Library Digital Content at the Tipping Point

May 5, 2011
Posted in: Buzz, News

“What will a collection look like in ten years?”

This is the constant question of librarians, a target on the horizon that moves and morphs as the times and technology dictate. Although advances in computers and communication have allowed for the greatest global network of knowledge sharing in the history of humankind, the issues around the core of the library (the collection) have become dramatically more complex. It is no longer a matter of whether the library owns a book or not; the introduction of rentals and licensing have created additional layers to the management of collections.

At this point in time, each of the models has its own advantage and disadvantage. Ownership confers rights and perpetual access with the burden of storage and upkeep. Rentals allow for accommodating initial lending interest or for offering additional materials and services under a specific and niche framework. Licensing allows for continuous access to databases, video, music, and eBooks but subject to the terms and conditions of a subscription contract.

In reflecting on these models in regard to the initial question of this entry, the imperative question in approaching this new collection reality is this: which digital content should the library own, rent, or license? Although it would be optimal to have digital content ownership in every instance, the technical logistics of such an undertaking would be rather daunting for individual locations. While group or consortium ownership is an option, it adds a layer of management and cooperation to the equation. While this is not a fatal variable to this possibility, it adds to the overall complexity. Digital content ownership demands the infrastructure to support it, whether it is from hiring programmers and coders, the machines to store and deliver the content, or the creation of an intuitive platform for patrons to find and borrow content.

On the other side of the equation, there are concerns about renting and licensing content. While it outsources server housing, maintenance, and management of digital content for the library, it also surrenders ultimate content control to outside business entities. Over time, subscription rates are not static numbers as the costs associated have a tendency to increase. Also, the content offered is subject to future revision, reorganization, and even removal without any form of retention recourse available to the library. Whether it is a different grouping of database packages or the removal of an eBook from the collection, libraries would be left with what is offered by the vendor. While renting and licensing offer a relatively inexpensive way to dramatically increase a library’s offerings, it does so at the risk of loss of future access to the material.

The collection of tomorrow starts with the collecting practices of today. In examining the inclusion of digital content within the library collection, the time has arrived to have a professional discussion as to what libraries should own and what they should license. For the content that we wish to own, what actions will be required to make that possible? For the content that we want to license, how does that further our core mission and work within our collection principles?

Digital content is here. It is now a matter of defining our future with it.


guest editorial by Andy Woodworth, an adult services librarian, author, blogger and library advocate

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