Some missing guests at the revolutionary party

October 10, 1997

Electronic libraries offer the prospect of infinite access to worldwide information resources from the researcher's PC but are key players really talking to each other, asks Sylvia Simmons

For librarians wanting to keep track of the latest developments, the late summer conference schedule can be hectic. This year, sandwiched between IFLA (the international librarians' mega get-together) and Libtech, the library technology issues annual event at the University of Hertfordshire, was the enigmatically titled "New Tricks 2: eLib & Telematics: projects and partnerships".

It was organised by Bournemouth University's head of library and information services David Ball who, drawing parallels between the IT revolution and the 15/16th century impact of the printed book, emphasised the importance of understanding the scale of the cultural revolution in library and information services. As it took centuries to understand the impact of the printed book on educational and cultural development, his hope that delegates would draw conclusions on how the electronic library will change life in an academic institution was perhaps a trifle over-ambitious.

The conference discussed the two European programmes of investment in the digital library - eLib and Telematics Applications. The Telematics Applications Programme is pan-European, supports EU policy initiatives towards the "information society" and involves all types of library, suppliers and small and medium-sized enterprises. The United Kingdom's eLib programme is dedicated to higher education, deriving from the recommendations of the Follett report.

Despite these differences, at a practical level the individual projects of the two programmes overlap and are tackling similar technical and infrastructure issues. Some 14 projects (eight eLib, six Telematics) were represented at the conference. They were grouped in four common themes: Access to Networked Resources, User Interfaces and E-journals, Images and Digitisation, Access to and Delivery of Distributed Resources. By juxtaposing issues arising from the two research programmes, the conference tried to grasp on what the individual projects will deliver: what will our new electronic artifacts look like; how will they compare? Can we identify common themes between projects and programmes and contrast their approaches; how do they foresee transition from research project to full-blown service delivery and is there enough sharing of results and experience, between the projects and programmes?

The plenary debate under the lively chairmanship of Robin Alston, director of the school of library, archive and information studies at University College London, was stimulating but had a sense of preaching to the converted. Alston pointed to the level of bureaucracy surrounding eLib project development and cautioned that as librarians we could no longer take anything for granted: the profile of our users, the backing of senior management or guaranteed sources of funding for library development. As librarians, we have responsibilities to the past (to preserve), the present (to collect) and to the future (to plan and set up a robust IT infrastructure). In earlier stages of digital library development, librarians found themselves competing with publishers, although now a spirit of compromise and collaboration is developing. But there were no publishers to join in the serious debate: who will take the commercial risk of new developments; who and what is a publisher in the digital library world; will new universities be left out of consortia developing shared collections and document delivery if they cannot offer a rich research library collection based on many years as a research-focused institution?

Some attempt was made to formulate the questions for the next stage of digital library implementation: how to move forward from research and development to full-scale functioning services; what scale of service is feasible, the desirability and need to involve commercial partners; how to control such relationships; what is the potential role of university purchasing consortia and so on.

David Farley, head of library services at King Alfred's College of Higher Education in Winchester attended New Tricks 2 to see at firsthand what the various electronic library projects have achieved. While eLib and similar development projects often generate clear benefits for participating institutions, it is often difficult to identify benefits to others. Project directors need to be reminded of their collective responsibility to the whole higher education community given the top-sliced resourcing they have received. Farley has similar concerns about Telematics projects, although he feels they have often been less than efficient in disseminating and publicising their projects.

Charu Sood, director of interlending services at the National Library of Australia, had touched down in the UK on her way to IFLA '97 in Copenhagen. She hoped to find some answers from the UK's eLIB and post-Follett experiences, but only got more questions. Operating within tight economic constraints, librarians are being asked to raise revenues whilst maintaining core services and respond enthusiastically and imaginatively to the new options for service delivery.

As electronic libraries become a reality, many of the issues relating to technical, legal, economic, psychological, educational and cultural change need more in-depth research. Defending the conduct of eLib research to date, Charles Oppenheim, professor of electronic library research at De Montfort University told a Libtech seminar organised by the Library & Information Research Group that eLib never intended to sweep the world but to begin the process: examining the emerging library world will include development of new economic models, new methods for evaluating quality of information and evaluating users' needs. The digital library is here: but there is no clear path for the digital librarian: our new role means we must speak to publishers, funding bodies, students, researchers, senior managers, government and policy-makers; keeping up the dialogue and dissemination within and across sectors is vital.

Sylvia Simmons is an information consultant and social researcher (sylvia@inforesponse.

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