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Refining Digital Strategies

Computers in Libraries [Jan / Feb 2016]

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Copyright (c) 2016 Information Today

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Abstract: It is a given that libraries must focus increasing efforts on delivering technology-based services in addition to the services provided within their physical premises. More and more, library collections include access to electronic resources as well as digital content. Services provided to patrons are delivered both virtually and in person. Technology-based collections and services and those provided physically compete for a finite set of resources, both in terms of funding and staffing levels. The way a library allocates its resources among various collections and services must be given careful consideration.


It is a given that libraries must focus increasing efforts on delivering technology-based services in addition to the services provided within their physical premises. More and more, library collections include access to electronic resources as well as digital content. Services provided to patrons are delivered both virtually and in person. Technology-based collections and services and those provided physically compete for a finite set of resources, both in terms of funding and staffing levels. The way a library allocates its resources among various collections and services must be given careful consideration.

Whether articulated in a formal document or through informal means, libraries should have a digital strategy that addresses the key facets of managing and delivering technology-oriented content and services. A digital strategy must consider collection development, technical infrastructure, staffing for the management and access of collections, the impact on each segment of the library's community, and how to offer a full range of virtual services that complement in-person offerings and that promote the objectives of the library.

Electronic and Digital Collections

All types of libraries face the need to manage complex collections spanning multiple formats. The composition of collections follows differing patterns in each library type. For example, some corporate libraries focus on knowledge management, based almost entirely on electronic documents, and may only rarely handle print. A typical academic library may spend most of its collection budget on published and open access (OA) electronic resources and make limited expenditures on new print monographs, but continue to manage extensive legacy collections of print books and journals. Archives and special collections prize their historical documents, manuscripts, photographs, and other physical objects; they may selectively digitize these objects to increase options for access. Public libraries continue to invest mostly in print materials or digital content on physical media and see vigorous circulation. They also provide lending of ebooks and other digital content as an additional service that complements the growing volume of circulation of physical materials.

Recognizing the different patterns, libraries face tough choices in how they divide their budgets and associated personnel across these different formats, with evergrowing allocations to digital content. Unfortunately, most library budgets have not seen increases in recent years, and any new investments in digital content mean reductions in spending in physical materials.

One of the fundamental components of a digital strategy involves the allocation of budget resources for the acquisition of electronic materials and digital content. Libraries make difficult decisions on how to distribute their spending on each format to develop collections that meet the information needs of their designated clientele. It's critical for these decisions to be made strategically. As individual collection development librarians work to acquire materials in accordance with the needs of their constituents, most libraries will also have targets on aggregate allocations to digital versus print formats.

Budget pressures have an impact on the composition of collections. A common scenario seen in academic libraries provides an example. The inflation of subscription fees continues to outpace any growth in budgets, resulting in painful cuts in some collection items to maintain access to essential resource packages. These pressures often accelerate decreases in spending for physical materials. Academic libraries frequently make drastic cuts in the acquisition of new print monographs relative to priorities that would otherwise prevail.

There are choices of business models within a library's allocations to electronic resources. The traditional subscription-based model no longer stands unchallenged. OA publishing provides an increasingly attractive alternative to traditional subscriptions. Enabling access without cost or direct subscription, publication costs are provided through author-payment charges or other means. Many libraries or their higher-level authorities have established mandates or targets for shifting from subscriptionbased resources to OA. Although the vision of OA has been in play for at least 2 decades, in recent years, we have seen more intense activity and demand for alternatives to the unsustainable subscription models that wreaked havoc on academic library budgets. Targets for OA involvement should be included in a library's digital strategy.

A similar set of issues applies in the public library sphere. These libraries usually supplement the circulation of physical materials with ebook-lending services. Similar to their academic librarian colleagues, they must make tactical allocation decisions relative to their investment in ebooks and their associated lending platforms-often provided through organizations such as OverDrive. The prices and the business rules for ebooks have been pain points for public libraries. The cost of an ebook may be multiples of that for the same title in print. There may be restrictions on the number of times it can be lent, and the fees may provide access for only a limited time.

In the same way that academic libraries advocate for OA publishing that may result in some long-term relief for library budgets, public libraries seek alternative ebook models that involve ownership of content rather than subscribed access, which hopefully results in more control of lending policies and containment of costs. Given few alternatives in the current marketplace of library-oriented ebook lending services, libraries may see more opportunities in collective advocacy programs such as the ReadersFirst initiative than in their ability to instantiate these values in their current operational services.

Many libraries also create or acquire collections of digital objects, including those digitized from physical items and materials natively created digitally. These collections often represent unique and valuable cultural or historical materials. Organizations responsible for these special collections or archives will frequently choose to devote resources to digitize, manage, and describe at least some of the materials. These efforts can result in greater access to the materials without endangering the originals and can even provide a layer of digital preservation to complement other conservation methods. The creation and management of digital collections is expensive, both in terms of technology infrastructure and in skilled personnel to digitize, describe, and manage them.

As a subset of the library's broader collections strategy, a fundamental component of its digital strategy includes the resources allocated to digital and electronic materials and the multiple layers of related business and policy issues in play. Some issues relate to resource allocation or selection decisions that are within the library's domain, while others work toward realizing changes in the broader landscape of publishing and the options available to libraries in general.

Digital Management

As electronic resources or digital content come to dominate library collections, responsible levels of attention must be given to their management. The library needs to have adequate infrastructure to acquire, describe, manage, and provide access to each major component of its collection. In some cases, different tools may be used for different formats of materials, but in recent years, library services platforms have emerged that are able to address both print and electronic materials.

Whether it is through separate or consolidated applications, it is essential for the library's resource-management environment to enable it to direct the efforts of its personnel proportionately to the volume or strategic impact of each category of material. Workflows of ILSs are generally oriented to print resources. As libraries have shifted the proportions of their collections from print to electronic formats, many have found difficulties in reallocating library personnel.

A digital strategy should tackle the management of resources, addressing the areas of functionality required for each format, but also balancing the distribution of the efforts of its workforce. One of the major trends underway in academic libraries involves the shift toward technical infrastructure better suited for the management and delivery of complex collections that comprise increasing portions of electronic and digital content. Discovery services presented to library patrons must provide access to all types of content, including the mechanisms to offer the most convenient means of access.

Technologies related to the management and access of library collections must be aligned with the strategic priorities of the library. Maintaining outdated products that monopolize staff resources for print materials of diminishing impact-while lacking effective and efficient tools for the management and access of electronic resources-can impair the ability of the library to accomplish its strategic objectives.

Digital Communities

Libraries provide services for a defined constituency. Schools and universities primarily serve enrolled students, as well as faculty members and other employees of the institution. The community of a public library corresponds to the jurisdiction of the local government with which it is associated. In the same way that libraries welcome guests from outside their defined service populations, an even broader set of people can visit the digital presence of any given library. Although incidental use is offered to unaffiliated guests, libraries focus their service on their designated community.

In the digital arena, a library's community can have a somewhat different scope. Libraries with unique and interesting digital collections, for example, may attract a global audience. However, it is important to focus resources on serving the organization's core constituency. Offering resources to a broader audience may have indirect benefits such as bringing attention to the organization in ways that strengthen its capacity to carry out its primary objectives.

The community served by a library is rarely homogeneous. In addition to demographics or socio-economic groups, a library must also consider differences in the ways that various individuals consume technology. The library's virtual presence should aim to provide content and services of interest to all segments of its community. Given the incredible diversity of most libraries' patrons, one of the greatest challenges lies in providing resources at the different levels and areas of interest.

Academic libraries provide comprehensive resources required by primary researchers, those working at the graduate level. K-12 school libraries provide material at all reading levels. Public libraries serve the most diverse populations of all and provide resources spanning broad areas of interest and academic levels-as well as in the multiple languages spoken in their communities.

Digital communities also span a wide range of capabilities in the way they access technology. It's easy to deliver a rich digital experience to those with current computing technology and fast broadband internet service. The design and deployment of a library's virtual services must also accommodate those with much older computers, out-of-date browsers, and slow internet connections. The lower end of technology rises slowly, with the need to support older browsers with poor support for modern standards persisting in a way that gives nightmares to web developers.

Digital communities increasingly rely on mobile devices. For some, it's their primary access to the internet, while others may have an assortment of devices from which they expect equal levels of service. Libraries have made great strides in reengineering their websites and content delivery platforms to follow responsive designs that accommodate the full range of devices from mobile to desktop or in offering specialized mobile apps. And yet, even at this very late date in the pervasiveness of mobile technology, I continue to observe many library-oriented environments that fail to perform on small devices.

A digital strategy must ensure that library services delivered via the web fulfill the interests of all the segments of the community it serves. It's not enough to measure success on overall levels of use, but libraries must find ways to measure and refine the impact on each subgroup. As analytics reveal categories of individuals within the community that appear underserved, adjustments in content or technology can be made.

Push the Limits of Digital Services

Libraries provide services to their patrons beyond their physical premises via their website and through other technology platforms. They strive to offer the fullest set of services to their remote users via technology as they do for those who visit in person.

One set of services surrounds collections, including technologies that provide discovery of materials that are available and also provide the appropriate means of access. For physical materials, appropriate service includes presenting details of where the material is housed and if it is available for loan, as well as support requests for holds or delivery. Patrons have much higher expectations for electronic materials, expecting immediate and convenient access. Libraries invest in a variety of tools and technologies designed to provide discovery and access to library collection materials within the prevailing limitations of copyright and license terms.

Access to collections represents only one component of library services. To the extent possible, libraries aim to provide the full range of services and opportunities available to patrons who visit their physical facilities via their websites. Libraries often deliver virtual-reference services, provide research support, offer educational and training programs and tutorials, and support any of a variety of other services for which there is a reasonably appropriate technology able to provide an alternative experience for services offered in-person.

Digital Complements Physical

I do not necessarily see technology supplanting a library's physical presence. While libraries want to optimize their digital presence, they also value their print collections, their services provided in person, and the spaces they supply for personal study, collaboration, and creative expression. The library's virtual presence can help reinforce the value of its physical facilities and offerings. While fulfilling a patron's immediate needs to the greatest extent possible, virtual services should continually express the library's brand and promote its full range of offerings. The strategic impact of the library's website lies both in delivering content and services in its own right, but also as a marketing vehicle for the organization.

This high-level overview of the components that might be taken into consideration in the development of digital strategies isn't meant to be comprehensive or prescriptive. Rather, it reflects my perspective that technology and operational decisions must be made in the context of high-level strategies set for the organization. The reality of libraries isn't static. It must respond to changes in society, publishing, and technology, as well as other factors. Strategies must be continually refined and supported by technical infrastructure and operational workflows that help the library be successful rather than impede its progress.

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Publication Year:2016
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Computers in Libraries
Publication Info:Volume 36 Number 1
Issue:Jan / Feb 2016
Page(s):9-11
Publisher:Information Today
Series: Systems Librarian
Place of Publication:Medford, NJ
Notes:Systems Librarian Column
ISBN:1041-7915
Record Number:21508
Last Update:2016-06-13 15:57:16
Date Created:2016-04-20 07:50:30