The UK's status as a world leader in research depends on its institutions having the best possible access to the full range of published work. Although we currently rank alongside the US and outstrip most European and Asian nations, we risk being overtaken in the next decade if we do not grasp the possibilities of new technology.
For the first time, a national digital library has become a realistic possibility, both technologically and economically. Such a shared service, delivering a national core collection of monographs and journals, would allow the UK to maintain its lead in delivering the best content electronically to all students, researchers and academics at higher education institutions. It would also overcome a significant barrier to new entrants to the higher education market: further education colleges would be able to buy into it, rather than having to build up their own individual libraries. The student experience would be improved by resources accessed through a national catalogue.
Of course, what is realistic for the UK is realistic for other countries, too. In the US, leading academics such as Robert Darnton, director of the Harvard University Library, are arguing for a national digital library for the public as well as the academy. At the other end of the spectrum, Pakistan established a national digital library in 2004 as a way of overcoming limited resources. Elsewhere, Finland has just completed a three-year development phase for an equivalent body.
The UK has certain advantages that could allow us to leapfrog these rivals. We have a culture of collaboration. Through organisations such as the Society of College, National and University Libraries and Jisc, we have developed the concept of a national shared service. The existing JANET network, the expertise held in Jisc and the technological know-how in individual institutions have given us advantages few other countries can compete with.
With the development of cloud computing, access to electronic information no longer relies on institutions holding data themselves. Access is determined by digital rights governed by contractual arrangements. New books and journals are produced electronically as a matter of course, while the mass digitisation of older materials is taking place across the world, including by commercial entities such as Google. There are many new powerful research tools; the emphasis now is on establishing a common system to allow them to work together effectively.
There is a big prize here. Information exchange is a global phenomenon, and nations and commercial providers that are front-runners in the development of the technological solutions underpinning national digital libraries are likely to set the template for what will become an important international market.
For individual institutions, a national digital library has obvious advantages. The selection, purchase and management of resources is currently carried out at each of the UK's 180-odd universities and higher education colleges. By contributing a small proportion to the cost of a national service, libraries would be able to focus on the other functions and services they provide. This includes the development of special collections that support institutional centres of expertise, the provision of social and study areas, plus the advice, help and training that are critical to enhancing the student experience and developing employability.
The main barriers we must overcome to make this idea a reality are not technological, political or economic: they arise from the contractual limitations imposed as part of the licensing of e-content. The library community is working hard with publishers to try to develop standard contracts and simplified terms. Where progress has not been possible, we have attempted to develop open-access materials and use institutional repositories. Any solution will need to deliver new, sustainable business models for publishers, but it must also remove unnecessary limitations on the access to, and use of, the content produced by the academy. We will need the backing of government and university leaders to bring this about, but the prize, a national digital library for the UK sector, would benefit us all.