Redefining the Library in the Digital Age

Redefining the Library in the Digital Age
▪ 2008

George M. Eberhart   By 2007 most libraries in the developed world had an online catalog, a Web site, dozens of public-access computers, and electronic resources that their patrons could use around the clock from home. Many public, academic, and school libraries offered wireless Internet, answered reference questions by e-mail or instant messaging, and maintained blogs and collaborative Web sites to keep users informed. Some libraries even circulated portable media devices loaded with local content, created their own timely podcasts and Web videos, and digitized their unique image collections and made them available online.

      In the midst of this rising sea of electronic data, libraries nonetheless retained their traditional mission to collect, organize, preserve, and distribute information, and they continued to advise patrons on how best to make use of it. Books and periodicals were still on the shelves, and (often redesigned) buildings were as important as ever. Librarians continued to reshape their roles with new tools and skills as they learned to offer resources beyond the traditional ink-on-paper variety.

Goals and Challenges.
      Obtaining or subscribing to digital content from other organizations and providing that content to a library's users were often very expensive, and libraries confronted formidable obstacles as they digitized their collections. The process demanded time and money in a realm of limited resources. Once a project was funded, librarians had to make numerous decisions regarding the selection of materials, the means of scanning or converting them into digital files, the format of those files, the nature and extent of metadata (i.e., descriptive information) tagging, the conventions for naming files, and many other technical matters.

      The process was fairly straightforward for books, but historical documents, photographs, and video and audio materials presented more problems. Choosing sustainable formats for digital files, for example, was an ongoing challenge. Early documents that had been “preserved” by using proprietary formats could in too many instances no longer be read as the hardware or software became obsolete. In 2007 the tagged image file format (TIFF) was the de facto standard for archival image masters. The Joint Photographic Experts Group's JPEG 2000 standard, however, though not supported by most Web browsers, offered improved compression and richer metadata embedding and was a candidate to supplant TIFF files for archiving. Audio formats remained in a state of flux, although waveform files were common for masters and MP3 files were often used for listening.

      When considering the host of options, librarians could refer to materials provided by the American Library Association and the National Information Standards Organization. Some institutions with extensive ongoing programs, such as the University of Maryland, published useful tips on applying metadata and managing projects. Colorado's Collaborative Digitization Program offered guidance to librarians planning to launch a digital project.

Digital Libraries.
      Broadly defined, a digital library is any collection of texts, sounds, or images stored in a digital format. The Digital Library Federation, a group of research libraries actively working on digitization projects, defined them more strictly as “organizations that provide the resources, including the specialized staff, to select, structure, offer intellectual access to, interpret, distribute, preserve the integrity of, and ensure the persistence over time of collections of digital works.” Digital libraries were developed by specialists to preserve and provide access to cultural objects for a specified audience.

      Project Gutenberg, which began in 1971, was one of the earliest digital libraries. By early 2007 the project offered at no charge more than 22,000 public-domain e-books—mostly literary, historical, and scientific works—scanned, proofread, and uploaded by hundreds of volunteer contributors.

      The Google Book Search Library Project became perhaps the best-known digital library. The project was begun in 2004 by search-engine company Google in cooperation with a large international group of research libraries, despite concerns by opponents over copyright issues. Using sophisticated equipment, the company scanned public-domain books from the libraries' collections and made them available online—full-text and fully searchable. Works still in copyright appeared only in fragmented “snippet” form; publishers and authors fought in court any uncompensated use of copyrighted material.

      The nonprofit Internet Archive was founded in 1996 by Internet entrepreneur Brewster Kahle as an online collection of Web and multimedia resources. The archive operated the Wayback Machine, which offered snapshots of at least 85 billion Web pages from 1996, and hosted the Open-Access Text Archive, a collection of more than 250,000 freely accessible books, articles, and texts contributed by research libraries and individuals.

      The Library of Congress (LC) actively curated digital multimedia, beginning with its American Memory project, which started as a pilot in 1990 and which by 2007 contained more than nine million items in some 100 thematic collections that document American history and culture. Many images found in LC's Prints and Photographs Division were also retrievable online. From 2000 the library played a leadership role in the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program, a collaborative effort to ensure that digital materials remained accessible as technologies changed. In January 2007 the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation awarded LC a $2 million grant to digitize at-risk brittle books in its general collection as well as such important American imprints as county, state, and regimental (Civil War) histories. Even with additional funds, however, perhaps only 10% of the library's vast collection was expected to be digitized in the foreseeable future.

      Laying the groundwork for a European digital collection was the European Library, a consortium of national institutions that offered varying degrees of access to their collections. One member, the British Library, independently digitized many of its rare holdings, including quarto editions of Shakespeare's plays and the oldest printed book, the Diamond Sutra, produced in China in 868.

Online Serials.
      As scholarly journals became more expensive and accumulated, consuming vast amounts of shelf space, many libraries were forced by shrinking budgets to cancel print subscriptions and discard bulky bound volumes. Services such as the nonprofit JSTOR offered full-text search and access to hundreds of scholarly journal backfiles; the subscribing institutions offered their communities digital access to these. Libraries usually paid an annual access fee for such services. Another service, Project MUSE, offered aggregations of current electronic subscriptions to journals and reference works from participating publishers. No single service suited all scholarly and reference needs, and associations and publishers not infrequently changed services or offered plans limited to their own publications.

      Changes in circumstances could mean the loss of access to materials that had been previously available. Libraries retained control over digital subscriptions through the LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe) program—free open-source software developed by Stanford University Libraries and released in 2004. LOCKSS (and a companion program, CLOCKSS, or Controlled LOCKSS) generated local copies of journal content to ensure that libraries, with the permission of participating publishers, retained the right to preserve access to journals even after an electronic subscription was canceled. It also allowed for format migration, so that digital content would not become trapped in obsolescent data formats.

      Libraries in the digital age expanded vastly beyond their walls to become an ever-growing part of the virtual world while retaining their brick-and-mortar homes. New challenges arose as essential funding remained scarce and digital formats continued to evolve and leave behind unreadable artifacts. Nevertheless, libraries and allied organizations remained dedicated to providing access to information resources in all their forms, creating more digital assets, and ensuring their preservation.

George M. Eberhart is Manager of Online News Resources for American Libraries, the magazine of the American Library Association.

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Universalium. 2010.

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