A neatly juxtaposed Colloquium on Research Library Futures at the State Library of NSW in the week prior to the main conference expressed similar aims in a narrower field.  


Professor Ann Harding, drawing on data from the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling, highlighted alleged information access inequalities, created by dramatic demographic and workplace changes in Australia.

Archbishop Peter Carnley comforted the congregation on the importance of its work, but urged it to take a more holistic view of information and knowledge and develop a broad vision of libraries as community learning centres and places for creativity.

Hugh Mackay underscored radical social changes by drawing attention to complexities, contradictions and insecurities wrought by the gender, information, culture-identity and economic revolutions.  We are, he concluded, on the threshold of a period of significant community development, coinciding with increased tribalism in young people, in which the library could be “the nexus between the electronic and human forms of connectedness."


Dr Terry Cutler, in Making Australia a Knowledge Economy, commented on our inclination to work in silos. We need clearer IT policies and strategies and the development of cultural capital in which libraries and networked people are key elements. 

Phil Ruthven provided a picture of the Australian knowledge industry - currently valued at $171 billion and expected to grow to $301 billion by 2010 (14.8% of GDP, compared with 5.5% in 1950).

The industry looks something like this:


Sub sector






Scientific (including medical)



Other technical (engineering / survey / analytical



Market (attitudinal, quantitative



Business (in-house, R&D, innovation)



Pre school, school



Higher education (university, TAFE)



Other (Business, special interest)



Print (newspapers, magazines, books). Libraries ($745 million revenue or 0.4% of information market)



Television (FTA and Pay TV) and radio



Business consulting (strategic, functional)



Computer consulting (software, systems)



Investment consulting



Personal consulting


Online Information

Official bureaus (ABS), databases (eg IBISWorld)



Internet (including ‘free’ information). Libraries.


IC & T



Electronic systems

Software, Internet providers, search engines



Telecommunications, WAP, Satellite


Electronic equipment

Transmission and broadcasting equipment



Computers, PCs, peripherals, consumables





% of national revenue



This is an important table because, unlike some other knowledge and information industry reports (see endnote), it draws attention to the place of libraries in the information landscape.  But it is a picture that needs further development because public libraries (valued at $750 million or 0.07% of GDP) have been placed by default within the media and online information sectors, the value of educational libraries is hidden within the education sector and in-house libraries and information centres in business and government, valued at more than $150 million, are represented in a footnote.

 The Australian online information sector, which earns $254 billion or 12% of national revenue of $2.12 trillion, largely comprises online financial services (82.6%) and telecommunication services (13.9%). Other online businesses, earning a total of $8.9 billion (3.5%), include internet service providers, pay TV, educational services, gaming trade, travel agents, electronic shopping services, databases, ticket agents and other activities such as public library services (0.7% of total revenue) and government information agencies (0.9%) of total revenue.

Businesses spend $A356 billion on information worldwide, including $A110 billion for online information (31%).  Australian businesses spend $4.8 billion on information, including $1350 million for online information (28%).  The library share of this expenditure is 7%.

Type of information



Market research



Scientific and technical



Other information



News and Trade



Credit and finance



Businesses want information on influential (macro), operating (semi-macro) and immediate (micro) environments as well as on the enterprise itself.  In 2002, Australian businesses are expected to spend $95 million (4.5%) of their budgets on information - $90.2 billion (95%) on internal information (including finance and assets, sales and market, operational analysis, R&D, and innovation) and $4.8 billion (5.1%) on external information.

The challenge for librarians and libraries, within this context, is to define their roles, methods, competition and opportunities.

The American Publishing Association’s Patricia Schroeder emphasised the importance of quality in an information quagmire that doubles every three years.  Good information costs money, but it may also save money.  There are potential efficiency gains for information producers and handlers in addressing workflow and transaction issues.

Peter Crawley, the headmaster of Knox Grammar School, in the Librarian and the Management of Information Overload, illuminated the difference between those who have grown up with computers from birth and those who have acquired computer skills late in life.  The former can process digital information rapidly.  The latter handle electronic information much more slowly: adults speak with a digital accent.  In today’s high schools, value is now placed on a capacity to manipulate information and evaluate knowledge.  Knowledge is regarded as a functional tool, not an end in itself.  Meaning comes from context.  Gossip is an important mechanism for processing context. 

Dr Martin Forrest from the Australian Information and Communication Technology in Education Committee called for a more a holistic approach in managing education. Critical success factors are bound up with the development of infrastructure, connectivity, content and competencies.  “Content may be king, but network infrastructure is god”.  In discussing competencies, he used Paul Gilster’s integrated phrase, digital literacy, in preference to the differentiated concepts of information literacy and ICT literacy.

Professor Lawrence Cram outlined thinking currently driving the Australian Research Council, based on the causal link between research and innovation.  Library and information services are central to this agenda.  However, as new organisational titles like knowledge centres emerge, it is important to remember that competencies are the things that enable practitioners to best serve clients.

The Australian Academy of Technological Sciences & Engineering’s Tim Besley also explored innovation - “one of those things, like the weather, that everybody talks about but nobody is doing anything about”.  Collaboration is a vital element of an innovative future – particularly collaboration between academia and business. Portfolio proposals, as demonstrated by the Cooperative Research Centre program, are good mechanisms for converting ideas into commercial reality.  

Marianne Broadbent’s presentation Business, Knowledge and Information, an exploration of information management in a business setting, provided lessons on a wider front.  Knowledge-based initiatives are often unfocussed and not linked to business outcomes.  Information professionals need to articulate a ‘trail of evidence’ to clarify and explain their value contribution.  Enterprises need to view IT investments in terms of a portfolio of investments comprising transactions, information, strategy and infrastructure.  Business value contributions need to be linked to enterprise measures.  The message on her last slide was Get Real.

Dr Christopher Chia, from the National Library Board of Singapore, outlined the central and effective role of Singapore’s libraries as ubiquitous places for learning and information.  The McDonald’s marketing strategy of convenience, accessibility and usefulness guided the first phase of their national strategy.  The focus is now on the slogans knowledge, imagination and possibility. 

Go to Part 2


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