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Meeting the Challenge of Simultaneously Managing Digital, Electronic, and Print Collections

Computers in Libraries [March 2017]

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Copyright (c) 2017 Information Today

Abstract: The management of library collections has never been more difficult than it is today. The proliferation of new formats of materials-each with its own technical, business, and legal requirements-brings the need for ever more sophisticated tools and processes for libraries to manage collections responsibly and efficiently. Library automation technologies initially emerged during an era when collections consisted only of physical materials. Today, information resources span quite a variety of physical and electronic formats, prompting major changes in the nature of the resource management and discovery services created for libraries. The proportions of involvement in each of these formats vary according to each type of library. This further complicates the picture for the organizations that create technologies for collections management and discovery.


The management of library collections has never been more difficult than it is today. The proliferation of new formats of materials-each with its own technical, business, and legal requirements-brings the need for ever more sophisticated tools and processes for libraries to manage collections responsibly and efficiently. Library automation technologies initially emerged during an era when collections consisted only of physical materials. Today, information resources span quite a variety of physical and electronic formats, prompting major changes in the nature of the resource management and discovery services created for libraries. The proportions of involvement in each of these formats vary according to each type of library. This further complicates the picture for the organizations that create technologies for collections management and discovery.

Handling a Mixed Bag of Resources

I think of the content of library collections as falling into physical, electronic, and digital formats.

  • Physical resources are not only materials printed on paper. They include other tangible formats, such as microfilm, digital materials on physical media such as tapes or discs, and the increasing variety of physical objects that libraries may place in their lending collections. In response to community interest, some libraries lend paintings, tools, computers or tablets, and Wi-Fi hotspots. In most cases, the policies of this category of materials surround the basic characteristics of physical objects: They can be borrowed only by one entity at a time, with loan periods and other circulation parameters set at the discretion of the library, relative to factors such as potential risk to materials and addressing demand for access.
  • Electronic resources fall into a less precisely defined category that includes subscriptions to electronically published content. The business models vary from traditional annual subscription fees and open access (OA) resources, which can be incorporated into the library's collection without payment for access. However, many libraries may provide financial support to researchers within their institutions for the article publication charges required by some journals. This category can also include local materials issued electronically on institutional repositories.
  • Digital collections represent another category containing original materials that have been digitized or are borndigital. Examples include photographs or other images, manuscripts, maps, audio, and video. This category of materials may overlap somewhat with that of electronic resources, which increasingly include non-textual formats. For me, the main differentiator concerns whether the materials are generally available and selected by the library or whether they are digital representations of local or unique items. The digital objects and multiple categories of metadata would be housed and administered via some type of digital asset management (DAM) system.

Some libraries may also deal with materials that do not fit neatly into any of these categories. We should expect that future phases of technology may produce other types of new media of interest to libraries, which will bring new and unique challenges. I anticipate no end to the trend toward more complexity of resource management in libraries. The history of library technology can be seen as a trajectory of products and services designed to help libraries cope with new kinds of materials as they come on the scene.

The reality of collections comprising various combinations of materials spanning these categories-each with fundamentally distinct characteristics- brings many challenges for libraries as they acquire, describe, and provide access to content. They need technology tools designed to help in all aspects of the management of these materials and to facilitate patron access. Each of these categories of materials has its own distinctive set of issues, which must be addressed by library resource management systems. These distinctive factors impact each area or phase of resource management, such as selection for inclusion into the collection, acquisition, description, fulfillment, and preservation, as well as continual considerations for retaining or deselecting items. Providing patrons access to information resources likewise involves distinctive concerns for discovery and access mechanisms, which differ substantially among each category of material.

Strategies for Managing Mixed Media Resources

The functionality of software designed to manage library collections can either focus on a single type of material, or it can take the more ambitious approach of supporting multiple formats. The ILS can be seen as an example of a library system that was created to support a single format. These products emerged at the time when libraries' collections were inherently physical. Electronic resource management systems came along following the major shift in the scholarly publishing arena to help libraries manage their expanding numbers of subscriptions to electronic journals. Many libraries also launched initiatives to digitize materials from their special collections and built or implemented DAM systems. Each of these genres of systems takes a specialized approach for providing the functionality associated with the format of the content addressed.

Differing strategies have been applied over time in the development and deployment of resource management technologies. We see distinct differences in the automation patterns of academic, school, and public libraries.

The initial phase of academic library involvement with ejournals saw the emergence of specialized tools for link resolution and electronic resource management, which were operated in parallel to ILSs. This fragmented approach was not especially effective. The number of electronic resource management products actually implemented was limited, leaving many academic libraries to continue informal processes for tracking their ejournals. Academic libraries are now in a new phase in which many are implementing library services platforms that are able to manage electronic and print resources via unified workflows and data models.

Another resource management strategy can be seen in the public library sector. These libraries continue to experience very strong demand for print materials, with many seeing increasing circulation statistics. The ILS, rooted in print and physical materials, continues to be the primary resource management tool. Public libraries now also offer ebook and audiobook lending services, primarily through external providers such as OverDrive, bibliotheca's Cloud Library, or Axis 360 from Baker & Taylor. There has been a lot of activity invested to improve the integration of these digital lending services into the technical infrastructure, which has been largely accomplished through incremental development in the ILSs and their associated catalogs or discovery interfaces.

At least for now, academic and public libraries seem to be following distinctive technology paths. While the technology oriented to public libraries has been able to evolve to accommodate the expanding collections of public libraries, academic libraries saw more of a seismic shift. This sparked the development of a new genre of resource management technology.

Digital collections in all types of libraries continue to be managed mostly through specialized applications. While the current products in the library services platform arena have some capabilities for handling digital materials, few libraries have opted to move away from dedicated DAM systems. Likewise, libraries with large archival collections usually implement specialized products. ArchivesSpace and Calm or Adlib from Axiell are open source and commercial examples. Even when they're managed in a separate application, many libraries are able to include digital, archival, or special collections within their comprehensive discovery services. It has yet to be seen whether the scope of core library management systems will eventually expand to include digital, archival, and other special collections or if they will remain separate.

Strategic Options and Approaches

In the context of these broad trends, libraries face a variety of options as they refine their strategies for managing their collections. These strategies may involve what technology products the library acquires and implements, how personnel are allocated, and choices in the structure and design of collection metadata and presentation.

Balance efforts and attention relative to each component of a collection.

Especially in times of scarce personnel and technology resources, libraries have to make often difficult choices about where to focus. The growth of library collections, new formats of materials, and static or decreasing staffing levels translate into having to make some compromises. Libraries that devote most of their collection budget to electronic resources will need to work hard to acquire, monitor the use of, and constantly refine what content items provide the best coverage of the research needs of the institution. Those with outstanding and unique special collections will want to devote personnel and technology to describing and exposing these materials in ways that not only serve patrons well but also elevate the stature of the library.

Increase efficiency and decrease costs.

No library has surplus personnel resources for collection management. It is essential to avoid any duplication of effort, to automate processes when possible, and to follow streamlined task workflows that enable staff members to function efficiently. Accomplishing new levels of efficiency may be difficult with legacy systems that may not be well-matched to the proportion of formats represented in the library's collection.

Improve the quality of metadata.

The accuracy and completeness of metadata records can have an impact on many aspects of collection management and especially on the discoverability of materials by library patrons. Manual review and intervention to improve metadata can be time-consuming and expensive in terms of personnel resources and are deemed essential for at least some aspects of library collections. Automated processes, such as matching against authority records, can also help improve metadata quality.

Strengthen the impact of collections.

Given that few libraries have the resources to acquire all the materials available in all disciplines, a strategy that's becoming more popular for increasing the impact of a collection involves collaboration with peer institutions to form virtually aggregated collections in which local materials are complemented with those from partner institutions with expedited delivery. These collaborative collections can be created through the direct sharing of a resource management system or through consortia borrowing systems. One of the trends in library technology can be seen in the move toward shared technology infrastructure among partner institutions and away from individual installations.

Appropriate levels of investment.

Libraries allocate major portions of their budgets to acquire collection materials. It seems reasonable that they also make adequate investments in the technical infrastructure and skilled personnel to ensure the optimal management of these collections. But the replacement or even routine upgrading of outdated library management systems is often deferred until the point of crisis. I think that underinvesting in strong technology infrastructure for resource management and other areas of operational support can impede the overall success of the library relative to its ability to provide access to its collections and hinder at least some aspects of its service delivery.

Prepare for the future.

Libraries should also work toward building resource management infrastructure with an eye to the future. In the same way that the shape of library collections has changed dramatically from only a decade or 2 ago, we should expect at least the same degree of change in the next phase of libraries. Aspects of preparing for the future might include investing in library resource management systems that are flexible enough to not only handle multiple formats of materials in use today and their corresponding business rules and metadata requirements, but in systems that are extensible enough to accommodate whatever other types of materials may enter library collections in the future. The concern for the eventual replacement of MARC with BIBFRAME is only one example of major systematic changes we can expect. Whether proprietary or open source, any major resource management technology must be evaluated on how well it performs relative to current expectations and how it is designed to accommodate new types of metadata and collection objects in the future.

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Publication Year:2017
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Computers in Libraries
Publication Info:Volume 37 Number 02
Issue:March 2017
Publisher:Information Today
Series: Systems Librarian
Place of Publication:Medford, NJ
Notes:Systems Librarian Column
ISBN:1041-7915
Record Number:22627
Last Update:2017-12-08 11:59:30
Date Created:2017-05-26 12:46:27