I had the good fortune to attend the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) meeting in Washington last month. As usual, there were many interesting and thought-provoking presentations. The first I attended was on the feasibility of creating a totally virtual library presented by librarians from Rice University who were doing a study for the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR). This was first tried at California State University, Monterey Bay, in 1995 but there weren’t enough electronic resources available at the time. There have been a few other attempts at this new model with mixed success.
The talk mostly focused on the obstacles to creating a library without print materials. Not surprisingly, the greatest barrier is cost including that of technology, the resources themselves, and transitional costs. Cultural issues are also a major stumbling block. Researchers are reluctant to embrace e-books (even though they love e-journals and e-reference works). They worry about the quality of the digitization which in fact has been a problem in some of the scanned items they’ve encountered. They are frustrated by what they see as the difficulty in discovering e-books and the loss of serendipity. Further, many believe that editorial contributions are not as valued if they are in digital format.
Librarians are also reluctant to pursue the totally digital library for some of the same reasons and others such as transitioning to digital-only, integrating e-books into workflows, and the costs noted earlier. Other issues include reliable access; support for different reading devices; multimedia support; preservation; digital rights management; loans of e-books; etc.
The authors concluded by noting that the feasibility of such an endeavor depends on the type of library (a science library might work best); the availability of funding over time; and a cultural shift. The pointed out that flexibility is critical as is the need to develop new service models and re-imagine new roles for librarians if the virtual library is to be a success. The bottom line for the digital library, like the traditional, of course, is service. A virtual library can not stand alone–people will make it work, if it ever does!
My view is that it sounds like a cool idea, but as yet it is impractical and from many users’ (and librarians’) point of view, not yet desirable. It is something that may happen over time, gradually as our transition to the e-journal has been. But the issues noted earlier (cost, technology, culture) must be resolved if this ideal is to be achieved. If nothing else, the session raised some very good points and got us all thinking about our future!