Ten years of GATE documentation
Notes on the Current Situation
The following reflections deliberately avoid using the forthcoming birthday of GATE to paint in glorious statistics the picture of a documentation set up in ten years of hard work. Certainly, we have made progress and improvements. We have achieved a level of efficiency of which we can be proud. Nevertheless, GATE documentation has always been - and has remained - an extremely lively and flexible area to work in, with few hard and fast rules and principles. Much was developed from day-to-day work, often spontaneously, and then stayed unaltered. And so perhaps this anniversary should be taken as an opportunity to reflect on other things for once - not just shelving systems, circulating magazines, reproducing index cards, abstract stock figures and the like.
After ten years of information gathering on "appropriate technologies", GATE documentation has reached a point where fundamental considerations are necessary. The pretty little collection of 200 books on a borrowed shelf, looked after by a GATE staff member doubling as honorary librarian, has turned into a library with 4200 titles. Special furniture, e.g. catalogue cabinets and durable shelves, had to be obtained; and administration of the collection calls for relatively professional documentation skills. We had very soon become aware of the documentation sins committed in the early days and had found a simple means of eliminating them, as we reported in gate 3/84. Also, we are still trying to simplify technical procedures and find computer-aided methods of simplifying information processing and, above all, access to information. For example, in the course of 1988 GATE will be introducing the CDS-ISIS system, which has been provided by UNESCO.
While it is true that such methods make it much simpler to manage inventories, they also tend to conceal questions which a documentation department should ask itself every few years, including the following ones:
• Can we define our information gathering aims more accurately?
• Can we formulate our selection criteria for the procurement and inclusion of information more strictly?
• Do we really have to keep everything that we have?
And so on. Because the fact is that technical rationalization measures in libraries are all too often designed to cope only with the sheer mass of information, and take the place of much-needed discussion of qualitative aspects: what are our terms of reference? What yardstick should we apply when assessing the quality of the information we gather?
For GATE, such a moment for reflection is now at hand - marked by the approaching tenth anniversary of its foundation, as well as the reorganization of GTZ, due to take effects as of 1 January 1989; the more so since GATE will also assume new functions and tasks, and relinquish others, in the course of the reorganization.
Consequently, in future, two questions will predominate:
• Is the term "appropriate technology" clear enough to define the limits within which a documentation department gathers information?
• Can we measure the quality of a given piece of information, its value as regards the solution of problems presented to us daily, e.g., in the form of enquiries addressed to the Question-and-Answer Service, and how do we go about it?
To begin with, both these questions help reduce the quantity of documentation, by qualitative delimitation. However, while the first is purely a question of input into the documentation department, the second is also relevant to what leaves it.
How can you recognize an "appropriate" book?
The answer is simple: you can't. At the beginning of the "Appropriate Technology Era" the titles were sufficient to identify them: "appropriate, intermediate, alternative, small scale..." and that's what most of them looked like, too: poorly printed, hardly legible, and costing nothing. They described hand-made solar dryers, a maize sheller here, a manually operated washing machine there.
Today, the world of ideas of development with local materials, tools and know-how has at least penetrated international development cooperation to the extent that its concepts have been completely absorbed. On the one hand, this must be seen as a success, and all of us who have worked for the AT cause for so many years now would like to be pleased about it. But on the other, it is the very reason why new delimiting criteria have become necessary.
For the AT documentalist, a document is no longer automatically worth keeping just because it has AT printed on it: these two letters are to be found on practically every printed document dealing with development aid, if only on page 2. Every self-respecting research institution does research into "appropriate development" and offers its findings to the public in the manner customary in specialist academic circles, i.e. in learned journals and via academic publishers. Added to this is the fact that "appropriate technology" has long since left the realm of the purely technical. Thus it has also left the rooms of the engineering colleges, design offices and DIY workshops. The technological approach has given way to a multi-disciplinary one: sociologists, educationalists, ethnologists, political scientists, economists and others were given a - justified - say in matters and make abundant use of it: they write. But the publications of the "classic" AT centres and self-help groups are now more professional, too, both technically and commercially. Only a small part of the market in AT literature is still "grey". It is now easier both to establish that documents are genuine and to obtain them; and the dissemination of information has also improved. All this ought to be considered a success GATE, too, now has its books published by the highly reputable Vieweg Verlag. At the same time, however, it has also put an end to the clarity and well-defined limits of the field.
For the GATE documentation department in particular, which is a small unit in a large corporation with more than 1000 employees, this situation is a permanent source of trouble. The risk of some overlapping with the collection of the GTZ central library cannot be ruled out, and this applies equally to other special collections of documents at GTZ, such as those which exist on vocational training or site-appropriate agriculture. This is confusing for the users of the various systems, and for the company it is neither efficient nor desirable.
How can you recognize a "good" book?
Over and above their usefulness for laying down limits with the aim of reducing stocks, questions relating to the quality of information are principally of interest for the Question-and-Answer service that GATE runs. Much of the information passed on daily by this service is found in the documentation department. Apart from the difficulty of subsequently checking how the information was used by the enquirer and what effect it had, any ex ante assessment of documents could only be based on criteria of completeness of the information and its up-to-date-ness.
Even the question whether this or that document is relevant for a particular user presupposes a complete knowledge of the specific technological, social, cultural and economic environment of the problem the enquirer wishes to deal with. This can differ from case to case, thus ruling out any generally valid assessment of the quality of information right from the start. In the best of cases it might be possible to ensure that a technological document contained some information on the social, cultural and economic aspects of the technology described.
One could also examine the question whether it is possible to establish who already has experience with the technology in question, and when they obtained it. Even so, this does not amount to any guarantee whatsoever that the information will be useful to a potential enquirer. Nor does the setting of higher standards, e.g. only documenting successful, performance-proved technologies, appear to be a solution: what are we supposed to do with all the negative experiences from which, as we all know, we usually learn the most?
We will presumably carry on working as before for a while, until we have a few modest answers to these important questions. We will keep our readers informed of developments.
The GATE library at present contains some 4,200 publications. In order of simplify the job of processing information and, in particular, to make the information available more readily accessible, GATE will be introducing the CDS-ISIS system in the course of this year. This archiving system was provided by UNESCO. While this will simplify the administrative task, the question of selection criterria for an AT library- as regards both quantity and quality- remains unresolved. It will no doubt take some time to find a satisfactory solution.
La bibliothéque de GATE compte actuellemen tenviron 4200 volumes. Afin de simplifier le traitement de l'information et en particulier l'accès a ces informations, GATE va, dans le courant de cette année, introduire le système CDSISIS mis a sa disposition par l'UNESCO. Ainsi la gestion va s'en trouver certes simplifiée, mais le problème des criteres de choix tant sur le plan quantitati fque qualitatif - pour une bibliothèque AT reste posé La recherche d'une solution satisfaisante va certainement demander encore un certain temps.
La biblioteca de GATE comprende actualmente 4.200 unidades, en cifras redondas. A fin de simplificar el uso de la informacion, y sobre todo el acceso a /a misma, GATE introducirá aun durante el año en curve el sistema CDS-ISIS, puesto a disposición por la UNESCO. Con ello se simplificará la administracion, pero seguirá en pie, en cambio, la cuestión de los criterios de selección pare une biblioteca AT; o sea, según criterios de seleccion de tipo cuantitativo y cualitativo. Hallar aquí une solución satisfactoria requerirá probablemente aùn algùn tiempo.
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