Instant Ideas and Collaboration
On 6 March 2014, we talked about digital libraries in their many forms – what exactly they are, what challenges and opportunities they offer our profession, and how library customers use them.
The full archive of tweets from this chat is available here.
Here’s a summary of the discussion:
Q1: What do you think a digital library is?
This is quite a tough question. Some thoughts were:
@SimonXIX’s feature blog for this chat argued that Netflix and Itunes were basically digital libraries, but weren’t considered as such in LIS for cultural and legal reasons. This sparked debate about whether digital libraries by definition had to be maintained by a library organisation, and whether they had to be not for profit (at least at the point of use). Both of these criteria are problematic. Organisations like law firms and engineering companies routinely maintain digital libraries, and there are private subscription libraries like The London Library which are generally considered to be libraries.
Some contributors thought that what distinguished digital libraries from online platforms like Netflix or Youtube was that their purpose was the dissemination of knowledge, not profit. Others thought that Netflix was an example of a subscription library (like The London Library) but with poor cataloguing standards. Most people agreed that digital libraries had to be organised and curated:
Q2: What kind of digital libraries do you work with in your job?
Many participants working in higher education libraries worked with e-journal platforms, e-book repositories and databases. This is all remotely hosted digital content which library staff make accessible to local users. Examples of more local digital content in higher education were research repositories and locally digitised content.
Those working in public and school libraries worked with e-books, e-magazines, and online reference collections. @butterfly1981’s special digital library collection is made up of PDF documents useful for people working in construction – British Standards, legislation, etc. Some special libraries had more of a mix of types of content, from video and interactive e-learning modules to described and curated web content.
Participants from a variety of sectors, including academic and special libraries, are seeing a transition from print to digital collections:
Q3: What problems do users have with digital libraries in your experience?
The most common problems cited were subscription/authentication issues, search issues, link resolvers not working properly, and technical/device compatibility problems. Digital libraries of various forms often require more search savvy and are less tolerant of errors than Google and popular websites like Youtube.
People not knowing that the digital collections exist was also still a major issue across sectors.
Some possible solutions to these common problems:
Q4: What similarities/differences are there between digital and non-digital libraries?
One of the main differences cited was the possibility of using digital libraries anytime, anywhere, as opposed to having to visit a physical library to access print or other physical resources. Digital libraries can be more flexible, easier to update and change. In some cases, the full text resource can act as its own catalogue record. Digital libraries also mean that librarians are less visible to users.
Q5: Do you think digital libraries need different cataloguing rules?
Q6: Is there in fact scope for librarians to ‘curate’ large born digital collections, aiding user navigation?
Participants thought there was some scope for this but were unsure. Some people had experience of ‘curating the web’ in their work – curating weblinks or Youtube videos on a particular topic and making them available to their users. This was challenging, and there were major issues with broken links and the constantly shifting nature of web content. However, on balance those who had done it thought it was worthwhile. The lack of permanence of web content wasn’t reason enough to exclude it from our collections – actually print materials can go out of date just as quickly, but we may not notice it.
Q7: How do you deal with user frustration that not everything is available digitally?
Interestingly, there were many comments was more common for users to be frustrated that everything was online and they wanted it in print. These comments came from those working in public, further education and academic libraries. Certain types of book were particularly in demand in print format, like core textbooks and test preparation materials in careers libraries. Many people prefer to read large amounts of text in print format. Some also have the attitude that material in print is always more authoritative.
Ways of dealing with frustration that not everything was available electronically were to signpost users to inter library loan and other possible services – other local universities, national libraries, business libraries and more. Understanding the range of options in your area is important here.
There was a discussion about whether the attitude that ‘everything online is free’ would change over time:
Q8: Would you be in favour of a national digital library? Is this feasible?
Participants thought this was an inspiring idea but challenging in terms of cost, copyright issues and coordination. Public libraries in Northern Ireland do now have a joint digital library since they have become one library authority. Maybe a national public digital library as a collaboration between UK library authorities is a possibility.