Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Can a New Research Library Be All-Digital?

In an introductory piece to the collection containing this article, Charles Henry, president of the Council on Library and Information Resources, adopts a stratospheric perspective on the historical development of information. Citing the work of Stephen Toulmin, Henry proposes that we are at moment of critical change from an information ideal of Platonic abstractions that arose at the dawn of the Western intellectual tradition, to a new age in which information is dependent on circumstances and contingencies.

With this as its starting point, the article in question takes digitized information as one species of the new trends and explores its viability by speculating on whether an all-digital library would be possible now. The study that unfolds is a collection-centered evaluation of library services in the future. In terms of collection building, there is a critical divide between books and articles. Articles are, to a large extent already, in digital form already, and there is no reason why they should not transfer almost entirely into that format. Indeed, ease of retrieval through multiple interfaces, windows, and steps in the current SFX technology is a problem that has perhaps not been fully addressed by librarians--certainly not in our discussion. Yet, there is no reason to think that technological fixes for these problems will be available in short order. Books are much more intractable. Currently, the e-book technology has proven unattractive for numbers of independent reasons. These include the fact that publishers do not make them available through interlibrary loan, thus making them much less accessible than print now. The technology of readers of e-books is limited with many problems adapting to various kinds of formats. Readers are currently expensive and lack features for annotating text which many patrons want. A much cited study at Princeton University found e-books unpopular for these reasons. Supposing that these immediate technological problems could be solved, readers do not allow the same ease of sustained reading as print books, nor the ability to have multiple books open simultaneously, nor the capacity to scan. There are also cultural barriers from faculty who are attached to printed books and librarians who are unable to adapt their workflows and practices to processing e-books.

A concern that embraces all forms of digital information is their permanence, an issue that is central to the identity of libraries which, from their inception, were regarded as repositories of information. Supposing that books could be transferred into digital form, how can their permanence be guaranteed? Access is as uncertain as the duration of contracts until ultimately lies with the information provider. The material durability of the new form of information is unknown as well as that of the reading technology.

The access and cost of digital information has formed a significant tension between information providers on the one hand who wish to maximize their profits and libraries on the other which wish to maximize use (at minimal cost). The drive to resist the demands of information providers is one force behind the organization of libraries into consortia who can demand prices for journal subscriptions as well as e-books.

Questions of cost and accessibility have also promoted an uneasy and nascent relationship between faculty and librarians. Faculty, under continual pressure to publish have found the opportunity diminishing as peer-reviewed print journals get more selective (as a result of having their market share squeezed out by digitized information). Digital information does not yet have the same authority in the academy. In theory, the opportunity exists for universities and librarians to circumvent information providers by self-publishing in digital or print form. Yet, there are barriers to this too. On the faculty side, there is a resistance to any outside element involving itself in the practice of scholarship and questions of authority. On the library side, the technology, expertise and organization do not yet exist for digital publishing.

In terms of building design, a digital collection implies that library space will be much reduced. There is simply no reason for the extensive space required by a physical collection with the significant cost of upkeep.

The reduction of physical space implies a reduction in personnel. The paper sees the public services staff significantly reduced and fused with technical specialists who will be able to present digitized information in new ways and make it more accessible to users. The outlook for technical services is more grim. The centralized cataloging and metadata services established and a lowered standard of "good enough" adopted, there will be no place for technical services as we know it.

A digitized collection also has implications for patrons. The sciences are seen to be much more advanced in the use of digital information than the humanities which are characterized as being "on the same trajectory" but not as far along. For one reason, the humanities, practically and philosophically, are much more attached to books for which digitization is currently more difficult. This difference between academic areas is readily apparent to any teacher of EndNote, a bibliographic manager, for whom the students are overwhelmingly from the sciences. Could it be that the near future of librarianship will lie with the humanities?

The paper closes with a review of case studies featuring California's own UC Merced and Cal State Channel Islands campuses.

The prospects held out by the paper are not reassuring, at least not from the vantage point of stability. But they are not without a silver lining. Clearly librarianship is located at a nexus of great need by many inter-dependent constituencies. Information providers, for all their exasperating prices need librarians to disseminate information. Librarians need digitization in the face of shrinking budgets. Researchers need information. Nobody is in charge of the landscape that is opening up under these conditions. However, one constraint of the interesting times in which we live is that a passive attitude is not an option. If librarians do not take steps to determine their fate, some other interested party will do it for them. As the saying goes, "Power goes to those who know what they want." And it is only by much greater organization and unity that librarians will gain the self-awareness to find the goals they want and develop a machinery for reaching them.

Spiro, Lisa, and Geneva Henry. "Can a New Research Library Be All-Digital?". Washington D.C.: Council on Library and Information Resources, 2010.

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