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10 thoughts on digital libraries: where they're going

13 October 2014   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Gus MacDonald


People have been talking about digital libraries for about a quarter century now, but we still argue about what they are and where they are going.

In Exploring Digital Libraries, I endeavor to sort out both. While I do offer a definition of what the phrase “digital libraries” means in the context of current research and practice, the truth is that myriad diffuse definitions and opinions about digital libraries continue being expressed. 

There are even more perspectives on where digital libraries are going. Last week I asked some colleagues to send me one sentence each on the topic of digital libraries in this time of large-scale, web- and network-driven societal change.  This somewhat kaleidoscopic, crowdsourced blog post is my attempt to weave together what they sent me.

I have arranged their 10 contributions in 4 sections:

  • Digital libraries and the social web: collections to communities?
  • Overcoming barriers and seizing opportunities for transformation
  • “Social” digital libraries, the semantic web and scholarship
  • “Conscious coordination” of strategic actions

Digital libraries and the social web: evolving from collections to communities?

1. “You can see the development of digital libraries from collections of stuff to communities of interest.”
R. David Lankes,  author of The Atlas of New Librarianship

In their first 25 years, digital libraries have demonstrated their value for broadening access to content, supporting the free flow of ideas, and empowering and informing individuals.  

Today, in the context of the participatory web and a highly networked society, digital libraries of all types can also underpin community-based creation, annotation, contribution, sharing, re-use and re-aggregations of content. 

2. “Some library attempts to apply social web concepts and tools are failing, because they merely promote what libraries are doing, instead of using these new tools to establish and maintain relationships, or to help their communities do what they want to do.
Carol Diedrichs, Vice Provost and Director of University Libraries, Ohio State University

Digital libraries have tended to offer simple, read-only information access to collections. As the web has evolved into a more social place, users have come to expect more interactive, community-centered sites. Attracting and growing active online communities will require disassembling digital libraries’ traditional collections-centered focus.     

3. “Public libraries need to convert their highly engaged users (30% according to the U.S. Pew Research Center) into digital user communities that are involved in co-creating library-related information in various domains.”
Maurits van der Graaf,  senior consultant for Pleiade Management and Consultancy

Digital library crowdsourcing takes advantage of the collective efforts and intelligence of online communities. The crowdsourcing model aggregates talent and leverages ingenuity while reducing the costs and time needed to create valuable content, correct errors, or solve large-scale problems.

Examples of promising results include the Europeana 1914-1918 initiative, the digital program for historic newspapers of the National Library of Australia’s Trove service, and an online initiative to crowdsource the georeferencing of historical maps

Overcoming barriers and seizing opportunities for transformation

4. “Digital libraries will begin to realize their full potential when the librarians who build them accept two propositions: first, that digital collections should be built with the needs and practices of end users (rather than librarians) in mind, and second, that public-domain materials should be made as freely and openly available to the public as possible.”
Rick Anderson, Associate Dean for Scholarly Resources & Collections at University of Utah; contributor to the Scholarly Kitchen

New technologies and web-based practices for information seeking, learning, teaching, research, professional recognition, work, recreation and socializing provide a framework that offers the possibility to shift the focus and core assumptions of digital libraries in favor of new ways of thinking about services, expectations and levels of community involvement.

In this context, it has become a pressing matter for libraries to embrace both the web’s “principles of participation” and those of open access. 

5. “HathiTrust is a game-changer for everything … enabling the protection of the past as well as the ability to take the future in different directions.” 
Sarah Pritchard, Dean of Libraries, Northwestern University; editor, portal: Libraries and the Academy

At 2011 digitization rates, the HathiTrust Digital Library was projected to duplicate 60% of the retrospective collections of the 125 North American libraries that make up the Association of Research Libraries by June 2014.  

It is beginning to look as if services based on mass-digitization of books, if tested in litigation in U.S. courts, will be deemed fair uses of this content, based on the most recent decisions in the Authors Guild v. HathiTrust case.

Eventual removal of some or many of the current legal obstacles has the potential to transform how not only legacy library collections, but current ones are managed and shared, not to speak of enabling innovative uses for more people in more places and contexts.

6. “Many research libraries persist in investing the lion’s share of time and resources in the management of print collections; they must shift the balance to respond to the emergence of innovative digital scholarship and its requirements, such as research data management.”
Sarah Thomas, formerly Bodley’s Librarian; presently Vice President for the Harvard Library

The social dimension of library sustainability involves visibility, community awareness and perceived relevance. The strategic agendas for digital and traditional libraries must merge; it simply makes no sense to continue separate, parallel lines of development.

All research library collections and services must operate and demonstrate their value in the context of today’s web and emerging new requirements for scholarship. 

“Social” digital libraries, the semantic web and scholarship

7. “The core assumption that a digital library will be a destination site on the web is rapidly shifting in face of the realization that digital libraries must  be integrated more fully with the web, web technologies, and how and where people seek for information. The whole Europeana concept—distributing open, aggregated data into other systems so it can be found and used in many different ways—is a fascinating path into the future.” 
Jennifer Younger, Executive Director, Catholic Research Resources Alliance

A requirement for today’s digital libraries is full integration with the web on two fronts: with how different communities work, learn, and play on the web; and with web technology as it evolves.

As the social web’s impact is felt, digital libraries must commit to not only fully understanding (and designing for) their audiences, but also to openly disclosing their content and services in many external contexts (for both humans and machines). 

8. “Libraries are rapidly emerging as physical and intellectual centers of digital scholarship, offering support and resources for exploring networks of linked open data repositories containing content of high scholarly value and conforming to semantic web rules and standards.” 
Stephen Griffin, Visiting Professor and Mellon Cyberscholar, University of Pittsburgh School of Information Sciences

An outcome of the first two decades of digital libraries was a keen understanding of the importance of techniques and infrastructure supporting interoperability and linking across disparate web resources and sites. Today’s “third wave” of digital library researchers and practitioners are contributing substantially to the work to build linked datasets and contribute them to the semantic web of data. For the thousands of repositories now supporting scholarship, the promise of this work is an interconnected ecology of web-based data resources offering substantial new functionalities to users.  This purposively-coordinated scholarly information environment will naturally promote collaborative work, data stewardship and support altogether new models of scholarly communication across disciplines. 

9. “Systematic assignment of ORCID identifiers to researchers of their academic institutes will revolutionize the contents recruitment for institutional repositories as this will enable harvesting from publication platforms and relieve the researchers of a large part of the burden of depositing.”
Maurits van der Graaf

ORCID (Open Contributor and Researcher ID) is a non-proprietary, independent registry to enable global, centralized author identification and provide a transparent method of linking research activities and outputs to these identifiers.

The initiative began in 2009, and as of this writing, there are over 820,000 ORCID IDs in existence. The ORCID effort has the potential for a large-scale uptake of linkable identifiers by scholars and significant advancement of a global infrastructure supporting scholarly communications.

If it succeeds (and along the way, makes the many disparate researcher identification systems around the world more interoperable), it will be a massive force for advancing not just scholarly networking, but also deposit rates for institutional repositories (as suggested above) and furthermore, the feasibility of a semantic, global web of remixable scholarly data. 

“Conscious coordination” of strategic actions

10. “The portion of the scholarly and cultural record that a single digital library can hope to collect and make available is growing smaller as the volume, diversity and complexity of digital content increases and custodial responsibility expands. To provide local access to the full scholarly and cultural record, more trusted relationships across organizations and “conscious coordination” of collecting and stewardship will be needed.”

Brian Lavoie, Research Scientist, OCLC;  co-chair,  Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access

Most digital libraries continue to operate from a traditional, siloed, collections-centered service model. Strategic visions for collective action across libraries are the exception rather than the rule.

After more than two decades of research and practice, digital libraries are moving to the mainstream, but the digital libraries we need in the future may not resemble digital libraries as they have been.

The social web and emergent forms of digital scholarship open the door to new possibilities; seizing them will require community-centered strategies, collective approaches and cooperative infrastructure that are aligned with the large changes shaping the web and society. 

About the author

Karen Calhoun is a librarian, writer and international speaker with wide-ranging experience leading libraries in the digital age. She has directed strategic initiatives at Cornell, OCLC and the University of Pittsburgh.


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