Transformations – Digital Libraries

rubin_fullsize_rgbIn Chapter 4 of Foundations of Library and Information Science, Richard Rubin explores the history of technology in libraries from microform to early bibliographic retrieval systems on through the development of the Internet, Web 2.0, and finally the emergence of digital libraries. This last Rubin neglects to really define. We are not given a concise definition of digital libraries. Instead, we are treated to explanations of the characteristics of a digital library, and mostly from the work of Karen Calhoun, author of Exploring Digital Libraries.

Calhoun defines digital libraries as basically the extension of physical library services into digital space. In other words, digital libraries are meant to be freely accessible like traditional libraries, as well as structured similarly in terms of bibliographic storage and retrieval. Furthermore, digital libraries – according to Calhoun and Rubin – should be interoperable, focused on community engagement, aware of intellectual property issues, and sustainable. Drilling down into these issues a bit more…

  • Interoperable. Interoperability refers to the ability to search the digital library’s collection on a variety of technological devices, as well as being able to integrate with other library systems.
  • Community engagement. This simply refers to the need to base the digital library around a specific user group, ensuring that the digital library’s collection is useful to its users, as well as intuitive and user-friendly. The digital library cannot be mystifying, especially since there may not be reference help via a chat function available during all operational hours. Chat reference may not be guaranteed for all digital libraries.
  • Intellectual property rights. Out of the four key elements identified by Calhoun, intellectual property issues are a bugbear for digital libraries. Indeed, the digital environment creates new challenges to the areas of licensing and use rights. Out of all the issues confronting digital libraries, this is liable to be the trickiest after the digital library is online and functional.
  • Sustainability. This refers to the ability to manage the digital library in much the same ways as an institutional library. For instance, things like management roles, budgeting, managing subscriptions, curating content, database maintenance (including hardware and software development, and webmastering), providing proper oversight in terms of rules and regulations for users, etc. These are all things that a digital library “staff” will have to address.

Rubin goes from the early online digital collection of images or images of artifacts to the born digital resources of today. This vague idea plays out across the field of emerging LIS. I am not quite sure why Rubin talks about early online collections of photos as a precursor to his discussion of digital libraries. I think we can easily distinguish between mere collections of something, like photos for example, and a “library of photos.” Rubin himself said that there were no standards in these early collections for searching and retrieving. There was a lot of entropy involved instead. A library collection, on the other hand, is a collection that is ordered, described, and made easily accessible when searched.

I think Rubin was closer to hitting the mark for a concise definition of digital libraries in his previous chapter; Chapter 3 on libraries as institutions. At the end of that chapter, Rubin talked about embedded librarians. Indeed, I am wondering if a digital library can even be considered a “library” unless it has an embedded library staff available during operational hours. I know we have been seeing a trend toward self-sufficiency when it comes to users and library services, but if there is not an embedded librarian present in a digital library to assist users, we are looking at more of a third-party service rather than an institutional model. At which point, even referring to a digital library as a library is questionable in my opinion.

It is difficult to determine what Rubin thinks of these transformations, and in particular, of digital libraries. He writes in such a straightforward style that the facts are presented to us with little opinion or bias. A good thing. However, this chapter ends with more questions than solutions, and the lining feels quite cautionary. Indeed, it seems that the concern with digital libraries revolves around the fear of data volatility and the ever-changing nature of digital technology. Are digital libraries a viable model for the long-term preservation of a collection? Will they last hundreds (maybe thousands) of years like their traditional counterparts? Or will digital libraries not even make it halfway to the 22nd century? Digital obsolescence remains a frightful possibility, even after all the advancements in storage and computer back-up technology.

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