The Digital Library: Why Aren’t We There Yet?

Last week I was asked why my library wasn’t physically smaller.

“Isn’t everything online?” No. “Did we really need all these old books?” Yes. “Wouldn’t it be more convenient for lawyers to be able to access library materials regardless of their physical location?” Definitely.

Although we are moving towards the reality of a digital library, we have not arrived there yet.

What is available?
The most considerable barrier to the fully digital library is that many legal resources do not exist online. Legal publishers have digitized and made available online many Canadian primary legal resources such as case law and legislation (although there are still pockets of information that aren’t available online) although the secondary materials lag behind. The publishers have faced a number of challenges while doing so. For example, what format should materials be in? Should access to these materials be stand-alone or as part of a larger system? In the case of older textbooks or very specialized materials, there may be no financial incentive for publishers to offer materials in both electronic and print format. A number of out-of-copyright law books have been digitized but these tend not to be the materials that are in high demand.

Cost and licensing
For those materials that are available online the next consideration for libraries is cost. There is great variation in the price of digital materials: some are cheaper than the print materials they replace but a significant number are more expensive. In the majority of cases the library will be renting rather than buying these electronic materials; if/when the contract runs out, the library will lose access to these materials.

Licensing digital resources can involve a fair amount of negotiation. Vendors vary as to how much flexibility they offer in regards to licensing a resource. Libraries will want to consider whether the resource should be licensed firm-wide or for a specific set of people. If the organization has multiple offices, the vendor may require the library to licence the product for all of them, even if not all of the locations require the product.

Switching to electronic resources can be cheaper overall. For example, the electronic versions of loose-leaf services do not require filing which saves considerable amounts of staff time. Similarly, electronic products do not go missing, saving staff the time required to track down and/or replace missing books.

Using the resources
A book is simple to use. At the front is a table of contents and at the back an index to help the reader find the relevant information. (A side note: I have had to teach people to use an index.) Once you have used one paper book, the skill set is transferable to all other books, no matter who publishes them.

Electronic resources, on the other hand, range from “reasonably intuitive” to “even regular users have a cheat sheet taped to the wall.” You need to teach users what information can be found on the service, where to find it, and how to search it effectively. Although most electronic services have similarities, it is the differences that make them a challenge. For example, the default search in Quicklaw is a phrase search, in Westlaw it is an “OR” search and in CanLII it is an “AND” search. If a digital resource is badly designed users will get frustrated, and in the worst case scenario, they may decide not to use the resource at all.

User preference is also important; it is not much good licencing an electronic product for a specific working group or set of users if they are not going to use it. It can be quite time-consuming to “sell” an electronic product to a staunch advocate of the print version.

Librarian time
Electronic resources can be very time-consuming to manage. Beyond the time spent evaluating the resource prior to purchase, negotiating the licence and teaching users how to use it, electronic resources can be a time-sink in a number of other ways.

If you don’t have a third party password management program, you may find yourself spending a lot of time dealing with forgotten passwords: a 2007 journal article found that the average web user had 25 accounts that required passwords. There are third party programs (such as Onelog or LookUp Precision) that will remember passwords for users but these are not free and add to the costs of electronic resources.

Recovering the charges associated with electronic products can also be time consuming. There are a number of third-party products that assist with cost recovery but they need time to be fine-tuned and, depending on the size of firm, may not be cost-effective.

Unless one has a very specialized collection, a completely digital library is not yet appropriate. As such, libraries are going to continue being a mixture and print and online resources. The general library experience seems to be that as the number of electronic legal offerings increases so will the percentage of the library collection that they comprise.

Electronic products have their decided advantages and disadvantages. As with any other tools of the trade, they should be purchased in the context of the organization’s specific needs and not simply because they exist.

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