CLIRinghouse Number 14

Quick insight into information-investment issues for presidents, CAOs, and other campus leaders from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) Number 14, January/February 2003

The Issue for Presidents and CAOs:

Should We Massively Digitize Academic Libraries?

Summary: For digital libraries to live up to their promise, a critical mass of digitized information must be available. America’s colleges and universities could make a great contribution by digitizing massive amounts of their library holdings and making them easily accessible online to scholars and students everywhere. Standing in the way are financial, legal, and organizational obstacles. But possibilities exist for surmounting the obstacles if higher education is willing to take full advantage of emerging technologies.

Recognizing the Benefits

Theoretically, the potential benefits of mass digitization are mind-boggling. Students and faculty in every academic institution-here and around the world-could have easy access to vast resources previously confined within individual library walls. Moreover, digitization could keep in use books and other traditional resources in which higher education has invested heavily for decades, even centuries-resources that may be lost to sight as researchers find it easier to go first to whatever resources are available online. Surveys tell us that both faculty and students already turn to the Internet and campus library Web sites for much of what they need, and are well equipped to do so. What would it take to move massive libraries into their PCs and laptops?

Finding the Money

Clearly, massive digitization would first require massive funding. But arguing that the educational benefits would warrant the expense, a coalition called the Digital Promise Project is asking Congress to support educational uses of digital technologies with billions of dollars from government auctions of licenses to the electromagnetic spectrum. Even if Congress refuses, a concerted effort could still work. When the nation’s libraries recognized the need to create online card catalogs, they achieved it through long-range planning, strategic grants, and the creation of new services such as OCLC. Financial constraints could slow the rate of digitization without precluding a commitment to it.

Reconsidering Copyrights

Currently, the electronic reproduction and dissemination of great numbers of books and journals in academic libraries is prevented by copyright restrictions. In fact, copyrights were recently extended by the Supreme Court’s upholding of legislation that keeps copyrighted publications out of the public domain until 70 years after authors’ deaths. Legal issues may be far from resolution, but both publishers and librarians are interested in access. Is it possible to persuade publishers to grant permission to digitize works protected by copyright in exchange for some system of marketing their works through libraries? This would require a completely new model, but a Working Group of Librarians and Publishers organized by CLIR and the Association of American Publishers is exploring possibilities.

Reaching Agreements

Even if legal and financial obstacles were overcome, could libraries agree to consolidate vast holdings online? Continued development of promising technologies for interoperability among digital libraries would be needed, but so would decisions about how costs of digitization and responsibilities for preservation of universally accessible resources could be divided among libraries. However, some academic libraries already have contributed to accessible aggregations of digital resources, such as the “Making of America” collection, pioneered by Cornell and the University of Michigan. And the National Science Digital Library has contributions from more than 100 institutions. Moreover, MIT is federating its D-Space repository of e-scholarship created digitally by faculty on its campus and others. Not to digitize our libraries’ holdings-and also capture born-digital e-scholarship-for universal access would seem a turning away from benefits that the technologies make possible. Can higher education overcome the non-technological obstacles?

Additional Information

A detailed argument for massive digitization with an analysis of obstacles is available in a soon-to-be-published paper, “Requirements for the Future Digital Library,” delivered by Deanna B. Marcum at the Elsevier Digital Libraries Symposium VI in January 2003. The paper is available by arrangement with Elsevier at