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The Special Challenges for National Libraries

Computers in Libraries [June 2011] The Systems Librarian

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In my experience with many different kinds of libraries, I have found that national libraries perform some of the most interesting, important, and challenging roles and likewise are involved in some of the most fascinating uses of automation and technology. I've had the opportunity to visit a few, including those in Colombia, Argentina, Sweden, Denmark, Slovenia, Austria, and Taiwan, as well as The British Library and the Library of Congress (LC). And I hope to add to the list. My exposure to these libraries has sparked an appreciation for the incredibly difficult tasks associated with building, preserving, and enabling access to collections at a national level and with providing relevant services throughout a nation. While each library has its own distinct character and scope of responsibilities, there is much they have in common. For example, on the technology front, these libraries make use of some of the most sophisticated automation systems available, and this benefits all types of libraries. I believe that almost all libraries derive some level of benefit, either direct or indirect, from the efforts of national libraries.

Inspiring Architecture

In my travels, I always look forward to touring the facilities of national libraries. These buildings are some of the most incredible and impressive examples of architecture in a city. Each building has its own distinctive style and character, but those that I have experienced offer inspiring places for the public to read and learn and for staff members to fulfill their tasks. I observe that these libraries almost always face a tension between old and new. Most of these buildings were originally designed and built long ago, but they must now find ways to accommodate current-day technologies. The Royal Library in Denmark, in which the modern architecture of the Black Diamond building is tethered to the original King's Library, exemplifies this creative tension.

Operating at the National Level

Managing a library collection at the national level follows quite a different set of assumptions than hold for typical academic or public libraries. These collections, often comprehensive of all materials published in a country, press the limits of scale in terms of the sizes of collections. A national library collection might, for example, stand as the definitive collection of the literature of a given ethnic group, language, or other slice of international culture within its geographic boundaries.

While other libraries follow selection criteria to build their circulating or research collections, most national libraries aim to collect all published materials. Compared to public libraries that acquire a selection of materials to form a circulating collection to meet the interests of their current users, national libraries build comprehensive collections of cultural heritage in the interests of posterity as well as for current researchers.

These collections also span a full range of material types-from manuscripts to books, periodicals, physical artifacts, film, and, in recent decades, increasing proportions of digitized representations of traditional materials and born-digital content such as web archives, digital audio and video, and electronic public records. New forms of media and technology have produced an array of content that adds considerably to the complexity of building collections of national significance.

National Treasures

On my visits to national libraries, my hosts are often keen to show some of the most ancient and valuable treasures of their collections. These objects include the writings of the most important literary figures in the country's history, as well as the earliest examples of written language or of the first printed works. While I'm not a historian or a connoisseur of antiquities, even I can appreciate the incredible significance of these rare and ancient specimens that reside within these national collections. While it's important to protect and preserve all materials, these rare and historically significant specimens demand the highest level of care.

Preserving Culture and Heritage

National libraries bear the responsibility for not only assembling these vast and varied collections but also ensuring their preservation for future generations. Regardless of whether a given item is a mass-produced book, a digital video program, or the rarest manuscript, the availability of materials in the future will largely depend on the efforts of these institutions today, in the same way that what is available to scholars today relies on the continuous chain of custodial activities of preceding generations. While other types of libraries also have important cultural collections with similar demands for long-term preservation, national libraries epitomize the issue.

All of the national libraries that I have visited have well-developed processes and procedures for preserving their physical collections. They house their collections with proper climate controls and have experts for the repair and rehabilitation of books, manuscripts, or other physical materials. Most have also implemented processes and infrastructure for ensuring the long-term preservation of their growing digital holdings.

National libraries present challenges and opportunities in the realm of digital preservation. While traditional preservation practices will likely always apply to printed materials and physical artifacts, an increasing body of materials will depend on highly reliable digital preservation processes and infrastructure. Such materials include content published electronically, such as web-sites and ejournals, as well as digital audio and video productions. Multimedia content stored on videotape, CD, DVD, or other obsolete formats will likewise rely on the preservation of digital representations as playback equipment becomes extinct and as the original media deteriorate.

National libraries often have the resources to take on development projects, either on their own or in partnership with other organizations, to develop automation components needed for their own requirements that also benefit the broader library community. The National Library of New Zealand, for example, saw the need for the technology infrastructure to support its digital preservation initiatives. Given the absence of suitable alternatives already available commercially, the library entered a development partnership with Ex Libris. The effort resulted in the Rosetta digital preservation product, which Ex Libris now offers to other libraries.

Controlled Access

How national libraries provide access to their collections must be tempered through policies and procedures consistent with their essential charge of preserving materials for the future. While most public and academic libraries allow users to freely browse their collections, national libraries exert much more control. Their stacks are closed to all but trained library personnel, are often made available only to registered researchers, and may be consulted only within the confines of secured reading rooms. While items from a public library are expected to be used, worn, and replaced, the one-of-a-kind materials from the collection of a national library may not be possible to replace. Scholars often feel the effects of restricted access of national libraries relative to other academic and public research libraries. These libraries experience tension between an interest in providing the desired levels of access and the need to control and preserve their collections. Technology can address this tension, especially when digital representations of materials can offer an even better experience with materials than would be possible with the originals. I've seen many examples in which high-resolution images of manuscripts offer a greatly enhanced experience, with more visible details than can be seen on the item itself.

Mass Book Digitization

Mass digitization presents an incredible opportunity for national libraries. Projects such as Google Books and the Internet Archive and have partnered with major academic, research, and national libraries to digitize significant proportions of the body of extant published books. Many national libraries have launched their own efforts to digitize materials in their collections that may not have been included in other projects.

I have high expectations for the impact of mass digitization. Not that long ago, it did not seem realistic that all the books in the world could be digitized. That goal seems quite within reach today. While copyright restrictions pose limitations on access, having the full text of digitized books available for indexing to populate discovery services will result in incredibly powerful research tools.

National Library Services

National libraries perform a variety of services, some for the benefit of the general population and others to benefit libraries and related institutions. Some end-user services include those similar to other public and research libraries, such as access to collection materials, reference and research assistance, and access to licensed electronic content of scholarly materials. Many create exhibitions of materials or artifacts from their collections for the public to view.

Services to libraries might include the operation of interlibrary loan or other resource-sharing environments, establishing national standards for record formats, data exchange or interoperability protocols, training programs for librarians, or establishing accreditation or credentialing standards. National libraries usually have a role in copyright, such as serving as the designated depository for all materials eligible for copyright registration. Many provide cataloging in publication (CIP) and other bibliographic services, a great benefit to the libraries within the country and others worldwide that acquire foreign materials. Arrangements for cataloging and other services vary among national libraries. The extent to which a national library is able to provide extensive cataloging services can make an incredible difference to the how libraries throughout the country process their materials.

The Library of Congress: A Different Kind of National Library

Of course, there is no set model for national libraries. Some countries have multiple official national libraries; some have informal arrangements. Others have institutions that fulfill some aspects of national libraries and not others, such as here in the U.S., where the LC performs many of the roles of a national library, though it's not necessarily charged to fulfill all aspects of that function. The collections of the LC rank as the largest in the U.S., totaling more than 33 million book or other printed volumes but also including vast holdings spanning all media.

Through my work with the Vanderbilt Television News Archive, I've had a chance to interact with the Motion Picture, Broadcast, and Recorded Sound division of the LC, which takes responsibility for collecting, providing access to, and preserving this important dimension of cultural heritage represented in sight and sound. The Packard Campus of the National Au-dioVisual Conservation Center, which is located in Culpeper, Va., stands as a world-class facility for managing all aspects of these materials. I've been especially impressed with the capabilities in place at the Packard Campus related to the digitization of video, including both film and all types of videotape, and to the capture and preservation of content that originates in digital form. The technologies that support these activities include a range of digitizing and processing equipment, very large-scale digital storage, and the technical infrastructure to perform long-term digital preservation. I mention the Packard Campus since it is the division with which I have the closest experience, but it is only one example of the many exceptional facilities and resources at our leading, if not national, library.

National Library Automation Scene

Given the complex set of responsibilities they are charged with, national libraries likewise represent some of the most challenging requirements for technology and automation. The automation support needed for these libraries differs considerably from other library types. These libraries, for example, may not use the circulation capabilities of an automation system but instead need functionality to facilitate the process of paging and delivering materials in a closed-stack environment. These libraries especially make great demands in the realms of cataloging and acquisitions.

Given the complexity and scale of the work they tackle, only the most powerful and scalable library automation systems find use in national libraries. Some national libraries have traditionally developed their own automation systems, but increasingly, even these libraries choose to work with commercially provided products. In general, I expect to see continued momentum of the top-tier international systems to gain an increased presence in national libraries, as regional and local systems tend to lack the resources to keep up with the development needs of rapidly turning technology cycles.

One of my ongoing projects involves gathering data on the technology components used in libraries throughout the world. This information resides in the lib-web-cats database I began more than 15 years ago. While I have not yet completed a definitive sweep of the national libraries, it includes a large representation, and I have created pages for them. (See

It's interesting to see a range of systems used in national libraries. While Ex Libris leads with its Aleph and Voyager automation systems, other well-represented systems include Virtua from VTLS; Symphony and Horizon from SirsiDynix; and Millennium from Innovative Interfaces, Inc. Several libraries in Europe use Lokaal Bibliotheek Systeem (LBS), which is now part of OCLC.

With its focus on large research and academic libraries, Ex Libris has also become heavily involved with national libraries. Its Voyager ILS is used in our own LC as well as in the national libraries of Australia, Finland, and New Zealand: Aleph extends an even longer reach-it is used by The British Library and the national libraries in China, Japan, Sweden, and Denmark, among others. Some of the national libraries using Millennium from Innovative Interfaces, Inc. include those in Estonia, South Africa, and Poland: VTLS has established a strong position in the national library arena with its Virtua ILS, which is used by libraries in Switzerland, Belgium, India, Ireland, Morocco, Pakistan, and Slovakia. SirsiDynix also serves national libraries with Symphony in Colombia, Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, and Jor-don and with Horizon in Greece, Thailand, Tunisia, and Portugal. Other national libraries might use systems that are not so well-known outside their geographic regions or that may be developed by their own IT personnel.

Nationwide Library Infrastructure

One of the major trends in libraries today involves an ever-larger number of libraries sharing an automation system. The concept of each individual library operating its own stand-alone library management system has become increasingly less defensible. It's becoming routine for libraries to be organized in regional or statewide consortia to share an automation system. These arrangements increase the body of materials available to library users and decrease the costs for each participating library.

Some national libraries are spearheading efforts to create a national infrastructure to support libraries within their scope. Especially in small and medium-sized countries, it's reasonable to consider the possibility of a shared national library infrastructure. This national infrastructure might be a single shared automation platform or a comprehensive combined catalog, re-sourcesharing system, or some other broadly shared content or technology resource. The shared infrastructure may focus on specific library types. In Norway, the national library leads the BIBSYS consortium, comprising most of the academic libraries that share a common library management system. BIBSYS is in the process of transitioning from a system it created to one based on OCLC's Web-scale Management Services. In Chile, the national library uses the Aleph ILS and is completing a process to implement it in the public libraries in the country.

Worldwide Benefits

As I think about the contributions of national libraries, I see considerable downstream benefits to those of us who work in other libraries. It includes both direct impact, such as the availability of cataloging records or resource-sharing opportunities, but it also includes indirect benefits such as the availability of technology products with ever-expansive scale and capabilities. While I believe that libraries of all types make vital contributions to society, I hope that I've helped highlight the special role of national libraries, the technologies they embrace, and the benefits they provide within and beyond their constituent areas.

View Citation
Publication Year:2011
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Computers in Libraries
Publication Info:Volume 31 Number 06
Issue:June 2011
Publisher:Information Today
Series: Systems Librarian
Place of Publication:Medford, NJ
Notes:Systems Librarian Column
Record Number:15788
Last Update:2024-05-22 02:25:53
Date Created:2011-06-16 05:43:10