More Access at Less Cost: The Case for a
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
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
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
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
The potential benefits of a digital registry do not stop
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
digital repository services that would seek economies by
sharing responsibility for maintaining digital resources for the
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
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
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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