Library Issues

Editor: Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan, Ann P. Dougherty
Contributing Editors: Mignon Adams, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia; Steve Marquardt, South Dakota State University; William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Maureen Pastine, Temple University


Vol. 20, No. 4 March 2000


Unrealistic Expectations
of Digitizing Libraries

by Maureen Pastine, Jean Dorrian and Ann Dougherty

In the last few years, many academic librarians have been asked probing questions by administrators and governing bodies of their institutions. These questions often include:

Today, there is growing competition in knowledge management. Our users enjoy an increasing wealth and breadth of knowledge available to them beyond local on-site holdings, and via multiple electronic access points not available even a few short years ago. Some of this has led to misinformation and misconceptions on the part of our users and administrators.

Expertise of Librarians Still Necessary

Today there are many that believe libraries are becoming warehouses for outdated print materials. However, there is still a need for quality information and quality service in providing of that information that digital libraries have not yet resolved.

Librarians, library physical facilities, and resources, in many formats, including print, are still necessary. There is still a real concern about the lack of bibliographical control in a growing electronic information marketplace. Even so, the majority of librarians do see a need for digital libraries, virtual learning centers, and changes in the way we conduct our business.

Academic costs are skyrocketing and resources are stretched beyond the limit. The library is evolving; it is in the process of an evolutionary change at the same time that its role and expanding needs are under intense scrutiny. The expertise of staff needed in a complex, technological environment is leading to stresses and pressures unheard of less than a decade ago. Change is not only necessary; it requires a far more rapid ability to revamp and re-direct how we do things. We do need to be far more conversant in how scholars communicate, in emerging technologies, site licensing, and intellectual property and copyright. We need to be re-thinking methods of assessment and value – more on quality of resources and services than on quantitative assessments of on-site holdings. We do need to question whether or not it is necessary for libraries to retain a physical and intellectual presence in the same manner as in the past.

Although much information is now available in digital format over the Web, electronic libraries are still mostly an anticipated future rather than a resolution for burgeoning shelves of print books and journals. In their report 2001:A Space Reality, Kaufman and Mitchell state:

“For library directors faced with fast-shrinking space or with outdated and hard-to-use space, the traditional arguments for justifying their requests for additional space are now complicated by the growing expectations of funding agents—university administrators, boards of trustees, state higher education commissions, and legislators. These agents are increasingly of the opinion that the ‘virtual library’ or ‘libraries without walls’ are fast approaching. Fueled by the prospect of ‘saving’ multi-millions of dollars in building costs, these funding agents are seizing upon the very phrases we use in our profession to mean something quite different as they struggle to understand why libraries need more space if there are to be no more books”1

It is true, however, that we could well be in the early stages of a transformation that will lead to libraries needing less space in future years. Remote users are becoming more sophisticated in their ability to access information from a distance. More scholarly information is being made available online. In addition, we continue to hear more about access over ownership. But we are not yet ready to accept the totally virtual library, and probably won’t be for quite some time.

Problems with Electronic Communication

There are still many problems with electronic communication in the scholarly world that need to be overcome before fully digitized libraries are possible. These obstacles include issues of:

Obsolescence of Hardware and Software. Since we have not yet fully developed standards necessary to ensure quality access and preservation in a digital environment, obsolescence of hardware and software is a serious problem. Emulation software and hardware and related standards are problematic, as technology is changing so rapidly that few libraries can manage to keep up.

“In addition,
enhanced ways to provide quality instruction
and intermediaries to interpret and help users in their search
for really quality information should not
be underestimated.”

If new hardware and software cannot emulate earlier forms of that same hardware and software used to contain information, we cannot assume that the information in new digital and electronic formats will also not be lost. We need openly integratable software applications, and industry standards that are truly “device independent.” Many libraries, however, are relying more and more on access and document delivery over ownership. Someday there may be one or more central repositories of electronic information with common search languages, data structures, and communication protocols. But without standards, problems will ensue. There is a growing need for improved and widespread use of standards, enhanced search engines for the digital environment, and improved bibliographic control of the net’s resources. In addition, enhanced ways to provide quality instruction and intermediaries to interpret and help users in their search for really quality information should not be underestimated. Networks and telecommunications systems can still fail often enough to make our users want to be sure that information backups exist in case the electronics fail.

Libraries are gradually shifting from investment in the physical presence of information to the creation of digital access, but there are many serious concerns because of proprietary hardware and software that does not make it easy to share information across systems.

Existing search engines are imprecise bringing a jumble of information, much of which is not relevant to the users’ needs. Standards need to be addressed here too – how best to find the relevant information, how to assess the quality of that information, and then how to use that information in building new and enriched knowledge bases. Compatibility of networks is also essential.

Preservation and Archiving. Technology today has not yet resolved the problems related to preservation and archiving. Karen Kaplan, in “A Vision for the Past,” says “Part of the problem is that storage media, such as magnetic tapes, computer disks and CD-ROMS, may turn out to be far less durable over the long term than originally presumed… Plus, tapes and disks could be rendered unreadable sooner if the computers and other machines needed to play them are not retained or kept in working condition.”2

Preservation of the world’s scientific and cultural heritage in digital form over decades of changing software and hardware is imperative, particularly if much of the original, more traditional print resources, are discarded. Metadata management and control in a digital environment is just as important as it is in a print world. We need structured information about information. The inadequate techniques of organizing primary information in the traditional physical library are exacerbated in a digital environment. What we need is a way to browse and access multi-formatted, multidisciplinary digital information in an integrated way. Digital works of enduring value need to be preserved just as printed works have long been preserved by research libraries.

Need for Authenticity and Authority. One problem with current digital formats relates to the need for preservation of the original format to ensure “authenticity and authority” Another problem is to ensure that retrospective runs for older bound journals remain until the problem of long-term insurability of “electronic archiving” is in place. Few electronic journals are in full-text format earlier than 1980. Often the books in the public domain that have been made accessible in electronic format over networks or in CD-ROM are not the first editions. This means they so not represent original text and graphics which is still, to most researchers, an important part of the scholarly value of the works. CD-ROM itself is a popular current technology that may not be around in the next decade, and how this material will be “refreshed” into newer technologies replacing CD-ROM is not yet clear.

“We will still need
people who understand information needs,
not just people who build and program computers and networks.
The digital world should not be driven by the desire
for the latest technological equipment and software,
but by the needs of people who have
life-long learning needs.”

Issues of “Public Domain” and “Fair Use.” Much of what is published today in electronic format does not allow us “public domain” use and reproduction or even “fair use” access in the current electronic environment. Some publishers believe that “fair use” provisions of copyright law should not extend to electronic products.3 Librarians believe they should. A few major partnerships are being formed, however, to explore and promote cost effective strategies and models for managing higher education’s global scholarly communication for the future. Even so, electronic publishing, as of yet, is not cheaper nor a total resolution to organizing, preserving, distributing, and building a new “electronic knowledge environment.” What that means is that there is “closure” in paper, but not yet in the digital environment.

Organizing Digital Information for Best Usage. We will still need people who understand information needs, not just people who build and program computers and networks. The digital world should not be driven by the desire for the latest technological equipment and software, but by the needs of people who have life-long learning needs. The technologies should be considered enablers to improve upon, enhance, and enrich access to intellectual growth and development. Our electronic information resources must be of value, and we must be able to apply indexing and cataloging standards and practices to them too. Digital libraries must provide a coherent access to a large, organized repository of information and knowledge, with the assurance that the hardware, software, networking, and printing capabilities are built with standards that are not proprietary and that ensure continued access to older information, as well as to the new.

Much of the digital library of today has a vast amount of objects and information under a huge range of subjects, often poorly organized, with variable quality and stability. Much is out of date, or will go out of date quickly. It is difficult to browse, search, filter, or reference. Web sites can be reliable but many are still inaccurate, outdated, biased, and they often just disappear.

Strength of the Print Culture

The print culture is still very strong. Most researchers, students, and scholars do access electronic information but “reading” substantive books and journal articles online is still a seldom occurrence. Although some do feel that printed books may become obsolete, the printing press replaced hand lettering because it was a more efficient production mechanism. Books on paper vs. access to books on a computer screen is a matter of distribution. Both forms are being produced by electronic typesetting and no one has demonstrated that anyone prefers to read a computer screen.4

Most Holdings not Electronic

Today’s technologies are no different than many previous new technologies. They have not displaced traditional formats (e.g., microforms and audiovisual resources did not assume the place of print collections just as television did not displace radio) but have instead enhanced and expanded the many formats of resources and methods of information access provided by libraries. For an example of this, just look at the holdings of the libraries that make up the Association of Research Libraries. These libraries represent over 1 billion holdings of which 43 percent is printed paper; 44 percent is microforms; and 13 percent is manuscripts, maps, audiovisual materials, and computer files. While ARL represents a relatively small subset (120 members of which 109 are university libraries) of all academic libraries in North America, it accounts for a large portion of the academic library resources in terms of assets, budgets, and user populations. These academic libraries, in particular, feel a strong responsibility to act as “preservation agents” of their combined holdings, particularly those unique to each institution. Most of their holdings are not yet, nor will they soon be, primarily in electronic format as many would have us believe.

However, electronic document delivery, i.e., faxing over the networks, downloading and printing off-line the electronic journal articles and reserve readings in support of classroom assignments is also quite popular today. Also popular for use by these same library users are the online indexes/abstracts and popular reference tools, quick facts and newspaper/magazine accounts, and e-mail and listservs that do not require the same amount of time to read and understand as the more scholarly or substantive journals and books.

New Resources Mean New Challenges

New electronic resources have expanded the information available and accessible to the library user, placing a greater emphasis on “access” rather than on “local holdings.” While these resources have opened up a far richer and more global information world, to the library user, they have also presented new problems and new ways and challenges to deal with information services, resources, and operations.5

So, although information technologies continue to improve, enhance, and expand our resources and services, they do not displace the framework within which the library operates and the rationale that informs its activity. A “virtual library” is not a “library without wall/space”— it is an extension, a new dimension, that expands the functionality of the library as we have known it in the past.


1Paula T. Kaufman and Aubrey H. Mitchell, SPEC Flyer 200: 2001: A Space Reality: Strategies for Obtaining Funding for New Library Space, (Washington, D.C.: Association of Research Libraries, September 10, 1996, p. 3)
2Karen Kaplan, “A Vision for the Past,” Archive Section of the LA Times. 32 (Monday, February 16, 1998). Home Edition, ID: 0980015626 Business Section.
3Lisa Guernsey, “Exploring the Future of Electronic Books and Journals,” Information Technology [section], The Chronicle of Higher Education, (June 19, 1998, p.1).
4For an interesting read on this, see Walt Crawford and Michael Gorman, Future Libraries: Dreams, Madness, & Reality, (Chicago: ALA, 1995.)
5For more information see: Laura Larsson in “Virtual Library Implementation: Problems, Opportunities and Issues for Today’s Librarian” ( The site provides needs and issues to be addressed in our growing digital information environment.


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last modified: 07 Feb 2000

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