Thursday, June 23, 2005

Information labor without borders

In the wake of the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami disaster, frustrated by my national government's pitiful response as well as my national media's lamentable reporting, I found myself searching for international organizations which I could support in both the short-term disaster relief effort and the long-term goal of building a just and sustainable global society. "Doctors without Borders" (actually "Medecins sans Frontieres" or MSF) struck me as a great model of organized, distributed, transnational, nongovernmental, noncapitalist professional action -- so they got my monetary donation. On their English-language website ( they explain their origins and goals:

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is an international independent medical humanitarian organization that delivers emergency aid to people affected by armed conflict, epidemics, natural and man-made disasters, and exclusion from health care in nearly 70 countries.

Each year, MSF volunteer doctors, nurses, logisticians, water-and-sanitation experts, administrators, and other medical and non-medical professionals depart on more than 3,400 aid missions. They work alongside more than 16,000 locally hired staff to provide medical care.

In emergencies and their aftermath, MSF provides health care, rehabilitates and runs hospitals and clinics, performs surgery, battles epidemics, carries out vaccination campaigns, operates feeding centers for malnourished children, and offers mental health care. When needed, MSF also constructs wells and dispenses clean drinking water, and provides shelter materials like blankets and plastic sheeting.

Through longer-term programs, MSF treats patients with infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, sleeping sickness, and HIV/AIDS, and provides medical and psychological care to marginalized groups such as street children.

MSF was founded in 1971 as a nongovernmental organization to both provide emergency medical assistance and bear witness publicly to the plight of the people it assists. A private nonprofit association, MSF is an international network with sections in 19 countries.

Now you might think this post is leading into a discussion about how new media networked information technology is giving a boost to such organizations in terms of fundraising, information distribution, press awareness, and on-the-ground coordination of volunteer effort. I'm sure that all of this is happening, but that's not what I'm thinking about today. Rather, I started wondering if there were any similar "without borders"/"sans frontieres" organizations out there which dealt more directly with what we might call "information labor."

A quick Google search turned up several variations on the original theme. For example, "Engineers without Borders" (

Engineers Without Borders - International facilitates links and collaboration among its member groups toward improving the quality of life of disadvantaged communities worldwide through education and implementation of sustainable engineering projects, while promoting new dimensions of experience for engineers and engineering students.

Or "Reporters without Borders" (

More than a third of the world's people live in countries where there is no press freedom. Reporters Without Borders works constantly to restore their right to be informed. Fourty-two media professionals lost their lives in 2003 for doing what they were paid to do -- keeping us informed. Today, more than 130 journalists around the world are in prison simply for doing their job. In Nepal, Eritrea and China, they can spend years in jail just for using the "wrong" word or photo. Reporters Without Borders believes imprisoning or killing a journalist is like eliminating a key witness and threatens everyone's right to be informed. It has been fighting such practices for more than 18 years.

And finally "Teachers without Borders" (

Teachers Without Borders is a non-profit 501(c)3, non-denominational, international NGO founded in 2000, devoted to closing the education divide through teacher professional development and community education. We work primarily, but not exclusively, in developing countries, in order to build self-reliance, health, and capacity. We base much of the spirit and focus of our work on the inspiration provided by Jacques Delors' report: Learning: The Treasure Within.

At 59 million, teachers are the largest single group of trained professionals in the world AND the key to our children's future. Equally amazing is the estimated need for more than 30 million NEW teachers to achieve the goal of the U.N.'s "Education for All" initiative by 2015. The issues are complicated by the number of children who do not go to school at all - 104 million, 50% of whom live in countries touched by conflict.

Despite its crucial connection to economic and social development, teacher training is often uneven, protracted, or unsupported. In addition, teachers are rarely included in educational policy change or significant decision-making. Teachers are not just a resource for our children, they are the key to development. They know who is sick, who is missing, who has been abducted into the sex trade or conscripted into a military gang, who has been orphaned by AIDS, who is achieving and who is not. In short, teachers are society's glue, and they certainly deserve our assistance; otherwise, we are all left with a gaping digital, educational, and economic divide. If the key to economic development and our young people's future is education, then teachers should have resources, tools, and access to the Internet, as well as each other.

Teachers Without Borders was founded to addresses these issues. [...]

All three of these could certainly be considered part of the information professions in their own way -- providing information infrastructure (among other crucial infrastructure such as power, water, and transport); providing news information (and a basis on which to trust it); and providing educational information (and the means of understanding it). So my next question of course was: where are the library and information studies professionals in this mix?

Where are "Librarians without Borders"? Well, they're right here ( and they're brand new:

Librarians Without Borders (LWB) is an organization founded in February 2005 at the Faculty of Media and Information Studies (FIMS) at the University of Western Ontario (UWO) in London, ON, Canada. LWB is composed of Master of Library and Information Science students, as well as FIMS faculty and students from other university departments. The group is already 50 members strong.

LWB is an organization that strives to improve access to information resources regardless of language, by forming partnerships with community organizations in developing countries.

LWB envisions a global society where all people have equal access to information resources.

According to a press release from the University of Western Ontario, an MILS student actually started the effort there:

Librarians Without Borders (LWB), a non-profit organization based in London, Ontario, and founded by Western MLIS student Melanie Sellar has launched its first international mission by organizing a much-needed medical library in Luanda, Angola.

Sellar was moved to start Librarians Without Borders after working with a graduate student from Angola named Jorge Chimbinda and hearing his stories about the devastating effects of a recently ended 27-year civil war in his homeland.

Working with Angolan partners, LWB is helping to develop a desperately needed collection of medical and nursing texts written in Portuguese. "LWB is unique from most other book donation programs," Sellar explains, "because its objective is to provide essential information resources in the official language of the country or region."

A building purchased by the Catholic Mission in Luanda has been repaired and is ready to function as a medical library to support students and faculty of the University of Agostinho, but it is lacking essential resources such as medical textbooks to stock the facility. As an alternative to aid donations, LWB intends to build partnerships with medical textbook publishers to help develop a medical library that will assist Angola with rebuilding its medical profession.

"By focusing aid on specific projects," Sellar says, "Librarians Without Borders will give its stakeholders a clear sense of what their support is achieving by providing a detailed plan of action and continual updates about how a project is progressing. In this way, we hope to give people the confidence that their support is really effective and a sense of participation in the process of social progress."

But there must be something going on in Canada, because early in 2003 another LIS student, Andrew Fraser (this time from the University of Alberta), wrote a historical argument outlining the need for an international "Librarians without Borders" organization which is still available on the web:

What is do done about the destruction of libraries in time of armed conflict. The recent looting of the National Museum of Iraqi in Baghdad in the recent Gulf War II highlights this issue. I propose an international Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) called "Librarians Without Borders" modelled on the various professional organizations with "Without Borders" like Nobel Prize winning "Doctors Without Borders" and others NGOs like Engineers Without Borders and Teachers Without Borders. [...]

Librarians Without Borders or LWB assists in the rebuiding of libraries and archives after times of armed conflict,and natural and human-made disasters. A private, nonprofit organization, LWB is at the forefront of emergency rebuilding of public cultural institutions which house the collective knowledge of people effected by above listed calminities. Through longer-term programs, LWB hopes to assist in the training of librarians and archivists in the developing world.


These recent efforts make a great start at linking up the international community of information professionals in service of global justice, especially those focused on the demonstrable historical importance, philosophical social necessity, and current technological possibilities of physical libraries as living institutions and organizations of information provision. But as far as I can tell, there is still no international network of such movements, and in particular no US presence in this project. Perhaps some smart and committed library students in the States (or even, dare I hope, in my state of Wisconsin) will find a way to meet this challenge?

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