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The All-Digital Library? Not Quite Yet

Washington, D.C.—Don’t de-accession those print materials yet. The digital research library is not quite ready for prime time, according to Lisa Spiro, director of the Digital Media Center at Rice University, and Geneva Henry, executive director of Rice’s Center for Digital Scholarship.

At a session of the membership meeting of the Coalition for Networked Information, held here yesterday and today, Ms. Spiro and Ms. Henry talked about research they have done into how close we are to all-digital (or even mostly digital) research libraries. To find out, they did case studies of several libraries founded since 2000, including facilities at the University of California at Merced, Olin College, Soka University of America, California State University-Channel Islands, and New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus.

Signs of the digital shift are everywhere. E-resources expenditures “are only going up,” Ms. Henry said. In 2008, research libraries spent a median of 53 percent of their acquisitions budgets on e-resources. However, as demonstrated by a recent flap at Syracuse University over plans to move some books to off-site storage, not everybody’s ready to pull the plug on print.

“Given the needs of the humanities in particular, it just wouldn’t be feasible at the present moment” for libraries to go all-digital, Ms. Henry said. But she warned that many of the decisions about going digital would be driven by economics, especially as scholars and librarians get more comfortable with digital materials. “The greatest risk is not budgeting for it,” she said.

The conversations Ms. Spiro and Ms. Henry had with librarians also revealed how the culture of librarianship is evolving. They found evidence of a “container-neutral approach,” in which it doesn’t really matter how information is packaged, as long as it can easily be found by or delivered to users. There’s less emphasis on “just-in-case collections,” which keep copies of everything, and more on “just-in-time collections” that keep up with user demand. Outsourcing plays a bigger role. For instance, some institutions now purchase shelf-ready books that are already cataloged and security-tagged. “Ultimately what matters is the service that’s provided,” Ms. Henry said.

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