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Encyclopedia Project (Explanations)

Method: Logistical challenge

Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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1. Amount of information

The quantity of information available on "world problems" is more than daunting, as is the number of documents which could usefully be scanned to clarify the dimensions of "human potential". The major intergovernmental organizations claim that a large proportion of their huge document output is concerned with such problems and with aspects of the "development" process. There are extensive specialized libraries on particular clusters of problems, as there are on development. This quantitative challenge calls for search procedures capable of circumventing these obvious difficulties.

2. Unknown scope

Obtaining information on well-recognized topics, which can be communicated unambiguously in queries to appropriate information centres, is quite different from identifying those problems, or aspects of human development, known only to groups concerned with them and under labels of which others are unaware. This is especially demanding when different constituencies may use different sets of descriptors to denote such problems. This makes it quite difficult, if not impossible, to use conventional library search procedures.

3. Inaccessible library collections

(a) Major libraries obviously tend to be subject-oriented rather than problem-oriented. Collections tend to be organized and catalogued by subject. Even if a problem such as "illiteracy" is mentioned in the subject catalogue, it will tend to refer the reader to a large collection of material under "literacy". In most cases there is no such mention. The less obvious problems tend not to be mentioned on the title page of a document. It is therefore rare for them to be identifiable through the subject catalogue, particularly when discussion of the problem is incidental to the topic of the document. This applies to an even greater degree in the especially "fuzzy" area of human values and modes of awareness.

(b) Many libraries are not organized to permit scanning of books in their stacks by readers. Readers are often restricted to the number of books they can request at any one time. There are usually significant delays, often hours, before requested books are delivered. It is common for requested books to be "not on shelf".

(c) When undertaking massive document scanning operations in libraries or documentation centres, there is little point in gaining access to a document containing several pages of useful information if it is not possible to photocopy that document for later analysis in relation to other such materials on the same problem. Many libraries are not organized to facilitate such photocopying, whether because there are no such machines, or they are physically distant, or because of complex administrative procedures governing their use, or because of concern with copyright infringement, or because there are many people attempting to use them. Extracting information on problems requires extensive photocopying of odd pages in many documents. This is usually quite difficult in most libraries.

4. Impracticality of online database searches

In the light of some of the constraints noted above, it might be supposed that much could be gained by online searches. But although online searches can be efficient when precise descriptors are known, the situation is little different from libraries when this is not the case. Where descriptors are known, online searches can facilitate scanning of titles that may be of interest, but they do not help to determine which of them might be of value when the documents are eventually obtained. Even an abstract may fail to indicate that the document has very valuable paragraphs identifying problems. Dependence on online searching can also prove to be a major drain on limited resources.

5. Inaccessibility of expertise

There are no "qualified experts" on many of the entries in this Encyclopedia. This may be because a problem has only recently been recognized or is considered too marginal to merit such attention. In some cases it may be because the expertise in that area is focused on the scientific domain with which the problem is associated but that the problem itself is of marginal interest to the competent scholars. This is especially the case when a concrete problem has implications for several disciplines but is of limited interest to all of them. Only for certain types of problem is it possible for an individual to acquire recognized qualifications. Those with expertise tend also to have quite different interpretations of the "facts" relating to what some consider to be a problem. So, whereas it is usual to have encyclopedia entries specially written by experts on the topic, the difficulties of negotiating such arrangements and maintaining the associated correspondence for large numbers of entries was not considered cost effective. Given the current costs of expertise and consultants, this approach would have been quite impracticable. This is also the case with the human potential entries.

6. Bias of any particular pattern of sources

Because of the nature of the project, there was a strong desire to avoid dependence on any particular pattern of sources, even though this might have made certain aspects of the task much easier.

7. Severe resource limitations

In principle a project of this kind should be able to call upon a number of funding sources actively interested in supporting an international, interdisciplinary, multi-focus survey of the "world problems" perceived by significant international constituencies. In fact funding for such projects is increasingly limited. There is a preference for national (if not local), highly-focused, uni-disciplinary projects, even amongst international organizations -- and especially when they themselves have relatively narrow mandates. Much funding is ear-marked for currently fashionable topics because of its immediately apparent legitimacy. There is also a natural bias in favour of solution-oriented projects and a reluctance to increase the number of problems recognized. Interest in "human potential" is even more limited.

8. Appropriate compromise

The method developed (and described below) therefore called for a special compromise which could ensure a wide information collection and processing procedure without becoming paralyzed by the quantity of material.


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