Digitization, like other collection-development strategies, works to the extent that it supports the mission of an institution. Without a clear sense of how digital projects may fit an institution’s mission, it is difficult to build a strategy for sustaining them. It may still be too early for libraries to be thinking far into the future as far as digitization is concerned. This is a period of experimentation, of building skills and experience in staff, and of tracking one’s own progress and that of others. In some libraries, the staff feels driven by the need to have some digital projects, whether or not library leaders have made clear what purpose such projects will ultimately serve. For the time being, modest strategies may be the best route. Simply declaring a project or series of projects as experiments and stating what goals can be achieved through those experiments will help begin to free staff for creative and reflective activity. Certain digitization approaches work chiefly for large libraries and make little sense for small ones; others work for large public libraries but not large academic ones. Not all strategies are scalable, and any digital projects that exist in splendid isolation from other parts of the home institution or other libraries risk turning into a waste of resources.
A useful way of looking at the strategic value of digitized collections is to ask pointed questions that reflect perceived costs and benefits, such as the following: What would happen if these programs received a dedicated allocation? Would the money for creating digital surrogates come from the acquisitions budget? From preservation? If the program were supported through a separate line, from which pocket of money would these funds be reallocated? Should fees be charged for access, at least in some cases?
Michigan, which says that it left project-based digitization three years ago, has ongoing budget support for the staffing, equipment, and other infrastructure services such as servers and software resources for digital conversion production. The university anticipates that future projects will require additional funds to support special needs outside the core capacities or to handle a larger volume of work. Harvard’s Digital Library Initiative is supported by internal funds, although its purpose is not collection development primarily but building infrastructure.
At most libraries, digitization costs are covered by external funds, and the projects developed appeal to the intended funding source, be it a federal agency with stringent grant conditions; a private foundation that has a heuristic interest in projects; or donors and alumni, who usually contribute to the institution for eleemosynary purposes and often do so out of dedication to the institution and its mission per se. When asked about their priorities for selection, many respondents remarked wryly that they digitize what they can get money to do, implying and even sometimes stating directly that their choices were skewed by donors’ priorities and did not serve pure scholarship or other core missions of their institutions. However, what selectors, curators, and bibliographers think to be of highest value will also often differ from what the administration identifies, because they have differing views of where scholarship is moving, how sophisticated the users are, and what is of lasting import.
Some librarians expressed great concern about the fact that, as long as libraries are competing for outside funds to digitize, they will be stuck in the entrepreneurial phase in which collection development is driven by strong personalities-those who are willing to compete for funds-and that some parts of the library’s collections will go untapped simply because the subject specialist in that area is not the “entrepreneurial” type. Others express more serious concerns about the fate of non-English language materials and even greater anxiety about the neglect of non-Roman collections.
Concerns about the changing role of library staff, especially of bibliographers, come up with increasing frequency. Staff become increasingly diverted from traditional collection-development duties to spend more time selecting for digitization-what might be called “reselecting.” This is bound to have some effect on current collection development of traditional materials. A topic far more widely discussed is where to find the skill sets that are needed for digital library development. If libraries cannot afford to hire persons with such skills-as increasingly they cannot-how are they to go about developing them internally without robbing Peter to pay Paul? The same is true for preservation staff, who see themselves and their funding diverted from preserving deteriorating collections to creating digital versions of materials that are often not at imminent risk of deterioration.
A number of special collections librarians have noted that, as items from the collections are digitized and given visibility, more people have become interested in the items and in related, not-yet-digitized materials. The numbers of on-site users and of phone, letter, and e-mail inquiries have risen. This places increased physical stress on original materials. This, in turn, increases the workload on staff, especially on preservation and reference staff.
Reliable and meaningful cost data about digitization are rare and not often useful in comparative contexts. Costing out the elements of digitizing means beginning with selection and going to physical preparation, cataloging, physical capture, creation of metadata, mounting and managing files, designing and maintaining the site, providing additional user services, and going through to implementing a long-term preservation strategy. Virtually every step in digitization involves human intervention and skill, and these costs, unlike those of storage, for example, are unlikely to go down.
In an exercise not yet seen in the United States, Oxford University libraries recently looked at their experiences with digital conversion in an attempt to identify what benefits it had brought to the library and its patrons (Oxford 1999). Curiously, one of the chief benefits cited was to curators, who learned an enormous amount about their own collections and those of other colleges. This seems an expensive way to break down barriers between departments and other library units or to make curators more familiar with their collections. But the report is alluding to one way in which the very role of bibliographer and curator is changing as a result of putting collections online. This is similar to reports from various campuses across the United States, which state that digital projects are crucial for staff training and developing expertise. The matter of collection expertise, however, is not often mentioned; instead, reports about benefits focus on the other aspect of so-called e-curatorship, in which staff members develop technical and editorial or interpretive expertise. This does not always benefit the library or university in the end, because expert staff are difficult to retain and many managers complain that expenses incurred in training a staff member served to benefit that individual’s next employer.
Benefits to users are also commonly cited, though as noted, systematically gathered evidence of user satisfaction is rare. Managers also cite benefits to the collections through creation of surrogates that protect original materials while increasing access to the content.
4.3 Looking Ahead
If it is to be sustainable over time, digitization must clearly be an integral part of the core mission work of the library. Whereas the majority of research libraries engaged in digitization have been able to raise external funds for conversion, they all recognize the hazards of becoming too dependent on such funds. There is no such thing as a “free” building. Even if a donor were to pay for all aspects of the construction, from land acquisition to furnishing, at some point maintenance costs will become the responsibility of the home institution, and the building must meet minimum criteria for support.
The same holds true of digitized collections. Over the next few years, some libraries that have done digital projects will essentially phase them out; others will reduce this activity to the exception rather than the rule. Still others, committed to large-scale digital projects, either as a part of collection management or as a commitment to extending access, will continue and will begin to address the tough questions of finding internal funds or developing fee-based services to support conversion, maintenance, and service. Whatever the scenario, libraries will need to articulate how digitization serves their core mission, be it outreach, preservation, access, or something else. If libraries continue to focus primarily on digitization of their special collections for access to primary sources (as opposed to discrete exhibitions for outreach purposes), they must act now to start building common infrastructures, such as a registry to obviate duplication and a commitment to rigorous cooperative collecting. One of the great potentials of the technology is to reunite collections that are dispersed and to create new meta collections (such as Blake’s works) and allow several formats to interact. These are rather modest goals best achieved in well-defined projects, and a far cry from the rather common decisions now made to put up a large, interesting collection of archival or special collection materials. Without appropriate tools to search across collections and architectures that support interoperability, such collections will prove inconvenient to find and laborious to use.
Looking back to the proceedings of a symposium on selection for digitization sponsored by the Research Libraries Group in 1995, we are confronted by similar concerns (RLG 1996). Among many factors identified at the meeting that remain valid today are the need for more focused selection of special collections, either with others to build a large cohesive body of materials or designed and scaled for classroom use; the need to engage collection development librarians in selection for reformatting; the need to develop technical specifications for a variety of things, from scanning to metadata creation, that can be widely embraced by institutions of different size and mission; the need to decide how to manage storage of surrogates and for how long; the need to find outside funds to digitize and not be constrained by that when selecting for conversion; and the need to identify how digitization would add value to the source material, from uniting disparate collections to making their contents more searchable.
A principal barrier to developing freely accessible digital collections of enduring value is the lack of sustainable economic models for digitizing collections, especially special collections. Each digitization program requires substantial investments of numerous kinds: processing and preserving source collections; creating interoperable systems for increased ease of access; copyright research and ongoing rights management models; and coordinated selection to increase the intellectual value of collections. On top of that are infrastructure services that need to be available for small or midsize institutions to keep the digital divide from deepening in the research community: digitizing and archiving services; a registry that would provide information about what others are doing; and accepted practices for the capture and creation of metadata that can be used in good faith. The benchmarks for good collection development-rigorous selection, accurate description, fitness-for-use, authenticity, and intellectual or cultural significance-do not change in the digital realm. It may be harder to know for certain how to build those collections online than in hard copy, but the core values of collections have not changed.
While it is too early to set standards or even memorialize best practices for selection of collections for digital reformatting, libraries, funders, and research, development, and policy groups can take actions that will minimize the chances that current investments will be wasted. These include taking deceptively simple steps in the course of decision-making, assessing progress and change, tracking expenditures across all phases of activity in a consistent manner, and engaging the widest possible group of people, from technologists to scholars, in selection, assessment, and planning. The following recommendations come from a variety of sources in the field. All are based on experience and reflection about what has worked to date, and what next steps must be taken to advance the building of sustainable and valuable digital collections.
Recommendations for Institutions
- Be clear about the purpose of the project-for example, creation of preservation surrogates, outreach, or curricular development.
- Begin with a clear understanding about whether or not the library will maintain the surrogates and for how long.
- Develop clear protocols for selection decisions.
- Develop cost projections for all aspects of digital conversion, from selection to refreshing of files.
- Either focus on materials that are already organized or target materials not under intellectual control; include funding for processing and description in the project budget.
- Work with faculty and scholars to develop controlled vocabularies in those fields lacking them, to aid in creating metadata.
- Clarify the target audience for a collection: do not attempt to be all things to all audiences.
- Secure funding for and conduct user assessments of digitized collections and make the information from these assessments available to the library community.
- Consider making metadata available for harvesting through the Open Archives Initiative protocol.
- Design a Web site that is graphically clear and easy to navigate; update it frequently as appropriate.
- Develop a policy for the disposition of reformatted materials.
Recommendations for Research Agenda and Agenda for Consortia and Funding Agencies
- To build coherent collections, extend editorial board methodology, used for agriculture and mathematics, to select core literature in other disciplines.
- Encourage funding agencies to support good practice by requiring minimal standards of capture, use of nonproprietary software, planning for maintenance of digital surrogates, and so forth.
- Urge donors and consortia to engender partnerships for cooperative digitization of both general and special collections.
- Examine the expectations of academic libraries’ service to the broad public: what are the roles of municipal, state, and federally supported institutions for public access and those of private institutions?
- Conduct analysis of how digitized collections, both special and general, are used and by whom.
- Foster the development of a registry of digitized collections that includes capture information, metadata standards, and disposition of original source materials.
- Foster the development of service bureaus that would offer scanning and archiving services.
- Foster the development of shared print repositories.