CLIRinghouse Number 2

Quick insight into information-investment issues for presidents, CAOs, and other campus leaders from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR)

Number 2, September 2001

Managing the Demands: How Much Library Do You Need On-line?

Internet-access demands hit campus executives from all sides. Is the university making its library collections accessible? Major donors and senior scholars may want more on the Web about art, the Civil War, or other personal interests. State legislators may press the university to digitize materials for K-12 classroom use. Trustees may argue that the school’s status depends on digitizing the library’s attention-getting collections. Already, online collections range from Montana State University’s images of Native Americans to the 907,750 pages of books and journals in the “Making of America” collection begun by Cornell and the University of Michigan. How should you respond to demands to digitize?

Questions to Ask:

If You Build It, Will They Come?

Some universities that did not ask the following questions initially may have to drop expensively digitized collections as unforeseen problems emerge.

  • What will determine which items, and how many, to digitize? (The few formal criteria for selection that universities have developed are vague except to exclude material difficult to scan or under copyright.)
  • Will digital access result in meaningful use? (Though sites record “hits,” few studies show how scholars and students actually use electronic information; fewer still provide cost-benefit analyses.)
  • What are the full costs of digital access projects? (These may include costs of encoding, cataloging, redesigning Web sites, managing files, preserving data long-term, developing user services, and training or hiring staff.
  • Can the same purposes be served at less cost by buying, leasing, or otherwise importing digital material? (Much scholarly literature is available online from commercial and nonprofit providers.)
  • Can the university affordably develop search tools and interfaces needed to make digitized collections easy to locate and use? (Just being on a Web site is not enough.)

Options to Consider:

One Size Fits Few

Digital projects of universities and colleges differ, depending on institutional size, sophistication, and objectives. Some of the largest libraries are digitizing “critical masses” of material that researchers can search, compare, and recombine electronically. Some schools digitize less but create electronic “publications” for scholarship and teaching. New York University makes modest investments in online exhibits and other modes of Web outreach for specific users. Harvard gives priority to building an infrastructure to manage scholarly information being created digitally rather than converted from print. Some colleges and universities digitize small collections just to experiment with possibilities.


Subtract Surprises, Add Value

Until sound strategies for digital developments are established, these approaches will help:

  • Push for specificity about project purposes and who will benefit, how material will be selected, how (and for how long) it will be maintained, and whether the money will come from internal budgets, donations, user fees, or a combination.
  • Identify all potential costs at the outset (scanning is often the least expensive part) and weigh them against benefits determined through consultation with potential users.
  • Insist that digitization projects add value by providing ease of access (e.g., through a navigable Web site), ease of searching (e.g., through descriptive information accessible to specialized search services), and other enhancements.
  • Consider joining forces with an institution that already is engaged in digitization.

Additional Information:

Help Hot Off the Press

The following new reports from CLIR and the Digital Library Federation (DLF) provide more detailed advice: These and related resources from CLIR and the DLF, including a registry of DLF-members’ online collections, may be consulted free at and Print publications may also be purchased through CLIR’s Web site.

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