Democratization of knowledge

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The democratization of knowledge is the acquisition and spread of knowledge amongst a wider part of the population, not just privileged elites such as clergy and academics. Libraries, in particular public libraries, and modern information technology such as the Internet play a key role, as they provide the masses with open access to information.

Over the centuries, the dissemination of information has risen to an unprecedented level. The start of this process can be marked from the invention of woodblock printing (and much later of the printing press), the purpose of which was broader spread of information. Today, in a digitized world, the availability of online content outnumbers the information published in books, journals, or in any print form.


Literate and illiterate world population between 1800 and 2016

Wide dissemination of knowledge is inseparable from the spread of literacy.

Early history[edit]

The history of printing in East Asia originated from the Han dynasty (220 BCE – 206 CE) in China.

15th through 18th centuries[edit]

The printing press was one of the early steps toward the democratization of knowledge. The arrival of mechanical movable type printing in Europe in the Renaissance introduced the era of mass communication, which permanently altered the structure of society. The relatively unrestricted circulation of information and (revolutionary) ideas transcended borders, captured the masses in the Reformation and threatened the power of political and religious authorities. The sharp increase in literacy broke the monopoly of the literate elite on education and learning and bolstered the emerging middle class. Across Europe, the increasing cultural self-awareness of its peoples led to the rise of proto-nationalism, and accelerated the development of European vernaculars, to the detriment of Latin's status as lingua franca.[1] In the 19th century, the replacement of the hand-operated Gutenberg-style press by steam-powered rotary presses allowed printing on an industrial scale.[2]

Another small example of this during the Industrial Revolution was the creation of libraries for miners in some Scottish villages in the 18th century.[3]

20th and 21st centuries[edit]

The Information Age is a historical period that began in the mid-20th century. It is characterized by a rapid shift from traditional industries, as established during the Industrial Revolution, to an economy centered on information technology.[4]

Wikipedia is rapidly turning into a real-time reference tool in which public entries can be updated by anyone who has access to the required technology and enough time. This and similar phenomena—a product of the information age—have greatly increased the accessibility not only to the fruition of information but also to its production and diffusion in the post-modern era. This has raised a number of valid criticisms (Reliability of Wikipedia). For instance, one could draw a distinction between the mere spread of information and the spread of inaccurate or non-credible information. Wikipedia, which in principle relies on external sources, may thus be a more reliable source of information in certain spheres, but not in others.[citation needed]

WikiLeaks has also played a major role in allowing more sensitive and politically-private information to become public knowledge, although some controversies surrounding public safety have arisen as a result of leaks.

Digitization efforts by Google Books have been pointed to as an example of the democratization of knowledge, but Malte Herwig in Der Spiegel raised concerns that the virtual monopoly Google has in the search market, combined with Google's hiding of the details of its search algorithms, could undermine this move towards democratization.[5]

Google Scholar (and similar scholarly search services) and Sci-Hub (and similar scholarly shadow libraries) have also been pointed to as examples of democratization of knowledge.[6][7]

Open Library's and HathiTrust's digitization efforts and their use of the controlled digital lending model are also examples of democratization of knowledge.[8]

After the most powerful search engine, Google, and the most viewed encyclopedia, Wikipedia, the most viewed information-based website is the Encyclopædia Britannica.[9]

Role of libraries[edit]

An article written in 2005 by the editors of Reference & User Services Quarterly calls the library the greatest force for the democratization of knowledge or information.[10] It continues to say that public libraries in particular are inextricably linked with the history and evolution of the United States, but school library media centers, college and university libraries, and special libraries have all also been influential in their support for democracy.[10] Libraries play an essential role in the democratization of knowledge and information by providing communities with the resources and tools to find information free of charge. Democratic access to knowledge has also been co-opted to mean providing information in a variety of formats, which essentially means electronic and digital formats for use by library patrons.[11] Public libraries help further the democratization of information by guaranteeing freedom of access to information, by providing an unbiased variety of information sources and access to government services, as well as the promotion of democracy and active citizenship.[12]

Dan Cohen, the founding executive director of the Digital Public Library of America, writes that democratic access to knowledge is a profound idea that requires constant tending and revitalization.[11] In 2004, a World Social Forum and International workshop was held entitled "Democratization of Information: Focus on Libraries". The focus of the forum was to bring awareness to the social, technological, and financial challenges facing libraries dealing with the democratization of information. Social challenges included globalization and the digital divide, technological challenges included information sources, and financial challenges constituted shrinking budgets and manpower.[13] Longtime Free Library of Philadelphia director Elliot Shelkrot said that "Democracy depends on an informed population. And where can people get all the information they need? —At the Library."[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Anderson, Benedict: Comunidades Imaginadas. Reflexiones sobre el origen y la difusión del nacionalismo, Fondo de cultura económica, Mexico 1993, ISBN 978-968-16-3867-2, pp. 63–76
  2. ^ Gerhardt, Claus W. (1978). "Besitzt Gutenbergs Erfindung heute noch einen Wert?". Gutenberg-Jahrbuch: 212–217.
  3. ^ For example, in Leadhills in 1741 and in Wanlockhead in 1756. Checkland, Olive (1980). Philanthropy in Victorian Scotland. J. Donald. p. 138. ISBN 978-0-85976-041-6.
  4. ^ Manuel, Castells (1996). The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 978-0631215943. OCLC 43092627.
  5. ^ Herwig, Malte (28 March 2007). "Google's Total Library: Putting The World's Books on the Web". Der Spiegel. Archived from the original on 28 January 2012. Retrieved 22 July 2011.
  6. ^ Albagli, Sarita (December 2017). "Open Science as an instrument for the democratization of knowledge". Trabalho, Educação e Saúde. 15 (3): 659–660. doi:10.1590/1981-7746-sol00093. ISSN 1981-7746.
  7. ^ Admin, Items. "Social Science, Scholarly Knowledge, and the Open". Items. Archived from the original on 1 May 2021. Retrieved 1 May 2021.
  8. ^ EveryLibrary (17 June 2019). "What Controlled Digital Lending does to Make Every Book Available Online". Medium. Archived from the original on 9 July 2021. Retrieved 9 July 2021.
  9. ^ "Top Encyclopedia Sites for Student Research Papers". Archived from the original on 24 September 2019. Retrieved 24 September 2019.
  10. ^ a b Wallace, D. P.; Van Fleet, C. (2005). "The Democratization of Information?". Reference & User Services Quarterly. 45 (2): 100–103. JSTOR 20864471.
  11. ^ a b Cohen, D. (2014). "An evolving, essential role for libraries". Knight Foundation. Archived from the original on 23 August 2021. Retrieved 23 August 2021.
  12. ^ Ryynänen, Mirja (n.d.). Democratization of Information: Information Literacy. Archived 18 February 2015 at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ Kademani, B.S. (2004). Democratization of Information: Focus on Libraries. Rapportuer- General’s Report. Archived 18 February 2015 at the Wayback Machine
  14. ^ Kranich, Nancy (Spring 2001). "Quotes about Libraries and Democracy". American Library Association. Archived from the original on 5 October 2022. Retrieved 16 March 2023.