Libraries lose their shelf life

January 12, 1996

Are libraries living on borrowed time? examines how Pounds 15 million is being spent on adapting for the future.

Ninety-nine per cent of everything on the Internet is crud. But if you're a highly-focused specialist with a deadline isn't at least 99 per cent of everything in any library but your own the same?

"Unless the Internet can reliably identify and deliver substantive information in response to a subject enquiry, its reputation as an information system will remain tarnished," says Frank Norman of the Organising Medical Networked Information project. "OMNI and similar information filtering and indexing projects will achieve that goal."

"The scholarly publishing system is creaking," says Lorcan Dempsey, director of the UK Office for Library and Information Networking (UKOLN). "eLibI allows us to plan the first steps in the migration to a world in which the intellectual record, the output of our universities, is created and accessed electronically."

Less idealistically, the Follett report of 1993 identified library networking and information technology as a way in which libraries might cope with increasing user demands and, at best, static funding. Hence, the Pounds 15 million from the four funding bodies over three years for the Electronic Libraries (eLIB) programme of research projects.

Of the 37 eLib projects announced by mid-November, ten aim to develop novel forms of journal in fields ranging from archaeology to art and design.

Two are digitising existing material. For anyone who finds it increasingly difficult to deal with paper documents, it is good to know that recorded history is being extended before 1980. Michael Emly of Leeds University Library says of the Internet Library of Early Journals that "full-text searching of resources such as Notes and Queries or the Gentleman's Magazine will open up new possibilities for research exploitation of these titles".

Four projects are concerned with electronic delivery of existing electronic documents, seven with structured and quality-checked access to existing networked resources, and seven with on-demand publishing of, for example, course books.

The remaining projects are concerned with training, awareness, monitoring and support. Joan Day of the University of Nottingham describes the IMPEL2 project as "standing back and looking across library/info services in the sector to see what impact the move towards the electronic library is having on staff and students". Judith Elkin of the UNiversity of Central England defines the TAPin Transfer of Network Information Skills project at the University of Central England as not just training but "studying IT cultures and how they are developing".

Some issues raised by the concept of electronic libraries have been rehearsed. How should electronic journals be refereed? Might other forms of quality assessment, rather than rationing, be more appropriate in a boundless medium?

But many eLib projects raise new problems. Should an electronic journal based in the UK be allowed to register an Internet address? What are the best formats for electronic storage and delivery of documents? And how in this new, infinitely changeable world are documents to be authenticated, referenced and paid for?

Two classes of document format currently dominate that discussion: page descriptions in Acrobat, Adobe's derivative of its PostScript language; and content mark-up in HyperText Markup Language, a derivative of the Standard Generalised Markup Language.

Steve Hitchcock at Southampton University predicts that, at least in the Open Journal project, "Acrobat will dominate next year as most online journals will simply be page images of the paper version. This is good for publishers who wish to retain the identity of their journals, and for readers who prefer downloading and printing out familiar screen formats."

eLib programme director at Warwick University, Chris Rusbridge, says: "HTML is not rich enough for many technical subjects" - though extensions for maths are expected shortly and chemists are working on a chemical markup standard.

But page descriptions look to many librarians and information scientists like a terrible waste. Lou Burnard of Oxford University says: "The relevance of sensible applications of SGML is that they separate the way you say something from the content of what you say."

Where Acrobat may tag text as "30-point Bodoni", SGML and HTML tell you it is a second-level headline. In principle, they add semantic information to the document. Putting the next heading in 29.4-point Bodoni may make a designer happy, but it is calculated to make an information system programmer upset, and the system confused. Frank Norman at the Medical Research Council thus describes SGML as "the most virtuous format".

The debate is not just about virtue, but about proprietary versus open systems. One player asks "Why should the way we store and manipulate our digital resources be dictated to us by smartly-dressed oiks from Redmond [home of Microsoft]?" More philosophically: "The Internet was not designed and built in order to sell designer soft drinks. It evolved out of the needs of scientific researchers, which in turn developed out of a centuries-old tradition of the free exchange of ideas and information."

However, Michael Emly says: "Manual correction of optical character recognition errors is not feasible on this scale, so fuzzy searching must be used instead, with access to the page image for a reliable version of the original text."

And HTML/SGML are easily edited. Bruce Royan at Stirling says that a priority of the SCOPE project is "making it very difficult for users to manipulate the text, thus protecting the moral rights of authors".

Most projects contacted seem to have postponed the questions of authors' and publishers' rights and payment for individual use.

The new journals do open new possibilities. Alan Vince of the University of York says of the Internet Archaeology journal: "Authors will retain copyright over the intellectual content of their work - and we will pursue any infringement resulting from Web publication." In a world where publishers increasingly demand that authors hand over all rights, this may help remind librarians that copyright is about more than big-business page charges for photocopying.

The Phoenix on-demand publishing project is the only eLib scheme to report detailed work on rights and royalties. South Bank University's Catherine Hurst says: "A source/permission statement will appear each time a unit is displayed on-screen and/or printed from the CourseBook Server."

The Library Association recently stated its goal of reforming national copyright legislation so that "the [fair use] exceptions to the exclusive rights should be strengthened to permit the access, browsing and copying of electronic information by librarians and archivists for the same purposes as its printed equivalent". But who should count as a librarian on the Internet? If you log into your library from your desk, from home or from the top of a mountain, is that librarianship?

For up-to-the-minute details of eLib, see the Web site at UKOLN:

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