Close the Library: Be Digital

By kattekrab, 4 July, 2005

Donna Benjamin
4 July 2005
Infonet 2005 Issue 2 Volume 15

Ten years ago, in his book "Being Digital", Nicholas Negroponte (1995) said, "Thomas Jefferson advanced the concept of libraries and the right to check out a book free of charge. But this great forefather never considered the likelihood that 20 million people might access a digital library electronically and withdraw its contents at no cost."

For as long as we have recorded information we have needed ways to store it; from the clay tablets of Mesopotamia to the papyrus scrolls of ancient Egypt. These repositories of knowledge are sacred sites of the human mind. The famed loss of the Great Library of Alexandria is a potent reminder of the value we bestow on books and the information within. In the last 20 years, many library catalogues have moved from being ranks of card files in cabinets to searchable indexes, accessed via terminals or computers. A new shift, embracing digital content, is taking us to the next step. Will we one day be able to access the content of the sum of all knowledge in a digital format, online, and at will?

A digital library is an information collection that is stored, distributed, and even consumed in an electronic data format. Digital libraries can include reference material, articles, and resources accessible through the World Wide Web. This can include digitised portions of a library's existing collection as well as material specifically created for electronic storage and delivery. One stunning example of digitising an existing collection is the Treasures Project at the British Library. It is now possible for scholars and book-lovers to view and compare various editions of the complete works of Shakespeare, page by page, from anywhere in the world (see:

A digital library requires technologies that provide services for capturing and collecting data and information. That information must then be catalogued and stored, so that it can be easily searched and retrieved. A digital full-text collection can be searched with a computer in a manner that would simply be impossible for human researchers to do in any reasonable length of time. [Spring, 1995] Traditional library asset management is expensive, but so too is maintaining vast computer networks filled with precious data. Protecting and preserving that data and information is as critical for a digital library as it would be for a traditional library.

Digital libraries require smaller physical facilities as they don't need the same amount of 'shelf space' to store their collections. However, digital libraries have the added benefit that they can be accessed remotely. There's no need to visit the building filled with books, if their contents are accessible online. This means that the British Library's digital collection is just as accessible as the library at a local school.

Digital text can be translated on demand into different forms for printing, spoken word, Braille or pdf, thereby increasing the accessibility for those who may otherwise not be able to 'read'. Online communities of interest are growing up around digital collections. Users can store their preferences and searches and discover new avenues of interest and knowledge by taking advantage of the kind of user profiling tools such as those on Amazon that make suggestions based on "people who have read this also liked..."

However, digital collections have their shortcomings. They tend to contain a purposeful and deliberate selection of texts. And a collection is just as much defined by what it omits as it is by what it includes. This issue has made recent headlines in the technology press.

Google Print

Google announced a new library project called Google Print. Google's library programme enables people to search collections that include out-of-print books and other titles that were previously unavailable except on the shelves of libraries. In partnership with several prestigious university libraries, Google has begun to digitise books held in the libraries' collections.

Works that have entered the public domain will be available online in their entirety. Those that are still under copyright restrictions will be searchable, but Google may only display the bibliographic information and a few short sentences of text around the search term.

Reg Carr, Director of Oxford University Library Services, has said (see: that making the Bodleian Library's historic collections accessible to all is at the heart of Oxford's commitment to lifelong learning: "Oxford is therefore proud to be part of this effort."

Whilst it is an exciting initiative, Google Print has its critics. The President of the National Library of France, Jean-Christmas Jeanneney, criticised the Google project. Whilst he acknowledged the project would make important works available to "poor countries" and "underprivileged populations", he worries that the vast majority of documents would be digitised in English and were predominantly American (see: With the exception of the Oxford University, the partner libraries are all from the United States (University of Michigan, Harvard University, Stanford University and The New York Public Library).

In response, culture ministers from across Europe have given their backing to proposals to create a publicly funded European digital library that will protect and promote their own continent's literary heritage.

The Digital Divide

Jeanneney raises access as another issue for digital libraries. On the face of it, more people will be able to access the information held in digital libraries. However, it is widely acknowledged that computer and internet access is not a resource shared equally around the world. Digital libraries may be yet another way of separating the have's from the have not's.

It is important to consider who the stakeholders are when examining the digital library debate. Digital libraries are clearly a First World concept. Developing states will find the cost and lack of infrastructure challenging, thereby increasing the information gap.

For example, the library of the University of Culcutta in India has a priceless collection of rare books and artefacts in a state of almost hopeless decay. At the time it was built, the university didn't have enough funds to install air-conditioning throughout the building. Now, they don't have enough funds now to digitise the entire collection of frail and fragile books that need preservation. Choices must be made, some loss is inevitable (Chowdhury, 2005).

The Near-Future

Digital Libraries will change the way we access and consume information. We've already seen online bookshops such as Amazon become pseudo-libraries. They can provide extraordinary levels of information about books in less time than it would take to read a review and pick the book off the shelf. It is possible to browse samples, look at tables of contents, see a nearly complete bibliography by a particular author, read what others think about that item, and study critical reviews. Digital Libraries will be able to provide those types of services as well as discussion areas, study groups, online publishing, and new-publication alerts. It is possible to support the reader in a time and place that suits them which is not necessarily in the library or the classroom.

Schools will face these challenges regarding their own libraries. Card filing systems are likely to continue to stand alongside the computer catalogues, and students will need to know how to use both. We must consider the possibility that students will fail to research deeper into the past because the computer catalogue only contains relatively modern materials. This increased ease of access will raise the value of these resources without regard to their quality or relevance.

The technologies that make digital libraries are commonplace now. There are a number of library software systems available, some deal only with digitising the catalogue and computerising the process of resource issues and returns, others facilitate the wholesale digitisation of existing works. Two different open-source solutions from New Zealand address these library requirements. Koha is a full catalogue, opac, circulation, member management, and acquisitions package. Greenstone is a suite of software for building and distributing digital library collections. Both are freely available for download.

Humanity took its first steps into the digital domain when knowledge workers started using word processors instead of typewriters, digital cameras instead of film. Vector based software instead of coloured pencils. Of course for those works still created with ink on paper, we have scanners, and scanners are being put to work to digitise the past, so that it might stand side by side with the works of the present and the future.

So has the time come to close the library? Information Systems consultant Jan Whitaker says no, not yet. She believes that digital libraries won't replace physical libraries for quite some time. The capital invested in books and journals and 'real stuff' is significant. The costs involved in shifting all of it completely into digital libraries are simply too high. At least for now.

Donna Benjamin
Creative Contingencies


  • Chowdhury, S. (2005). A tomb of rare volumes.
  • Spring, M. (1995). The document processing revolution.
  • Negroponte, N. (1995). Being Digital. Knopf: New York.


Further Reading:

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