Librarian using laptop.

Digital Libraries: Their Impact and Management

The information technology age has transformed access to, and the distribution of, data and intelligence on a massive a scale. Immense bibliographic databases, coupled with easy-to-use public online information retrieval systems, make it relatively simple for library patrons to almost instantaneously access a wide array of digital resources and tools—ranging from audio and video files to articles and books.[1] Today, libraries provide easy access to digital information through Internet-enabled devices, such as smartphones and laptops In fact, Internet connectivity represents the greatest asset provided by digital libraries. From a user’s perspective, digitization has simplified the library system. However, would-be library professionals should know the following four important facts about digital libraries.

Realities of the Digital Library

Digital libraries experienced a second evolution with the introduction of the Internet.[2] Digitally stored data serves to perform the same function as traditional hard copy stacks. That is: the access and preservation of information that is beneficial for a particular audience. Despite this similarity, the transition from traditional to digital library media is complicated by the fact that unauthorized users can sometimes edit and copy digital information as well as engage the medium from countless remote access points. This creates new, complex challenges for librarian technologists who often strive to protect the integrity and accuracy of stored data. However, the benefits offered by digital libraries—which include eliminating the need to make multiple copies for patrons, and the ability to share relevant resources between branches—outweigh these challenges.

The size and complexity of digital data can perhaps be seen in the effort to archive such information. According to Brewster Kahle, the founder and librarian of his project called the Internet Archive, the Internet library already has over three million books digitized, with thousands being added every day. Further perspective can be provided by the fact that when information on the Internet first began to be archived, there were approximately 30 million web pages. At last count, there are more than 150 billion pages.[3]

There are some limitations involving the digital library concept, however. Currently, the ability to build one massive literary repository that all patrons can access 24/7 from anywhere in the world is beyond the reach of technological capabilities. However, this is the very objective that technologists hoped to achieve at the dawn of the digital library’s conceptualization. In reality, digital libraries are likely destined to remain segregated enterprises that serve specific communities.

Digitization Expands the Influence of an Age-Old Institution

Digital libraries are so efficient and effective that commercial interests now mimic the electronic library frameworks used by many public and private library institutions.[4] At the same time, thanks to the constant influx of new information, library frameworks are also rapidly growing to a point of saturation among traditional literary service providers.

An example of the expansion of specific digital library frameworks can be seen in their sheer number. Well over 200 libraries in towns and cities across America have archives that are focused on providing information about localized, regional, and U.S. history. These libraries also include larger collections, eTexts and eBook repositories to help researchers and similar patrons.[5]

As compared to traditional hard copy libraries, digital libraries allow institutions to store more information in less space within expansive server-based networks, reducing expenses and maintenance requirements. Additionally, the tool allows library technologists to incorporate emerging media formats almost instantaneously.

The Internet connectivity of digital libraries allows individuals to patronize previously geographically inaccessible institutions. Patrons with Internet service can theoretically access any branch in the world from nearly any location, as long as they have an Internet connection. Many users can access the same document at the same time, and through several branches. By accessing a user-friendly interface, patrons can quickly search through an entire library collection. Additionally, technologists can perform specialized tasks such as enhancing or repairing images, ensuring that digital media will never deteriorate or face the threat of physical damage.

Digital repositories offer patrons access to media 24 hours a day, seven days a week. While digitization is not currently a viable solution for long-term literary preservation, the medium does ease the sharing of copies.

One population segment that is enthusiastically embracing the realities and burgeoning potential of digital libraries is the university education sector. College campuses from coast to coast are transforming their library environments into centers of modern student life and Internet connectivity. Hard- and soft-cover books are out of style, replaced by digital downloads. Wi-Fi cafes are the norm. Collaborative study areas encourage talking, and 24/7 access is a must.[6]

Managing digital media does come with challenges, such as the need to maintain current technologies and protecting copyrights in a massive literary environment. Data migration allows digital librarians to preserve media that could one day become extinct. However, all technologies eventually grow outdated and unstable, forcing establishments to constantly update to newer formats. Library technologists must always design systems while considering how to migrate data to emerging technologies. During this process, digital technologists must exercise caution in maintaining the integrity of media.

Despite the ability to migrate data and update media formats, digital libraries remain a temporary, although effective, solution for archiving printed, visual, and audio media. However, librarian technologists must maintain a continuous vigil to keep up with technological standards as they emerge.

Copyright Law Is Behind the Curve

Copyright protection for electronically reproduced assets presents a formidable challenge to the law, as legislators are still creating regulations that protect digital media. Complex issues involving the duplication and distribution of works by a massively larger audience have forced regulators around the world to rethink how to protect the rights of authors. Moreover, now that a global audience can access virtually all media, assigning responsibility for protection and violations has grown into a somewhat diluted process for officials who uphold copyright laws.

In today’s world, technologically savvy librarians assist institutions in expanding to meet public demands. Contemporary library administrators face, on a daily basis, not only the task of mastering new media innovations, but they must also hire, organize, and manage teams of librarians who are digitally knowledgeable. This management process begins with understanding the tasks that modern librarians must complete every day. It must also include a realization of how fast, and how much, the traditional library environment is changing. Therefore, the transition from a manual to digital institution will require a culture where team members continually learn and share information as it emerges.

Learn More

Information means more than knowledge, it means solutions. When technology, people and information intersect, society and industry benefit. You can harness the power of information with our online Master of Information degree at Rutgers University.

Recommended Readings:

How Data is Stored and What We Do With It
Impact of Digital Libraries in Schools
Librarian Salary and Career Outlook



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