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Magazines > Information Today > September 2003
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Information Today
Vol. 20 No. 8 — September 2003
CONFERENCE CIRCUIT
Online in South Africa
By Marydee Ojala

The vibrancy of the South African information community was evident at the seventh Southern African Online Information Meeting, held June 4­5 in Muldersdrift, South Africa. Almost 250 info pros jammed the conference center, which was set in a beautiful rustic resort close to both Johannesburg and Pretoria. The Southern African Online User Group (SAOUG) sponsored the meeting. Most of the delegates and presenters were from South Africa, but some speakers came from the U.S., the U.K., Singapore, and India.

I delivered the first day's keynote address. My talk delineated the times when you should and should not pay for information. Payment is always a difficult issue for developing countries. My sense of South Africa is that it has a mixture of First- and Third-World economies, which creates a digital divide that's not contemplated elsewhere.

There are strong sentiments (expressed by at least one delegate) that charging for information is "elitist." I've been thinking about this intriguing concept ever since she raised the point. I still believe that charging for information is not elitist, but price-gouging probably is. In my keynote, I alluded to the eternal balancing act between quality information and what you can pay for it. This, I continue to believe, is the crux of the matter: how to do meaningful research without overpaying.

Ciaran Morton, executive vice president of Dialog Europe (which includes Africa in its territory), presented the second day's keynote. His assigned topic was mergers and acquisitions in the online world, but he touched on it rather briefly. I thought his most interesting comment concerned the presence of information giants such as Thomson. "You created us," he said.

Morton went on to talk about "the Google factor": users' expectation of one-click searching. He then discussed the challenges of being perceived as a giant, stating that velocity is an issue. "It's difficult to turn the tanker," he said. Looking to the future, Morton cited "co-opetition." Web technology, he said, enables market convergence.

The Big Five

In South Africa, the Big Five are game animals—specifically, lions, leopards, elephants, rhinoceroses, and buffalo (that's water buffalo, not to be confused with the American bison). The Big Five themes at the SAOUG conference were the changing role of the information professional and the library, e-books and e-journals, knowledge management and competitive intelligence, intranets, and transaction logs. Although none of these themes are unique to the South African information scene, some of the perspectives were.

The conference was strong on practical presentations. A number of case studies spotlighted the innovative projects being developed by South African libraries. Louise Mitchell of Anglo American, a multinational mining company, detailed her experiences in setting up end-user training. She talked about Anglo American's Tech-Know Link, a service that has to accommodate several languages and cultures. The notion of actually training people on site at South African mines was intriguing. Talk about taking the library to the users! We should all follow Mitchell's advice to check Web sites right before the training session begins, since sudden changes on the Web are not unique to South Africa.

Chris Cromhout, from Business Partners, Ltd., explained how he created both an expert knowledgebase for small business information and a directory of completed transactions. Originally, his team considered developing a unique classification scheme, but decided to use SIC numbers instead. Cromhout said that getting the portfolio managers' knowledge into the database was a major problem.

Rajendra Munoo's description of "corporatizing" information literacy programs in Singapore provided a radically new view of national libraries. Since Singapore is an island city-state that has no natural resources, its emphasis is on education and technology. Munoo's research reveals that libraries, even those run by the government, can become profit centers. His training sessions can be easily adapted to other environments.

I'm still contemplating the vision of the University of Pretoria's John ZachariasTheophanous and Erica Cosijn, who talked about a world in which your fridge orders groceries for you. Enabled by the semantic Web and structural markup languages such as XML, they believe that future information sources will be fully interconnected.

Exhibit Hall

The Southern African Online Information Meeting attracted 17 exhibitors. Many are familiar names in the U.S.—EBSCO, ProQuest, Gale, Elsevier, Swets Blackwell, CAS, Dialog, ISI, Bowker, EIU, and Inmagic. A few were uniquely South African: NISC, I-Net Bridge, JUTA, LibWin, Red Pepper, and Sabinet.

NISC acts as the South African agent for databases from companies such as Cambridge Scientific Abstracts, but also publishes journals like AJAR: African Journal of AIDS Research,African Journal of Aquatic Science, Ostrich: Journal of African Ornithology, and South African Journal of Botany. It compiles five databases, the newest of which isAfro-Tropical BIRD Information Retrieval Database.

I-Net Bridge delivers South African businesses' news stories from Johnnic Publishing and BDFM. The sources include the Sunday Times, Business Times, Computing SA, and Financial Mail. I-Net Bridge also offers historical data from the Johannesburg stock exchange and investment research on South African companies.

JUTA is a major source of legal information. Its Statutes ofSouth Africa is available on CD-ROM and online. It includes all South African acts and amendments dating to 1910. LibWin, developed at theRodean School in Johannesburg, is an established library automation company. It offers its OPAC and other programs internationally, although most of its clients are in South Africa and SoutheastAsia. Red Pepper is a South African book jobber.

From an outsider's perspective, the most interesting exhibitor was Sabinet Online, Ltd. A "facilitator of access to value-added online information," Sabinet collaborated with South African publishers to build a searchable full-text e-journal database.It presently has 108 titles—a number that's expected to swell to 150 by the end of the year—and tables of contents for 500 journals. Sabinet has also introduced Engineering & Mining World, the first in a series of planned vertical market industry portals.

Closing Keynote

The closing keynote, "Adapt or Die: Lessons from the Ancient Past," was one of the most unusual I'd ever heard. Bruce Rubidge, director of the Bernard Price Institute of Palaeontological Research at the University of the Witwatersrand, talked about South Africa's ancient past. With fossil evidence gathered from the Karoo region of the country, Rubidge traced the development of various species and noted that most are no longer around. He detailed timelines that showed how climactic change wiped out early life. His speculations about humankind's ancestors were particularly intriguing, coming on the heels of news from Ethiopia of a potential human ancestor skull found there.

Not until his final slide did Rubidge refer to librarians or online research. His message, which was summed up by the presentation's title, was simple: We have to adapt to changing circumstances and altered environments or we'll no longer be around. This superb keynote provided a thought-provoking, nontraditional end to the conference.

The Southern African Online Information Meeting's title derives from Learned Information, Ltd.'s International Online Information Meeting. This is no accident—Learned Information originally helped organizers put the biennial show together. Most of the work is done by volunteer members from SAOUG. I'm particularly grateful to Maureen Brassel, Chris Cromhout, and Di Kruger, who went out of their way to show me South African hospitality. The Southern African online world is as unique as its participants.

 


Marydee Ojala is editor ofONLINE magazine.Her e-mail address is marydee@infotoday.com.
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