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.

The Organization of Knowledge: Then and Now

There are two traditional classification schemes for the organization of information. These we know fairly well. They are the Dewey Decimal System and Library of Congress Classification System (LCCS). They are still used where the physical organization of library materials are concerned. But these systems and the logic they are based on have become problematized in our Internet age.

It is the growth of the Internet, and the ever-increasing diversity of electronic resources that have spurred the need for change in organizing knowledge resources. Traditional catalogs, like the LCCS, relied on Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) that were confined to subject disciplines. LCSH were relatively static, and they greatly restricted the number of access points that subject searches would yield. Thus, LCSH does not facilitate greater resource or knowledge discovery, which our twenty-first century explosion of information demands.

The work of Information Science professionals has turned to seeing a need to base the creation of bibliographic records on an entity relationship model. By grouping all like-resources together in terms of a derivative concept or title, the process of resource discovery can be greatly enhanced.

New organizational methods and standards put in place by the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records (FRBR) and Resource Description and Access (RDA) are meant to streamline the process of resource discovery and make the bibliographic universe more easily navigable. The new languages designed by these frameworks embody a larger network of resources, not just traditional analog materials like books. By cataloging the “work, expression, manifestation, or item,” bibliographic subjects take on a whole new meaning and gain interrelationships with other format-specific materials.


FRBR and RDA is quite ingenious. For example, databases that have these four types of entities cataloged can yield search results that cross institutional boundaries. Indeed, if a user is looking for something related to, let us say, “Moby Dick,” they will encounter an entire family of works containing that title or subject when further narrowing results. This could lead the user to not only the original print work from Herman Melville, but to other related items in the library like audiobooks, motion pictures, etc. Or perhaps other resources will be found in digital libraries, consortia, museums, or archives, such as first editions, manuscripts, artworks, plays, and other ephemera relating to Moby Dick, the historical enterprise of “whaling,” illegal whaling activity in contemporary society, or the biology of these ocean majesties.

Electronic retrieval systems have made it possible to retrieve bibliographic records from anywhere around the globe. As today’s information resources are shared, and indeed, born on the World Wide Web, the work of today’s catalogers and subject analysts is of a global scale. This is why it is so important to create and maintain systems like Resource Description Framework (RDF) and XML applications that can aggregate and logically order web resources. This is also why linked data and metadata are so important. These technologies illustrate how far the library profession has come in cataloging and making available bibliographic resources.

The Power of Collecting

The most striking thing about Cynthia Orr’s article, Collection Development in Public Libraries, is Orr’s mention of the client-centered approach to collection management. The Internet and new technologies have provided more avenues to people searching for information, and this has changed the traditional modi operandus of the collection development librarian. Orr says, “the future of collection development librarians lies in moving from a philosophy of identifying, purchasing, and maintaining finite collections, toward making their libraries gateways to both local and external sources in order to deliver the content needed by the user…” (1098). This word, “gateways,” is emblematic of our current media-saturated environment. I immediately think of subscriptions to online media content, and web portals which link to a variety of integrated services. Indeed, digital access to goods and services is the hallmark of our day. There has been a proliferation of digital content platforms that libraries have courted to provide better services, such as Hoopla and Audible. While I am not overly familiar with these services (I am still an old-fashioned book buyer), this is exactly what Orr is discussing when she says that collection development librarians will be spending more time catering and cataloging content through third-party vendors and providers.

Information is coming at us faster than ever. It is a tired cliche. But in terms of technological celerity, it is not just digital information resources that are changing. Traditional print media is changing as well. It is remarkable to witness the trends in both the popular and indie publishing arenas, whereby print books – especially series – are becoming serialized. Perhaps for the first time, it is not just installments of a book in serial form, but the entire work that is sent to press from the moment you hear about it. This complicates the collection development strategy, as now the collection development librarian will not even have a ready source for review before deciding to purchase. She will only have teasers from the author’s own social media marketing team!

There is, of course, justification for this, both for the author and the book retailer. It is all part of staying in business and staving off extinction. For example, you find a way to create hype, and then you provide the option for presale order, where people spend just a little bit more to guarantee they have that new Harry Potter or G.R.R.M at the “lay-down date.” But these kinds of trends, both the digital and the accelerated print publishing trends, create new horizons for the collection development librarian. Indeed, instead of relying on traditional review journals like Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, Choice, etc., collection development librarians will be keeping track of (along with the requisite jobbers) things like blogs, podcasts, e-newsletters, and even popular radio (or their web forms) like National Public Radio’s Books or Book Concierge.

The discussion of marketing public libraries is extremely interesting as well. I remember this discussion quite well when I was working on an associates degree in Library Technical Services seven years ago. The discussion centered on how public librarians and administrators were beginning to see the purpose of doing what users wanted, and were in fact starting to model their spaces off of conventional bookstores. Some of the more intrepid, I recall, were moving away from Dewey altogether and organizing their shelves by displaying large, flashy subject headings that were very Borders Bookstore-esque.

Anyways, the discussion of marketing public libraries is extremely interesting to me. I was not aware that there was such a dilemma between “give them what they want” versus “we collect in the following areas” as types of collection development strategies. It seems that the “Long Tail” marketing theory mentioned by Orr is related to the latter strategy. In other words, public libraries can demonstrate that they are providing a worthwhile (and budget justified!) service by circulating a wide variety of books to a niche market, instead of spending large portions of the budget on popular materials. Sadly, limiting the purchase of demand-driven books is a big part of balancing the budget.

Although my experience is in academic libraries and not in public, the literature on research libraries is a little more arcane and less accessible or interesting to the casual reader. But there are definitely some interesting issues at stake in the public library sphere when it comes to administrative structuring, marketing, user analysis, content management, contract law, and collection development strategy in relation to digital content service monitoring.

LIS Professionals and Social Justice

As we have already seen, the raison d’etre of libraries is to serve the public by providing information resources that support the individual in their search for knowledge. Underlying this goal is the promise of patron privacy, inclusiveness, and the ability to gain unrestricted access to freely loaned materials. Seldom, however, do libraries actually understand their collections on an intellectual basis beyond pure subject analysis and derivation of access points. Indeed, the resources may be sitting there on the shelves, but their content and larger societal implications may elude the busy LIS professional. In this elusion, there may be consequences, as libraries and librarians have been targeted in the recent past for their purported role in providing information resources which have served a decidedly non-utilitarian purpose (i.e. channeling racism, religious intolerance, hatred, xenophobia, etc). Therefore it is important to think of a library collection from a social justice perspective.

This is exactly what John Buschman and Dorothy A. Warner do in On Community, Justice, and Libraries. They admit that sometimes the core values of the ALA produce unintended outcomes. But they invoke the philosophy of John Rawls to explain how libraries can act as arbiters of social justice rather than unwitting accomplices to moral turpitude.

RawlsWe live in a pluralist society where religious, philosophical, and moral ideas are not equal among all citizens. Indeed, this is an inevitable result of living in a homogeneous society. But Rawls reconciles the concept of democracy with incompatible members of society. According to Rawls, a just society is one that distributes primary social goods fairly. We can understand these goods to be, not commodities tied into market systems, but goods of an intrinsic moral worth, such as liberty and equal opportunity. Rawls brings an institutional focus to the concept of social justice. So what libraries do and how they do it in a given community is meaningful in a democracy.

So how should LIS professionals reorient their work, making it less of a rote process of bibliographic output and control to circumscribing information resources within a wider social justice framework?

The work of Karen Schmidt et al. in Approaches to Selection, Access, and Collection Development in the Web World: A Case Study with Fugitive Literature provides one example. This group of Librarians from regional Chicago libraries focused on collecting “fugitive literature” in the form of information resources published or disseminated by hate groups and political fringe groups. While this collection strategy was unsavory and perhaps daunting, it illustrates a group of LIS professionals willing to immerse themselves in literature that deals explicitly with social justice (in this case a body of divisive literature that injures the realization of social fairness). They worked to understand the origins and meanings of this primary source material, sadly current in our society, in order to describe it and make meaning out of it. Their collection emanated from groups as varied as the New Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam, Jewish Defense League, Council of Conservative Citizens, American Renaissance, the National Socialist Movement, and various KKK affiliations.

Their web collection strategy relied on deep thinking. Indeed, when collecting resources that belong to other communities, it is necessary to wipe the slate clean. LIS professionals must become true ethnographers, as diving into a collection strategy with preconceived ideas will result in a biased interpretation of materials, which will muddle the social justice lens. Another hurdle for LIS professionals to be aware of in this regard is the existence of linguistic differences. As Schmidt et al. noted, different cultures will likely use unique vocabulary to describe their beliefs and valued resources, which in stringent membership communities such as hate groups are heavily codified. For instance, in the hate group literature, no one conducting the study knew what the number 88 stood for in the white supremacist groups. This is an example of the need to conduct deep research, not just on Web resources, but on all informational resources generally.

Information Needs and Information Seeking

In Donald Case’s chapter, Information Needs and Information Seeking, we are introduced to some of the foundational theories of information-seeking behavior from Robert Taylor, Charles Atkin, Nicholas Belkin, and Brenda Dervin. Following Case’s logic, it is assumed that information-seeking behavior is based on an underlying need, analogous to Abraham Maslow’s definition of needs. While there have been scholars who have questioned the idea that searching for information has anything at all to do with needs, I think that there is indeed a primal itch or an innate human instinct toward knowledge. Or perhaps better stated, there is an innate instinct toward gathering information in order to make sense of the world around us. In Andreas Ekström’s Ted Talk on the moral bias behind our search results, Ekström mentions that we become human in the process of searching for knowledge, a particularly salient quote when considering this question. Indeed, Maslow insisted that the urge for self-actualization was deeply entrenched in the human psyche. Self-actualization is, of course, contingent on personal knowledge, and knowledge, as we have seen, requires information gathering.

The problem with any part of cognitive science is that there is a tendency to only accept objective data and to dismiss out of hand as unscientific anything related to qualia; feelings and mental states that cannot be measured in concrete, empirical terms. For example, some scholars maintain that there is a problem with quantifying information needs because these behavioral states emanate from a first-person view of phenomenal conscious activity, and there is no empirical way to determine if what one is experiencing (in this case an expression of needing to know something) is truly a need or not. Well, this thinking veers dangerously toward solipsism, which I have always had a problem with. We can argue that needs are mental or physical states that are expressly felt and immediately recognizable (i.e. hunger, thirst, warmth, etc.). But if we allow that it is possible to be unaware of one’s needs, then the question opens up into wider terrain.

People seek information for different reasons, and they filter and interpret information in different ways. If we follow the school of thought that considers information-seeking behavior to be driven by nothing more than a rational judgement that some uncertainty exists that can be resolved by specific information, we are ignoring other contexts in which information-seeking can occur and function.


This is why Brenda Dervin’s sense-making theory is important. Dervin’s theory identifies the information-seeking process with emotions, as well as cognitive processes. Dervin’s information seeking illustration explains the theory visually. In Dervin’s research, the search for information is based on a need that arises within a person. This need can be intrinsic or extrinsic based on the person’s situation. The situation is the starting point of the information seeking process. For instance, a person may seek information because they are in a class in graduate school. The process of searching will be influenced by past experiences and previous knowledge.

Sense-making theory emphasizes emotions and feelings. The bridge to the outcome will be influenced by environmental and biological factors. Maybe health will deteriorate or mood will dampen, which will make the information-seeking process seem more arduous and burdensome, and this strain will inevitably color the results or outcome. On the other hand, strong heath and a positive attitude will likely result in faster and more thorough information processing.

Dervin’s sense-making theory is based on everyday life, so it is not context specific or spatially oriented. Time and space are infinite factors. As an example, in undergraduate school, there were times when I had to drive a distance to procure a book at another academic library because my research project was dependent on said book, and it could not wait or my outcome (my term paper) would suffer. Indeed, the search for information may be quick or it may be long, depending on the query and the scope of the question. In Ekström’s words, one may be looking for an “isolated fact,” or they may be searching for knowledge, which is a much more complicated and intricate thing. But knowledge is part of what makes us human, and it is driven by an innate need.