The Internet and new information technologies make it possible for users in China, Indochina and elsewhere to procure the knowledge they need at high speed and low cost. However, physical connectivity, by itself, is not enough to bring the full benefits that the networks are capable of providing.
The Internet is a medium, not a knowledge base, and the information contents it can deliver are so vast and variable that it is difficult for users with limited assets to locate and retrieve the materials and data they desire.
Thus the spread of the Internet to developing countries has increased the demand for applications and services that make networked information resources fully available. Unless such services are provided, the Internet and its contents may remain inaccessible, and research and development efforts may suffer.
In China, for one, there are multiple barriers to access. Some users have no access but have urgent needs for information. Some have time-delayed e-mail. Some have limited on-line access, but no budget or time for data-gathering. Some have full access, but cannot find the information they want; they can search libraries half a world away, but not evaluate titles or read or retrieve full texts. In addition to documents and other materials, users need 'informal information' that resides in the experience of individuals rather than in electronic databanks or paper libraries, but often cannot reach the most knowledgeable or willing correspondents.
For these and other users, there is a greater rather than lesser need for human intermediaries, that is, computer-literate research librarians who can help navigate the wilderness of information that is on the networks, locate and authenticate contents, point to experts and other knowledge sources, and coach the use of search skills and Internet tools.
Bridge to Asia has developed a service that helps meet these needs: an "information-transfer station" (ITS). The ITS is built around a person, not a machine, and consists of an information specialist (a subject specialist, research librarian, and Internet navigator, combined); a research assistant; a team of experts in the target field (law, medicine, etc.); a PC; a link to the Internet; on-line services such as LEXIS/NEXIS; library-search software; electronic databanks; paper libraries of Western research universities; and other resources.
An ITS in the U.S. or Hong Kong connects via the Internet to a companion station in China or Southeast Asia. The companion station is staffed by research and technical assistants who provide training and support. (If users have PCs and modems, they can access an ITS directly without using the companion station; otherwise they can do so indirectly using low-tech links like paper mail or telephones).
An ITS provides research, reference, and document delivery services, together with on-line consulting, and helps users gain access to information resources worldwide. A prototype has been tested successfully with a small group of scholars in Beijing for one year. Bridge to Asia is extending the first station, in law, opening a second station, in medicine, and planning six others in fields that are critical to development: management, economics, science and technology, agriculture, environmental science, and education. The eventual system will include four ITS's in the San Francisco Bay Area, four in Hong Kong, and eight companion stations in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Manila, Hanoi, Phnom Penh, Jakarta, and Bangkok.
(The past development and future evolution of these services will be discussed, with the possible 'localization' of databases on regional servers in Asia. The presentation will include demonstrations of questions and requests by users in China, and responses by ITS's in the West.)