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. 6 July 2000


Are We Ready for the Virtual Library?

by Mignon Adams

Is the virtual library here? Almost. Most academic libraries have made considerable progress towards the virtual library and its benefits, but there are institutional commitments that will be required before the promise becomes
a reality.

The way that most of us access information has completely changed since the Web was developed in 1993. Before, we might have visited or phoned a library when we wanted to know statistics on higher education or the date of the founding of Rome. But now we turn first to the Web. At our fingertips is instant access to far more information than was ever dreamed possible only a short time ago.

This wealth of information—a virtual library on our desktops—has led to speculation that the traditional library is no longer needed. We can toss out the books and turn the building into classrooms. Tempting as this scenario might be on campuses struggling for space, it will not take place in the near future and perhaps never will. But progress towards a virtual library can be made now.

Academic administrators may find aspects of the virtual library compelling. Electronic publications do not need to be shelved and housed in expensive buildings. Resources can be made available either on or off campus, at any hour—no more complaints about library hours. Even though electronic resources have proven to be more expensive, not less, there is still the hope that at some point costs will be lower. And perhaps fewer personnel will be needed to provide the virtual library.

Students consistently prefer electronic materials to print and increasingly feel that if it’s not accessible on their computers then it doesn’t exist. They don’t even have to visit the library to use electronic products, and students by and large think they are experts in using anything that’s net-accessible.

But until the virtual library can be a reality on college campuses, a number of issues need to be addressed:

The Virtual Library Collection

Online Journals. In 1995—just two years after the Web appeared—two notable efforts were launched. JBC (Journal of Biological Chemistry) offered libraries online subscriptions, and was the first of HighWire Press’s now 180 electronic scientific publications. Also in that year, Johns Hopkins University Press made available its journals as part of Project Muse. Commercial publishers were slower to follow, but now a high percentage of scholarly publications are available in electronic form as well as in print.

At the beginning, hopes and expectations were that by using the Internet for dissemination, research journals—or at least their content—could be available free or at lower cost. Some steps have been taken in that direction. The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), spearheaded by members of the Association of Research Libraries, hopes to return a major portion of scholarly publishing to professional societies and organizations, with concurrent low costs. Many of the scientific journals mounted by HighWire Press provide back issues free. NASA has ensured that articles from major astronomy journals are available to researchers at no cost. At the same time, commercial publishers are developing new electronic features and strategies in order to maintain their market share. Can scholars take back their literature from the commercial domain? Perhaps, at least in part, but for-profit publishing, and for-profit pricing, appears to be strongly entrenched at this time.

A problem still yet to be solved is that of archiving. Librarians have been reluctant to cancel print subscriptions for fear that back issues of periodicals may in the future be unavailable. Publishers may go out of business. Computer systems may change so that files readable today may not be tomorrow. The problem is being addressed. JSTOR, funded by Mellon, is compiling massive back runs of journals. OCLC promises to archive the electronic journals it makes available, and to transfer the digital files to subscribing libraries if the business venture closes down. While the final answer has not yet been determined, every library does not keep every periodical it owns in print form “just in case.”

Online Books. Many, if not most, reference books are now available either in CD-ROM or web-accessible versions. Directories and encyclopedias are clearly superior online for their ease in updating, their graphic capabilities, and the opportunity to link from one topic to another. For example, Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine, the most highly regarded textbook for internal medicine, can be accessed through the web. Unlike its print counterpart (now in its 14th edition), it is updated monthly and includes links to clinical reviews and reports of clinical trials. In its electronic version, this venerable textbook does a far better job of keeping your internist up to date and informed. Printed reference works like the long-revered Encyclopedia Britannica may be short-lived.

But what about monographic works? Several years ago the National Academy of Science began to make their publications available online. Their rationale was that if someone read part of a book that way, he or she might then purchase the entire work…but would not read the whole work online. With the development of portable electronic books, and screens becoming more readable as flicker decreases, it now appears that users may be willing to do their reading online.

“The virtual library cannot come into being just because there is electronic content available. Also needed is infrastructure and equipment.”

NetLibrary is one venture for providing an online book collection to libraries. Within the collection are over 20,000 electronic books. However, a library must select the books ahead of time and only one user can view a book at a time. To librarians used to the kind of access a publisher’s journal collection gives, this approach seems to be based on an outmoded print model. Public libraries are beginning to have portable electronic books available and report that they are very popular. Another group of libraries has been approached for help by a venture capitalist who proposes to create a collection of 250,000 online books that will be marketed directly to college students. The best kind of delivery mechanism for books has yet to be determined, but it is clear that the book collection too can shortly be online.

How close is the content for the virtual library? Very close. Academic libraries could now decide to provide its scholarly journals online, along with most of its reference works. But the virtual library cannot come into being just because there is electronic content available. Also needed is infrastructure and equipment.

Infrastructure and Hardware

In order for electronic resources to be offered on campus, a college must have made a commitment to provide, maintain, and regularly upgrade a stable network. If students and faculty are to rely on electronic access, then they need to be assured that the network will be up and running when they need it, including nights and weekends. Otherwise, it is like a library with indefinite hours. A user cannot accomplish his or her work if he or she does not know if the library will be open upon arrival.

Computers must be readily available. Even if students are required to own their own computers, public access computers should be distributed around campus, and in the library where students can find help.

Technology changes rapidly, so both the network and computers must be upgraded on a regular basis so that users can access fulltext and graphics without interminable waiting periods. The costs of equipment and networking for the virtual library may well be far more than supporting the traditional library.

Remote Access. An important advantage of the virtual library is that users may access it at anytime, and ideally from anyplace. If the institution has a large number of commuting students, or a distance education program, then remote access to electronic resources is essential. Most electronic resources are now available through the web. That is, the library purchases access to the provider’s website, where the resource resides, rather than purchasing the product and installing it on a college-owned computer. Anyone on the Internet anywhere in the world is thus theoretically capable of remote access.

Vendors have had the technical ability to make their products available through the web for some time. However, it has only been relatively recently that they have been willing to do so. Publishers whose revenues depend upon subscriptions have been understandably anxious that by allowing web access to their customers that they may also be making their products available to the entire world with no additional income. Vendors must be assured that the institution purchasing their products is going to allow only its faculty and students to use them. Several different ways of restricting access are currently in use.

Some products are sold by limiting the number of simultaneous users. If an institution purchases the right for, say, five users at one time, then the vendor may not care who those users are. The institution cares, of course, since an illegitimate user takes the place of a legitimate one. The institution may therefore need to set up its own version of limited access.

Another way that vendors may choose to limit access to qualified users is by password. However, one password per information resource soon adds up to multiple passwords to remember, a memory problem most of us already have encountered with bankcards and other accounts.

Many libraries consider that the preferable way of purchasing controlled access is to limit usage to the campus network. Each computer connecting to the Internet has a unique number, the Internet Protocol (IP) number, which might look something like this: An institution with an Internet connection is assigned a range of numbers, or IP range. A vendor’s computer can be set to accept only specified ranges of numbers, so that just a computer whose IP number is within that range can access the website. Anyone on campus can then use the electronic resource without a password. Remote access is still possible, but requires a different strategy.

The easiest way to provide remote access to resources limited by IP range is to set up a “proxy server,” a computer that serves as a proxy on the campus network for an outside computer. When a user dials in to a proxy server and enters a password, then his or her computer is assigned an IP number within the institution’s range and thus can access any resource so limited. Now, only one password is needed to access a number of resources. In addition, the user has full access to any items on the campus network, just as though his or her computer were connected directly to the network.

Setting up a proxy server can be tricky to do, although just within the last year some off-the-shelf software has been developed that may make the process easier. In addition, vendors of integrated library systems (such as Endeavor or Innovative Interfaces) are making available authentication systems.

“It is not unheard of for a proxy server to be set up with no input from the library staff and with no under-standing of the needs for remote access to electronic sources. Special library applications, ...have sometimes been thwarted because of well-meaning concerns about network protection.”

Support from Campus Information Technology. Network and remote access issues must be addressed on a campus-wide basis, not by the library staff alone. Organizational structures for information technology differ from institution to institution, but at most places an information technology (IT) unit is responsible for network maintenance. In order for the virtual library to happen—or for any extensive use of electronic resources—a strong working relationship between the IT unit and the library must exist. On too many campuses this relationship is not an effective one.

IT staff are rightly concerned about the security of their networks. To protect the networks and to prevent unauthorized users or hackers from accessing confidential information, most campus networks have a “firewall” around them. The firewall typically is a port of only one or two IP addresses and all traffic to and from the campus network passes through this port. In this way, access to the campus can be strictly monitored. Proxy servers represent another hole in the firewall, and some IT staff can be anxious about them. Overzealous staff have sometimes hindered valid uses of the network.

It is not unheard of for a proxy server to be set up with no input from the library staff and with no understanding of the needs for remote access to electronic sources. Special library applications, such as the Ariel system for transmitting copies of journal articles over the Internet, have sometimes been thwarted because of well-meaning concerns about network protection. Or the proxy server may be set up so that the browser on the remote computer may need to be reconfigured, an option not possible for, say, a student in a distance education class who is accessing the Internet at a public access computer in a local public library.

In the development of the virtual library on a campus, the IT and library staff must work together and fully understand each other’s concerns. Librarians must make sure that they are knowledgeable about their technical needs and take the initiative in communicating them to the IT unit. Administrators must make clear that the development of library electronic resources is an important campus priority.

Storage Medium. Even though a very large collection of periodical literature is available online, users typically print out the articles they want to read. If an article is printed each time it is to be read, then substantial costs in paper and ink (and even file cabinet storage) are incurred. While libraries have charged for photocopying since they first installed copiers, campuses have traditionally provided printing for students at no cost in computer labs. This is somewhat ironic, since the cost per page of photocopying is actually less than the cost per page of laser copies. In moving towards the virtual library, campuses will need to develop some strategies for print copies. Students, used to free and unlimited copying, will not like either limits or charges, but the alternative is thousands of dollars spent wastefully each year on printing costs.

Library Responsibilities

Even though commitments have been made to provide content, an adequate infrastructure, remote access, and up-to-date equipment, librarians must organize the virtual library and see that both faculty and students have the necessary skills and knowledge to use the virtual library.

Organization. A library is not a library unless it is organized so that its users can find what they are looking for. Physical items can at least be organized physically, but this isn’t possible in cyberspace. Library home pages are the beginning point for finding electronic resources, and most libraries have begun providing them. But more precise organization will make locating items easier for our patrons.

Some librarians catalog electronic items in the same way and in the same catalog that printed items are. Other librarians feel that this approach is too labor-intensive for items that may be here today and gone tomorrow. Since no purchased electronic resource is unique to one library, perhaps some sort of record or set of indexing terms will be made available along with the sale of the resource. Or librarians may prepare directories with search engines, much like Yahoo, which place resources within a subject context as well as allowing for keyword searching. While there are no final answers now, librarians will have the responsibility over the next several years of deciding how electronic materials will be organized and how their users can find them.

Education and Training. Students have always needed guidance and education to be able to select credible information. The Internet is deceptively easy to use, and makes no discrimination between the most authoritative information and the least. Librarians have already taken an active role in teaching students how to evaluate what they’ve found. This instructional role is now more important than ever. Students unfortunately must be taught the difference between a peer-reviewed journal that is provided over the Internet and a high school student’s term paper mounted on

Faculty also must be taught to use resources that are being provided to them in a very different way from the way they are accustomed. Search strategies that seem obvious to librarians are not always so obvious to others. Many librarians meet the need of educating faculty by conducting one-on-one sessions in their offices, but these efforts need to be viewed as ongoing, not just as necessary for a transitional period.

Some institutions with extensive distance education programs feel that they are already providing students with complete electronic support, but either these are usually dependent upon supplemental printed materials or students are not expected to move beyond their textbooks.

Final Thoughts

The virtual library is on its way, not so quickly as many campus administrators might like, but not so far away as many librarians might prefer.

Will the virtual library save money? Probably not, but some costs may be shifted around. Space savings may accrue, but the costs of maintaining the campus infrastructure will probably outstrip those savings. At least so far, prices of electronic materials have been at least the cost of printed ones, and often have been more expensive. But more important is the needs of our users will be better served. The use of computers has never resulted in costs saving overall, but instead have become an irrefutable part of our organizations. The virtual library will be analogous.

For Additional Information An organization with the goal of promoting the journals of scholarly associations. Lists the available back issues available at no cost. Access to fulltext of the major astronomical journals.
Denise K. Magner, “Academics and Industry Issue Pact to Guide the Evolution of Scholarly Publishing.” Chronicle of Higher Education, Wednesday, June 7, 2000. (online version, Website for the JSTOR project, archiving back runs of major journals. Explanation of the archiving solution offered by OCLC A corporation that provides an online collection of books. A discussion of the issues involved in setting up a proxy server.

Mountainside Publishing, Inc. Library Issues: Briefings for Faculty and Administrators (ISSN 0734-3035) is published bimonthly beginning September 1980 by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc., 321 S. Main St., #213, Ann Arbor, MI 48104; (734) 662-3925. Library Issues, Vol. 20, no. 6. 2000 by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc. Subscriptions: $75/one year; $140/two years. Additional subscriptions to same address $25 each/year. Address all correspondence to Library Issues, P.O. Box 8330, Ann Arbor, MI 48107. (Fax: 734-662-4450; E-mail: Subscribers have permission to photocopy articles free of charge for distribution on their own campus. Library Issues is available online with a password at <>

last modified: Sept 2000

Produced by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc.