Magazine article Liberal Education

Yes, Let's Get Our Libraries Online

Magazine article Liberal Education

Yes, Let's Get Our Libraries Online

Article excerpt

TECHNOLOGICALLY, WE ARE APPROACHING THE POINT AT WHICH it will be possible to move academic libraries out of their buildings and into the computers of scholars, teachers, and students everywhere. Not just the card catalogs, not just some digitized collections, not just leased e-journals, but massive quantities of books, manuscripts, and audiovisual resources that our libraries have painstakingly accumulated over decades, and even centuries, in support of scholarly research and liberal education. Massive digitization for widespread online access can be achieved. Why not do it?


Think what massive digitization could mean. Resources now available only within the walls of major research libraries could be universally accessible. Digital library resources could flow freely not only across institutions hut across continents. The need for time-consuming, expensive trips for research, to institutions outside a scholar's own could be substantially reduced. Resources available to teachers and students for course work of all kinds could be substantially increased. Concerns of libraries about where to store continuous influxes of publications could be alleviated. And materials now largely unused on library shelves could get new life. We already know that use of an obscure book, journal, or manuscript can increase dramatically after it is digitized.

The potential benefits do not stop there. The more material we digitize for online access, the more material we will have available for use in new ways. Already we have learned to build search capabilities into digital databases that far exceed what is feasible through manual searching. Digital technologies also enable us to create customized databases of texts and images as special course resources and research-project collections. Additionally, the technologies enable us to compare texts and images online, link them to related resources, recombine them for analysis, view them in multiple dimensions, and accelerate the creation of knowledge through Internet exchanges of pre-publication research results.

Moreover, some academic research libraries are helping scholars and their discipline-based organizations publish electronically. Some libraries additionally are capturing "e-scholarship"-Web pages, databases, and course content created digitally by scholars and teachers-for widened accessibility, now and in the future, as part of digital libraries. Digital librarians arc also experimenting with "portal services" that will draw on resources in libraries across the country-and even the world-not tapped by conventional, commercial search services. These portals will electronically locate materials of interest to scholars working on specialized research topics in particular disciplines. Overall, it appears technically feasible for libraries to metamorphose into information centers of more value for services they provide than for books they own.

Obstacles and overcoming them

What stands in the way of such boons to research and education? The major obstacles can be placed under three headings: money, copyright, and collaborative will.

Mortey is the most obvious concern. Already major libraries are spending a great deal on digital resources. According to statistics available from the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), in 2000-2001 its members spent on electronic resources more than $132 million-16 percent of their library materials budgets, and since 1992-93, average expenditures for digital resources have increased from two to six times faster annually than average expenditures on library materials. But the growth in digital resource investment, much of which has gone into leasing electronic journals, still leaves our faculties and students with electronic access to only a fragment of traditional library holdings. Even though any one book needs to be digitized just once, academic libraries today are too financially stressed to take on massive digitization of their collections. …

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