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More Access at Less Cost: The Case for a Digital Registry

The nation's libraries have a chance to realize huge benefits from a single, obvious fact of the digital-information era:

Access to library holdings is increasingly independent of access to libraries.

Through Internet-connected computers, libraries can extend their collections electronically, and increasingly are doing so. Electronic technologies also give libraries opportunities to contain their expenses for storage, preservation, collections management, and digitization itself.

Such cost savings could start with creation of a new service of an old kind: a registry.

Registry services already are familiar in the library world. Through bibliographic registries (such as OCLC and RLIN), we can find out what books and serial publications are on which libraries' shelves. Such shared cataloging makes book hunting easier for researchers while saving money for libraries that otherwise would duplicate catalog records. Through "microfilm registries" (such as the European Record of Microfilm Masters) we can find out what has been microfilmed, is being microfilmed, and where. Again, this helps researchers find microfilm while helping libraries avoid duplication.

Now, as libraries create and acquire all kinds of digitized resources, the time has come for a digital registry service.

This registry would contain information about the books and serial publications that libraries have digitized for electronic access or are preparing to digitize. Registry searchers could find out also in what format an item has been digitized, and under what terms it could be used. Additionally, the registry would identify which institutions are taking responsibility for preserving originals of each digitized book or journal and which are seeing that digital copies are preserved and stay available.

Clearly such a registry would give users a convenient way to explore the expanding universe of digital resources. But convenience is just the beginning of potential benefits for libraries themselves.

Consider an illustration.

Suppose your library has fine holdings on literature in the nineteenth century, and you have identified a portion worth digitizing as an online collection. If a digital registry existed, you would then check it to see if any items specified for your digital collection had already been digitized by others. From descriptive entries in the registry, you might find that many non-unique works in your collection had been digitized. You might even click on links provided with the descriptions to check the texts themselves.

But you might also discover that some of the digital texts are not available in the way you need them -- with images of high quality and rich descriptive information page by page. Therefore, you would need to re-digitize those texts. The others, assuming the registry tells you that they are not restricted by copyright, would be satisfactory already for incorporation in the online collection you are developing. Thus you could add to the world's stock of digital resources, but at far less expense than if you had been unable to find out what already was electronically available.

The potential benefits of a digital registry do not stop there.

Suppose further that your library contains a lot of "brittle books," volumes deteriorating because of the chemical fragility of their paper. But your budget will not cover the cost of microfilming or digitizing all of them. Existing registries indicate that other libraries already have microfilmed some of the same texts but not all. If a digital registry existed, you could check it also. There you could find out which titles among your brittle books might already have been digitized in a high-quality format, or were scheduled to be, and whether commitments to long-term maintenance of durable, reproducible digital texts -- and "artifact" copies of the original books - had been made by one or more libraries elsewhere.

Their commitments would reduce the number of volumes on which you would need to spend money for preservation copying, conservation treatment, and even library storage space. Your online catalog could provide links to the copies that were digitized and maintained elsewhere. And your own digital investments, if identified in the registry, could save money in turn for other libraries.

Through a digital registry, libraries could expand access while reducing redundant effort and expense for preservation as well as digitization. Because texts identified in a digital registry would be electronically accessible anywhere, libraries could additionally control costs by not duplicating their acquisitions. In fact, digital registries could fit into a network of cost-saving services, such as these:

  • digitization services that would reliably produce electronic texts more economically than if libraries all kept doing it individually

  • digital repository services that would seek economies by sharing responsibility for maintaining digital resources for the long term

  • print preservation services in which libraries would concentrate dollars and expertise to assure the availability, after digitization, of original volumes for those who might need them, without every library having to preserve its own printed copies

  • user services that would provide quick, wide, and deep access to research materials in individual research specialties.

Print-on-demand and copyright-clearance services also could be included in this network, which libraries, other entities both commercial and nonprofit, and consortia of such entitles could develop to support the responsible and economical stewardship of a cultural heritage that is becoming electronically transmittable.

All this will not happen overnight. We will need to answer questions about how to organize and support such services, how large they would have to be to save libraries more money than the services would cost, and how to change a curatorial culture that associates physical possession of collections with institutional status and identity.

But already libraries are pioneering with imagination and skill in the use of today's technologies to cut costs, improve current services, and develop new ones. Even greater possibilities lie ahead for those who are willing to explore.

The Digital Library Federation (DLF) convened a group of explorers in April 2001 to consider a registry service and to work toward its development. Their work is accessible from on the DLF Web site at http://www.diglib.org/collections/reg/reg.htm

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