China does not have access to the knowledge it needs in fields that are critical to development. It cannot afford the hundreds of thousands of Western books, journals, databases and other materials - in agriculture, economics, engineering, law, medicine, and other critical fields - wanted by its universities and research centers.
The extent of this knowledge gap can be seen in universities which are themselves quite poor institutions. Most libraries, at the heart of the higher education enterprise, are outdated and half empty. The result is a calamity: faculty cannot stay current, students cannot learn what they should, and the system will not produce enough well trained graduates to sustain China's modernization.
The poverty of most library collections may be hidden by showcase buildings but are plan to see in the stacks. Peking University Library, impressive as it appears, houses a large but thin collection. The Medical Library of Xi'an Jiaotong University, the largest in northwest China, is a more typical example: most of its shelves, on six floors of a building, are empty and coated with dust, and a small faculty reading room holds just a handful of current titles.
The price of a basic text in Western medicine equals the monthly salary of a professor, and digital “books” are equally expensive when they exist. The price of a core collection in Medicine and Health --1,054 books and 220 journals recommended by the U.S. Medical Library Association -- is US$150,000 which is beyond the means of nearly all universities. The price of 144 such collections, for all of China's medical schools, is $20 million which is beyond the means of the Ministry of Public Health.
China's inability to pay First World prices creates the default condition that prevails: use of international editions of a limited
number of textbooks; reliance on ‘house books’ that are printed in-country as copies of foreign materials (a practice that has recently stopped); use of donated used books from overseas; and use of digital materials -- none of which is a substitute for a proper library.
The Internet vs. cellulose and ink
Enthusiasts predicted that the Internet would make knowledge accessible to everyone, and that it might replace paper libraries with digital media. However, books have persevered, paper libraries, costly as they are, are the most effective means of transferring formal knowledge to the greatest number of people, and access to knowledge has remained limited to a relative few.
It is true that scholars in China can use the Web to read catalogues of libraries and databases, but only a few can see the full text. SCIENCE is an exception -- China paid $100,000 for a national site license for the journal, and users at nearly all universities can read its full contents on-line. Yet there are thousands of other journals, many of them more essential than SCIENCE, either not available in digital forms or, if available, not affordable.
Most digital substitutes are as expensive as hard copy. In China, the rule is that if a scholar cannot pay for the hard bound book today, she cannot afford the digital version tomorrow. It is not a fault of the technology, but of regressive intellectual property regimes.
The more profound limitation is that most texts and references in higher education are not digitized, and may never be, at least not in the foreseeable future. That limitation is severe. For example, Harvard University's Widener Library reports that only “a minuscule percent" of its 5.7 million books and other materials exist in electronic form.
Some day, information technology may realize its potential to make knowledge universally accessible. For now, for most scholars in China and other developing countries, that day is far off; and for most scholarly materials, the technology of cellulose and ink continues to rule.
Attempts to close the knowledge gap
Bridge to Asia (BTA) was founded in 1987 to supply Chinese universities with donated books, a second-best strategy for providing a knowledge base. In cooperation with Western scholarly societies and professional associations, and with the Chinese Ministry of Education, it gathered millions of used books and journals and delivered them to hundreds of universities. In the past five years, BTA gave more than half of all foreign language books acquired by Chinese universities overall. It also
has used the Internet to make some knowledge more affordable: it provided document delivery services in law and medicine, and conducted the first telemedicine trials between China and the U.S. by the Internet and by e-mail.
These and other efforts by both sides, energetic and well intentioned as they have been, have not provided what China truly needs: modern library collections of newly purchased books and journals in fields that are vital to development.
Needs for radical reforms
The solution is moral, not legal or technological. Until knowledge is treated as a public good rather than a commodity, and until access to core contents is affordable, developing countries will continue to struggle and may never close the knowledge gap, at a cost of human suffering and loss worldwide.
The ideal solution and best hope for developing countries is to build a national knowledge base, an open collection of essential materials in both paper and digital forms -- both self generated and imported from the West -- and to share that knowledge freely with all who need it. That ideal cannot be achieved until the First World knowledge industry adopts progressive reforms.
The global community should press the industry to release contents that are critical to the modernization, release them for free or at cost, as the pharmaceutical industry has done (under global pressure) with AIDS drugs.
The professions should do the same. They are defined by, and derive their power from a core set of practices and beliefs. The profession of law, through its international bodies, should insist that students and practitioners of law in developing countries have access to core legal knowledge, including the books and journals that capture it. First World physicians should insist that their Third World colleagues have basic libraries available, and so on, through architecture, economics, engineering, and more.
Each author of a work whose contents bear on modernization, should insist that it be released for free or at cost to Third World users.
Unless these and other aggressive solutions are tried, developing countries may never bridge the knowledge gap, and they and the world at large will pay terrible costs.
Jeffrey Smith is President of The Bridge to Asia Foundation, which he founded in 1987. He is a graduate of Yale and Harvard, has taught in Chengdu in 1984 and is committed to educational development in China and Southeast Asia.