Librarian Notes: Digital Libraries Are Hurrying Up To Wait

Jaroen Kuijper, Librarian | 5 min read
Jaroen Kuijper, Librarian | 5 min read

In my experience, it is still in development and we are not yet seeing “true” digital libraries. This is simply because we don’t have any true “digital” books yet. Our e-books (as we know them today) are only electronic versions of existing paper books. Rarely, electronic books have the technological support for full digital enrichment.

It is hard to predict future development. One could reasonably expect there will be a quicker transfer (than is already happening) from paper into digital formats. But this is likely to happen without the digital-tech enabling to differentiate these e-books over traditional paper volumes. So, libraries migrating to the rudimentary e-book format can be called digital — without these libraries actually changing their regular business. In other words, it’s still books on offer.

From that realization, we can draw two conclusions:

  1. When digital publications actually become full multi-media publications, all academic publishing will change — and so will libraries.
  2. Because of copyright law, e-books are considered “software” (unlike books), so it will be very hard for libraries to purchase single e-books and put them on loan via lending systems.

Where Will Digital Migration Take Libraries?

I’d like to elaborate on those two above points.

First, digital enrichment enables easy linking within electronic publications, and the use of multimedia for education and science. Imagine all kinds of videos, graphs, data sets, etc. being directly linked to a publication’s text content. And so, the enrichment becomes part of that publication. With so many links, digital-enabled books will require libraries to transform into places supporting information linkage — and less being the loci of book/journal collecting.

Second, current copyright law requires libraries to strike separate agreements per book with publishers. Clearly, that’s not exactly a workable arrangement. So, current law isn’t making things easier for libraries when it comes to the rise of e-books and digital libraries. But as an alternative, we can craft agreements with external commercial parties, such as aggregators (EBSCO, ProQuest, etc.) to make available a wide range of e-books — while we wait for changing copyright laws.

What Remains Of Traditional Libraries

Despite the surface technological-driven changes, in my opinion, we librarians are very much the same as we were in the mono-paper world. As I mentioned before, we treat e-books just as if they were paper books. And without the audience expecting or demanding change, there isn’t much drive to look for anything different.

To be honest, this is somewhat frustrating!

We need people open to new technologies, and to understanding them to find innovative and improved ways of managing and distributing our library products. Since these people are scarce, we don’t see much change — and thus demand for innovative, technology-savvy people is low.

For example, my Amsterdam University Library has a separate department for library technology. Its main job is to keep our databases and other systems running. None of this staff possesses a formal library education — so these technical staffers lack understanding what a library is about.

Sadly, it’s not very different for much of our regular library staff. Many subject librarians specialize in their particular fields, and didn’t take up library studies. Supporting technical staff on typical library subjects doesn’t come easy. So, I’m not surprised development of innovative library technology is low. This is quite normal with all academic libraries in the Netherlands.

All put together (i.e., including technology and law changes), one might expect new library systems being introduced that are capable of holding single bookstore-purchased e-books fully supporting all enrichment.

True digital libraries are not yet around and change demands tech-savvy librarians.

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