We opened last year’s annual report with a question: What is a library? Today, the answer to that question is more elusive than ever. In 2001, the shape and form of the library in the digital age continued to be at the center of our work. We challenged our constituents to imagine a library that does not demand that the user be physically present to take advantage of its services. For years, the CLIR staff, like our colleagues across the nation and the world, has painted some version of this dream for faculty, students, and the public. We have pointed to the many advantages of computer networks for delivering information to people anytime, anywhere. But moving from a physically bounded space containing collections that have been built in response to local demands is harder than most librarians care to admit. Libraries are serving audiences unknown to them, and it is difficult to satiate the appetite of new patrons for electronic resources.
As librarians think about those users who are not part of their traditional constituencies, they ask a fundamental and thought-provoking question: Whom do we serve, and exactly what do we offer them? Local libraries have unique cultures. The librarians who manage them have worked hard to learn their users’ preferences, special needs, and requirements. Collections have been built with care and attention that bespeak the close connections that exist between the library and those who depend upon it. Adding a layer of users we do not knowand probably will never knowpresents interesting questions about the library’s roles and responsibilities.
It would be relatively simple to serve new audiences if we could think of digital collections merely as additions to the print and audiovisual collections that are described in our online catalogs. If that were the case, users could simply consult these catalogs for the information they need. But it is not that simple. In addition to placing collections online, librarians must consider the services that will accompany those digital collections.
Most librarians continue to think of the library as the place it has been for the past hundred years or soan authoritative center for information resources. However, digital-era patrons, particularly students, think of the library in different terms and have different expectations. Increasingly, we hear reports from faculty members that their students are interested only in digital resources. Students cite convenience, as well as the ability to retrieve information on their own rather than to rely on a librarian, as key advantages of digitization. Faculty members are trying hard to persuade their students that they must go beyond the computer screen to find all of the materials they need for in-depth study and research. Nonetheless, when we pay close attention to the use patterns of students and patrons in a variety of types of institutions, it becomes clear that the need for an authoritative physical institution is indeed decreasing.
This period of transition from a purely physical manifestation of the library to the hybrid condition of print and electronic resources and eventually, we assume, to a largely digital collection, requires libraries to assess their ability to go beyond the physical building and mediated services to the more abstract virtual librarya library that will not be recognized as a “place” in the traditional sense of the word. While those of us who know the great value of curated print collections would like to share our understanding with our users, we are compelled to recognize that new generations of information seekers place a higher value on convenience and speed than on carefully assembled and authoritative print collections.
Amidst these rapid changes, there is one constant. It is the need for access to high-quality research materials. Faculty members need the support of librarians in finding new ways to make connections between the user and the materials that will make possible intelligent inquiry and the creation of new knowledge. How will librarians serve their traditional roles in this new environment? Can the library find ways to deliver high-quality digital information such that it meets users’ needs for immediacy and convenience?
Role of Digitized Collections
Recognizing that students, as well as many faculty members, are more interested in resources that can be found on the Web than they are in traditional print resources, some librarians are establishing production-level digitization laboratories. Others are developing portals that will lead information seekers to Web sites of curated resources. Most librarians and archivists are convinced that the most important action they can take is to digitize as many of their research collections as possible or to lead their users to digital collections of other institutions. Funding agencies have helped fuel the digitization activities in libraries and archives, and the results are encouraging. The Library of Congress (LC), by digitizing its own collections and providing access to those of others, has made available 7 million images of special collections materials relating to American history. With help from private foundations and government agencies, notably the Institute of Museum and Library Services, many academic and public libraries, historical societies, archives, and museums have selected the special collections materials most likely to be of interest to a broader public and have converted them to digital form.
This interest in digitization has had many positive results. Chief among them is a growing interest among cultural institutions in working together to identify and digitize important collections. At the same time, new problems have emerged. For example, many of these special collections materials have not been cataloged. When these images are added to the Web, only brief descriptions accompany them. When a user is searching the Web, what are the chances that he or she will find all the related materials from many different institutions when there are no standards for description?
CLIR’s Task Force on the Role of the Artifact in Library Collections has risen to the challenge of offering guidance to librarians and archivists on preserving artifactual collections of research value. The task force, made up primarily of scholars, acknowledged that many resources must be in digital form for purposes of access, but it also urged collections stewards to pay special attention to preserving certain types of artifacts that will be necessary for historical research. Finding that balance between more digital access and long-term preservation of artifactual special collections will be a high priority for CLIR in the coming months.
The Digital Library Federation (DLF) has concentrated on defining the infrastructure that must be in place if libraries are to harness information technology effectively. In response to an immediate need, DLF has described the requirements for a service that registers the existence of persistent digitally reformatted book and serial publications.
In addition to making the case for the development of a registry service, the DLF developed functional requirements for such a service. Although the registry service is not intended to be exclusive (it will record information about the large and valuable legacy of digitized books and serials) it does set forth minimum characteristics that might be expected of a faithful digital reproduction. DLF itself does not expect to establish this service, but it is engaged in identifying a service organization that is capable of assuming this responsibility.
Preservation in the Digital World
CLIR has always had a strong interest in preservation issues, but the increase in electronic resources intensifies the need to resolve questions about the longevity of digital materials. In 1996, CLIR and the Research Libraries Group issued a seminal report entitled Preserving Digital Information. Much progress has been made since this document was published, but a preservation infrastructure for digital information is not yet in place.
When the U.S. Congress announced in late 2000 that it would add $100 million to the LC budget to develop a national infrastructure for preserving digital information, the LC turned to CLIR for assistance in developing the plan for such an infrastructure. Although it is unusual for CLIR to be engaged directly in a particular library’s planning project, we believe that this is a unique opportunity to work with another leadership organization engaged in conceptualizing some of the infrastructural elements that must be in place in the new environment. In some respects, CLIR’s role in this effort is an extension of one that it has assumed successfully in the past, namely, to convene disparate parties who have a specific interest in an issue. The outcome of the national plan for the preservation of digital information is enormously important, and CLIR is pleased to play a role in articulating the plan.
CLIR Looks to the Future
CLIR is not immune to the external forces that shape contemporary libraries and archives. As we become involved in efforts to reconceptualize library services in the digital environment, we are compelled to consider changes in our own role and mission. We decided that our thinking about changes that must be made should begin at home. For this reason, we commissioned a survey of how our sponsors, as well as organizations we would like to have as sponsors, perceive the value of CLIR’s work.
This is the first such analysis that CLIR has ever attempted. To carry it out, we contracted with The Communications Office, Inc., to ask our sponsoring and other colleagues to reflect on the extent to which CLIR’s programs and publications meet their needs.
The results, while gratifying on one level, indicate that better understanding of CLIR’s agenda is needed. Our program staff has begun a series of focused sessions to articulate our vision and mission. As we imagine the changes that libraries, archives, museums, and other cultural organizations will experience as they find their proper roles in the digital world, how do we assist them? We expect to have a more specific answer to this question in the next several months.
A Word of Thanks
The generous support of more than 175 institutions, private foundations, and individual donors makes our work possible. We are privileged to work with these partners in reshaping information services for the future.
CLIR’s traditional institutional sponsorsresearch libraries and liberal arts college librarieshave been unfailing in their support. In addition, three comprehensive university members joined the rank of sponsor this year. In 2001, the number of CLIR sponsors grew from 145 to 161, an increase of 11 percent. The DLF added one member, the University of Washington, to bring its membership to 26 institutional participants.
The general support for CLIR provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has been invaluable. This type of support gives us the flexibility to move quickly into areas that need attention or to focus deeply on a problem that requires more staff power.
Project funding provided by The Atlantic Philanthropies, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, Documentation Abstracts, Inc., the Henry Luce Foundation, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the H. W. Wilson Foundation, and the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation allowed us to maintain important programs such as the Frye Leadership Institute and to begin new projects, such as a communications program aimed at policy makers in higher education.
The financial investment that sponsors and funding agencies have made in CLIR has given our staff a stable foundation. The creativity and dedication of the staff are awe-inspiring, and their contributions multiply each year as they make more connections with other organizations and find ways to mesh our agenda with those of other organizations. CLIR’s standards of excellence begin with the staff.
This year, CLIR program staff welcomed two new members. Anne Kenney joined us in September 2000 as a half-time director of programs. She also works half-time for Cornell University Libraries. Jerry George, formerly of the National Archives and Records Administration, joined CLIR as special projects associate. We bid a reluctant farewell to Ann Marie Parsons, a student in The Catholic University of America’s School of Library and Information Science, who left CLIR in May after completing her master’s degree internship.
It is a great pleasure to work with staff of such extraordinary talent and commitment. It is equally rewarding to work with the CLIR Board16 individuals from different perspectives who set the tone and standards for our organization. I consider myself fortunate to work on important problems confronting information organizations with our staff, Board, partner organizations, and funding agencies and sponsors. I am deeply grateful for their contributions and for the trust they have placed in me.
Deanna B. Marcum
September 30, 2001