Can a new research library be all digital? How much does it cost a library to preserve a codex? What do large-scale text-digitizing projects mean for scholarship in the humanities? Those are driving questions behind a new report, “The Idea of Order: Transforming Research Collections for 21st Century Scholarship,” released today by the Council on Library and Information Resources.
The report is presented as a trio of essays. In their contribution, Geneva Henry, executive director of Rice University’s Center for Digital Scholarship, and Lisa Spiro, director of Rice’s Digital Media Center, study the question “Can a New Research Library Be All Digital?” Ms. Henry and Ms. Spiro give an extended overview of experiments with going digital and obstacles that libraries have encountered, including technological shortfalls and librarian and faculty resistance.
They conclude that the all-digital library “seems to be on the horizon” but has not yet arrived. “At this time, we believe that a new reseach library could provide primarily electronic access to journals and reference works, but it would need a core collection of monographs targeted to the teaching and research interests of the university, as well as a strong interlibrary borrowing program,” they write.
Paul N. Courant, university librarian and dean of libraries at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and Matthew (Buzzy) Nielsen, assistant director at the North Bend Public Library in Oregon, take up the question of what it takes to preserve print collections. They acknowledge that they undertook the study in part to offset “a certain wistfulness for the good old days of print” that tends to creep into conversations about what to keep and what to toss (or to keep only in electronic form). They say they also want “to help libraries evaluate collections and preservation strategies going foward.”
As you might expect, the formula for figuring out how much it costs to store a so-called pbook is complicated. It involves calculating outlays for space, cleaning, maintenance, electricity and climate control, staffing, and circulation and access. (Read the essay for a precise breakdown of costs, as Mr. Courant and Mr. Nielsen calculate them.) The short answer is: It’s not cheap. Mr. Courant and Mr. Nielsen acknowledge that storing electronic material has its costs and problems, too. “But storage of scanned (or born-digital) books is much cheaper than equivalent storage of print materials,” they write. As librarians make hard decisions about what’s worth preserving, “it is important to recognize that the costs associated with a print-based world, often assumed to be small, are actually large.”
Charles Henry, the president of the council, and Kathlin Smith, its director of communications, then take up “Ghostlier Demarcations: Large-Scale Text Digitization Projects and Their Utility for Contemporary Humanities Scholarship.” They review research conducted in 2008 and 2009 “to assess the benefits and limitations for scholarship of text corpora made available through large-scale digitization projects,” including Google Book Search, Microsoft Live Search Books, and more focused collections such as the Humanities E-Book project of the American Council of Learned Societies.
The research focused on how scholars used those collections. For instance, could researchers find what they wanted? How good was the metadata? Mr. Henry and Ms. Smith review the findings and present some recommendations about how to get scholars more involved in quality control and the need to create a more integrated, more useful digital environment that would support research. (See “The Humanities Go Google” for a look at what some humanists are doing with large-scale text digitization.)
Over all, as Roger C. Schonfeld, the Ithaka group’s manager of research, points out in a concluding essay, the report highlights two themes. “The first is the tension that research libraries face between fulfilling their time-honored role as custodians of scholarship and enabling a digital environment for scholars,” he writes. “The second theme is the growing potential for systemwide analysis and response to help mitigate this tension.”