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University of Oxford
Director of University Library Services and Bodley's Librarian

Towards the academic digital library in the UK: a national perspective

(Forthcoming as a book chapter)

A remarkable sea change

The last decade has witnessed, throughout the world, a quite staggering transformation in the publication, dissemination and exchange of information of every conceivable kind. The advent of the Internet in particular, allied with the most rapid advances in microcomputer and digital communications technology, has brought massive and radical changes into every aspect of the availability and use of information, on a truly global scale. For academic libraries, as for so many other elements of the world's information infrastructure, these dramatic changes have produced both challenges and opportunities of a kind never previously experienced, and which together have for ever altered both the contextual landscape and the operational conditions within which academic librarians' service to their communities are set and shaped. So swift and all-embracing have these changes been, that no-one, it seems, could possibly have foreseen, at the beginning of the 1990s, how very different things would look by the time the new millennium dawned.

Academic libraries, everywhere, and for as long as they have existed, have experienced steady evolutionary change over time; but their essential role, at the heart of their institutions' information service provision, had changed comparatively little until the advent of the World Wide Web and the transforming influence of networked information towards the end of the 20th century. For Francis Bacon, the 17th-century library of the University of Oxford functioned as "an Ark to save learning from deluge"; while for Thomas Carlyle, in 1841, the "true university" was still "a collection of books". And by 1990, not even the extensive changes - social, cultural, economic and technological - of the 20th century had radically altered those time-honoured functions of the academic library. But for academic libraries, generally, the last decade of the 20th century has produced a sea change which is as remarkable as it is unexpected and unprecedented. It is now no exaggeration to say, at the beginning of the 21st century, that the effect of the electronic information technologies of the 1990s has been more transformational than any previous factor in the long history of libraries. The challenges now associated with acquiring, organising, making available, and preserving the information resources required for the support of scholarship and research in academic institutions have never been more complex or demanding than they are today. Evolution has given way to revolution.

The UK: a microcosm of the information revolution

While it became increasingly common, in the second half of the 20th century, to speak of the "information explosion" (to characterise the enormous increase in the availability of published information generally), it has become much more common, in the last ten years, to refer to the "information revolution" (to encapsulate the relatively sudden and largely unexpected effects of the pervasive growth of the global electronic networks). In the UK, the establishment in 1985 of JANET (the Joint Academic Network, linking the nations' universities in a high-speed research communications network, funded nationally by the Universities Computer Board), gave a faint foretaste of the dramatic developments that lay just over the horizon; and the UK's academic libraries were not slow to take advantage of the possibilities for the inter-institutional exchange and sharing of electronic information. But it was not until the 1990s, when the UK's University Funding Councils began to seek systematically to harness the revolutionary aspects of electronic information, and of the Internet in particular, that these powerful phenomena really started to exert their influence as instruments of radical change. As the former Computer Board metamorphosed into the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), so the working concept of the "digital library" emerged and the idea was developed of a national scheme to 'ride the tiger' of the electronic information revolution, and to manage that revolution in as coherent and as cost-effective a way as possible. The developments that were spawned in the UK as a result of these concerted efforts to harness the new technologies for national benefit can now be seen, in retrospect, as an instructive paradigm of 'top-down' planning of the most ambitious and effective kind. As a microcosm of the global world of academe, the UK's efforts at moving towards a national digital library, funded and promoted on behalf of the Higher Education (HE) community principally by the JISC from 1992 onwards, represent an interesting case study of technological change, both in their own right and also as a basis for more general reflection.

From JISC to the Follett Review of Libraries

It was no coincidence that when, in 1992, the former Universities Funding Council (UFC) was territorially devolved into the four present UK Higher Education Funding Councils (HEFCs), the first two things that the new Councils agreed to do together (rather than separately) were (i) to create and fund the JISC (to look after the UK's national academic electronic network), and (ii) to set up a major joint review of the nation's HE library system (the Follett Review of 1992-93). While these two decisions may perhaps have seemed largely unrelated at the time, they appear absolutely crucial in the light of all that has since occurred as a result of them. With the benefit of hindsight, it is now blindingly obvious why the twin themes of electronic networks and of libraries featured together right at the top of the forward agenda of the UK university system's planners.

It was 1992, after all. Student numbers in the UK were set to grow exponentially, by government design. And this fact alone made it abundantly evident that both computing and library facilities in the universities would experience major additional pressures on their resources in the years to come. The former polytechnic institutions, too, were in the process of being turned, statutorily, into universities, and the need to provide them with adequate information support services required urgently to be addressed. And, of course, the World Wide Web had recently arrived, and was beginning to take off; and with it came a host of new possibilities which the huge growth of electronic information was holding out, as the basis for developing new paradigms for the support of both teaching and research. How then were all of these converging factors going to be cost-effectively managed? What kind of library and information infrastructures could be provided to meet all these developing needs? What value might the concept of the digital library have in such a context? And how might it be developed, for national benefit?

From the Follett Review of Libraries back to the JISC: the birth of FIGIT

It is instructive to note that the two key elements in the remit of the Follett Review of Libraries, received from the Joint Funding Councils in 1992, concerned the challenge of rising student numbers and the potential of information technology. As it turned out when Follett reported in 1993, many other crucial issues were addressed by the Review Group;[1] but IT developments figured prominently in the report and, indeed, the work of the Follett IT Sub-committee had been so extensive that its findings were considered important enough to be separately published as a by-product of the review process.[2] The IT-related recommendations of the main report provided the Funding Councils, in effect, with a ready-made blueprint for the practical development of the digital library concept at national level in the UK, and the institutional responses to the report clearly indicated that the HE community was ready to embrace the idea of a national programme. By early 1994, the Funding Councils had approved the establishment, by the JISC, of an IT implementation group (FIGIT, as it became known) to take forward Follett's IT recommendations, and to develop a major three-year UK electronic library initiative based on those recommendations. A sense of excitement, and of facilitated change, was in the air, and the level of expectation within the academic library and information community was very high.

Chaired by Lynne Brindley (at that time Librarian and Director of Information Services at the London School of Economics), FIGIT was an expert sub-committee of the JISC, with a membership drawn principally from the HE library and computing communities. The Group's formal remit was as follows:

  • To ensure that IT developments were linked and integrated with the wider aims and implementation of the Joint Funding Councils' Libraries Review;
  • To develop a coherent programme of research and development work, and associated activities, taking into account relevant international developments, to ensure full implementation of the recommendations;
  • To promote the programme and to ensure effective communication with interested parties;
  • To evaluate project proposals;
  • To allocate funds to projects, within the financial delegation of the Group, and to advise the JISC on resource allocations above this level;
  • To devise and oversee mechanisms for the effective financial control and management of the programme;
  • To develop operational services from pilot projects as appropriate, and to ensure that there was adequate management provision within the JISC structure.

The Group's relationships with the JISC itself, with the Funding Councils, with other national committees, and with the HE institutions, were defined in the following terms:

  • To provide continuing advice to the JISC and the Funding Councils on the resource implications associated with the implementation of the IT recommendations of the Joint Funding Councils' Libraries Review;
  • To advise the JISC on policy issues on libraries and related provision associated with the work of the Group;
  • To liaise closely with other JISC subcommittees on the development and implications of projects;
  • To continue to consult with higher education institutions over their requirements (including, where appropriate, institutional visits).

The work of FIGIT: developing the eLib programme

With an indicative three-year funding allocation of 20M from the Funding Councils through the JISC, the first and most important task of the Follett Implementation Group (IT) was thus to plan and manage a coherent programme of investment "in support of a range of activities to further the development of the electronic library".[3] In order to ensure not only that such a programme would reflect the IT-related recommendations of the Follett Report but also command the widest possible community support and involvement, FIGIT was careful to take full account, in shaping the programme, of the detailed institutional responses made to Follett. The key responses from the community included the following principal elements:

  • The issue of copyright was recognised as crucial;
  • There was strong support for the extension of JANET and its successor SuperJANET to all institutions;
  • There was strong support for electronic document delivery projects, with some preference for subject rather than regionally-based consortia;
  • Digitised text and on-demand publishing received strong support;
  • There was endorsement of the proposal that refereed articles published electronically should be accepted by the Funding Councils in the next national Research Assessment Exercise on the same basis as those appearing in printed journals;
  • There was support for the recommendation that pilot projects should be undertaken to raise awareness and develop the academic credibility of electronic journals;
  • There was support for a feasibility study into a national dataservice for the Arts and Humanities;
  • There was some support for the development of the database of the Consortium of University Research Libraries (CURL) as a national on-line public access catalogue;
  • There was support for the commissioning of a feasibility study on a national retrospective catalogue conversion programme;
  • There was very strong support for a national networked training programme.

Guided by these responses, FIGIT's role was to fashion all these many elements into a carefully managed multi-year initiative, whose ultimate aims were, at one and the same time, to move the UK HE community, through a cultural change, further down the road towards the digital library approach, and also to assist and encourage the individual institutions to take up and apply the newest information technologies. (It has always to be remembered that the JISC's programmes and services are funded by monies 'top-sliced' by the Funding Councils from the overall UK HE budget, which means that the JISC must continually justify its funding on the basis of adding value, at national level, to the resources which would otherwise be passed to the individual institutions. There is a tightrope to be walked, continually, and the JISC and its agencies are acutely conscious of the need to deliver good value for money to the academic community.)

The demands of shaping and managing a national programme of electronic library development activity, on such a scale, and in such a fast-changing environment, were clearly beyond the operational capacity of the FIGIT group itself, and, at the same time as publishing, during 1994, a call for expressions of interest for direct institutional involvement in the programme, FIGIT also issued a job specification for a full-time Director for the initiative (which was soon formally branded as "the eLib Programme"). By the time Chris Rusbridge was in post as Director, in early 1995, the broad areas of the eLib Programme had been mapped out, the expressions of interest had been evaluated (there were 354 formal responses), and FIGIT was at the point of requesting firm and fully-costed project proposals from interested institutions and consortia. The new Director's role was defined as taking the lead in the development of the programme, overseeing it on behalf of FIGIT, establishing feedback mechanisms from the funded projects, assisting in their evaluation, making further recommendations which would assist the aims of the initiative, acting as an informed source of expertise on digital library developments, promoting and disseminating the programme, and liaising as appropriate with other relevant agencies and individuals. As an officer of the JISC, too, the eLib Programme Director had a responsibility to ensure that all monies expended under the initiative represented good value for money, and that all the approved projects would contribute to the overall aims of the programme.

The eLib Programme: a multi-year overview

The initial scope of the eLib Programme was determined very largely by the recommendations of the Follett Report of 1993 and by FIGIT's analysis of the community responses to it. By mid-1995, under the personal guidance of the Programme Director, many projects, in key programme areas, had been approved and initiated. While the total cost of all the project bids received amounted to more than three times the actual funding available, FIGIT was careful to ensure the highest possible level of HE community involvement in the eLib Programme not only by selecting and funding the most promising proposals, but also by encouraging consortial bids and by choosing as representative and as wide a range of HE institutions as possible to carry forward the development work. By this means, FIGIT was able not only to badge the programme as a truly nationwide initiative, but also to marry the central, 'top-down', approach with the necessary 'bottom-up' support of the community which the initiative was intended to serve and benefit. The coherence of the managed development framework was provided by the key programme areas, mapped out by Follett, FIGIT and the eLib Director, while the development projects themselves were carried out within the university community - an important feature which was to prove quite crucial to eLib's ultimate success.

The key programme areas within which the initial range of projects were set consisted of the following:
  • Electronic document and article delivery;
  • Electronic journals;
  • Digitisation;
  • On-demand publishing;
  • Training and awareness;
  • Access to network resources.

In addition, suggestions for 'Supporting Studies' were invited, received and funded, agreement was reached with CURL to develop the consortium's database into a nationally-available OPAC, an Arts and Humanities Dataservice was specified and developed, and a number of reports were directly commissioned (including a review of the national needs for a programme of investment in the retrospective conversion of library catalogues).[4] By the end of 1995, what ultimately became know as 'eLib Phase 1' was up-and-running, and its defining characteristic was innovation, with its many projects hard at work and trying, in their own particular niches, to answer the basic question, "How can we innovate with IT in our library and information services in new ways that will help us to square some of the circles that will otherwise continue to constrain us?" The overall approach in eLib Phase 1, therefore, was to "let a hundred flowers bloom", with a multiplicity of projects pushing creatively at a range of specified issues within the pre-defined programme areas. The march towards the academic digital library in the UK had well and truly begun.

eLib Phase 2: the missing elements of the digital library

As eLib took shape and gathered momentum, so its funding bodies played their essential part in sustaining and encouraging it. With further forward funding promised beyond the initial three years, and in the light of the sweeping changes being produced by the growth of the Internet and the take-up of electronic information generally, the eLib Programme and its planners continued to expand and develop the initiative beyond its initial project base. Gaps in the programme were identified, new possibilities were considered, and strategic needs were addressed, and a second phase was devised, with a 'targeted call' for new proposals issued late in 1995. Expressions of interest were invited from institutions for projects in the area of pre-prints and other forms of publication, in the development of electronic reserves (or 'short loan' collections), in the establishment of a national digitisation centre, and in new methods of quality assurance (including electronic refereeing of journal articles). Explicit emphasis was placed also in eLib Phase 2 on the scalability of the solutions proposed, and especially on the encouragement of co-operative approaches, for the widest possible benefit, and the eLib Programme as a whole was now beginning to seek answers to the question, "How can we ensure that there are sustainable community-level outcomes for all this development work?"

By mid-1996, when the Phase 2 projects had been selected and funded, the eLib Programme as a whole consisted of almost sixty projects, directly involving more than one hundred HE institutions,[5] and its envisaged benefits could be listed as follows:

  • Innovative approaches to teaching and learning;
  • New methods of research communication and dissemination;
  • More effective exploitation of library resources;
  • Cultural change through training and awareness.

Within less than three years from the Follett Report, the programme was already proving to be a success at a number of levels. It had focussed attention on the challenges facing academic libraries in the fast-moving transition into the world of digital information; had provided a coherent national framework for addressing those challenges; had leveraged considerable additional funds into HE library and information services for digital library developments; and had become an important central plank for the five-year forward strategy of the JISC itself. By that time, too, eLib was beginning to be seen as laying the foundations for a distributed national electronic resource for higher education, based upon the JANET and SuperJANET network.[6] Already, in a general circular to universities, issued in June 1996, the JISC Secretariat was envisaging that some of eLib's experimental projects might "evolve into JISC services", [7] and, in preparation for this, the ad hoc FIGIT group was merged with JISC's longstanding Information Services Subcommittee, and was rebadged as a new JISC body, the Committee on Electronic Information, with Lynne Brindley as its Chairperson. The eLib Programme was coming of age.

eLib Phase 3: towards the integration of the digital library

By 1997, in the third year of its life, the eLib Programme was already firmly embedded in the longer term development plans of the JISC. Indeed, the initiative was, in many ways, one the JISC's principal 'flagships'; and as such its continuation funding was assured, as both the JISC and the HE community which it served embraced the programme systematically. An indication of eLib's growing maturity can be seen in the confident terms in which the eLib Programme Director explained the aims of the initiative's third phase.[8] The thrust of Phase 3 would be towards integration, with its principal objective being to pull together as many as possible of the hitherto separately funded developments, to close the loops, to translate projects, wherever feasible, into viable, ongoing services, and to bring a desirable degree of coherence into the management (both nationally and locally) of the digital library in the UK.

Four key development strands were identified for eLib's 'integration' phase, and the 1997 call for project proposals invited institutions to bid under the following new programme areas:

  • Translating project into services;
  • Integration and exemplars of hybrid libraries;
  • Large scale resource discovery;
  • Digital preservation.

Existing eLib projects were invited to propose ways of turning themselves, through appropriate business planning, into community-wide services. Consortial bidders were especially encouraged to bring forward schemes which would push towards the practical implementation of the emerging concept of the hybrid library. A concerted effort would be made to develop a national scheme to integrate access, from the scholar's desktop, to the many disparate sources of electronic scholarly information, enabling large scale resource discovery across the community by the harnessing of the Z39.50 communications protocol, and leading to the more effective sharing of electronic information resources. And serious attention would be given, finally, to the all-important issue of digital archiving, as the JISC itself began increasingly to recognise the need to develop both policy and practice for the long-term preservation of digital assets. The acid test for eLib's long-term success would lie in the extent to which, through its third and final phase, for which funding had been earmarked through to 1999-2000, its outcomes would be both transformational and of enduring value to the HE community. The JISC's intentions for eLib became quite specific: to assist the UK's higher education institutions not only to come to terms with the information technology revolution, but also to maintain and enhance their support for high-quality teaching and for world-class research. In that respect, eLib's mission had become central to the aims and objectives of UK higher education generally.

The end of eLib: enter The Distributed National Electronic Resource

By the year 2000, as eLib wound down, its third phase had given rise to a range of important developments which it was able to bequeath to the HE community. A network of robust services was in place, overseen by the JISC Committee for Electronic Information, and badged and supported by the JISC itself. Three principal Datacentres were active in hosting and making available across JANET a range of key electronic resources and datasets, for cost-effective nationwide access; other national service providers had been created or sustained - an Arts and Humanities Dataservice (AHDS), a Social Sciences Data Archive, a UK Mirror Service, an inter-library loan service (LAMDA), a Higher Education Digitisation Service (HEDS), and a whole range of technical and specialist advisory services. Five hybrid library projects were disseminating their practical experience to the community; a Resource Discovery Network (RDN) had been established, and was beginning to lay the foundation for a range of subject and format-based resource discovery portals, for seamless desktop access to quality information resources; and a major digital preservation project - the CURL Exemplars in Digital Archives (CEDARS) - was pushing hard on the technical, managerial and policy implications for the long-term preservation of digital materials, with the JISC itself, through the JCEI, declaring its determination to establish a UK Digital Preservation Coalition, to continue the CEDARS work through wider ongoing collaboration with relevant agencies.

With all of these solid achievements - and there were many more - it can safely be said that the eLib Programme was a notable success, and not least because over its six-year life it had both directed, and been responsive to, enormous changes in the information landscape. The dramatic 'culture shift' of the 1990s , from traditional to digital information provision, would no doubt have happened in any case, even in the absence of such a carefully managed national programme. But eLib had enabled the UK HE community, to a large extent, to 'stay in control', or at least to make coherent sense of the global information revolution, and to harness many of its possibilities more effectively. It had provided the JISC with a practical focus for its efforts to develop national information provision across the academic network; it had stimulated meaningful institutional collaboration on a significant scale; and it had spawned or assisted numerous developments with a viable life of their own. But above all, perhaps, it had shown to the funding agencies, to the institutions, and to the HE community as a whole, that it was both possible and desirable for a national initiative to take and develop an important concept through to full-scale implementation, for scarce national resources to be focussed and managed successfully for community-wide benefit. The eLib Programme had proved that it was possible, with care and skill, for 'grand designs' to be realised.

And eLib's legacy to the development of the digital library in the UK did not end there. For, although its funding ceased and its programmatic activities came to an end, eLib bequeathed its spirit, its lessons, and its achievements to the still larger, and even more ambitious, concept of the Distributed National Electronic Resource (DNER), to which the JISC and its agencies are now actively committed in a major new development and funding phase.[9] Conceived and described as "a managed information environment" for UK Higher Education (and, since 2000, for UK Further Education also), the DNER is at one and the same time both a visionary and a practical umbrella concept now firmly embraced by the JISC and its communities as an integral part of what is provided at national level to support and enable the core information business of the UK academic world. At the time of writing, the JISC is in the process of launching, within the latest iteration of its strategic plans to 2005, a 30M implementation plan for the ongoing development of an ambitious UK-wide Information Environment, designed to give continuing substance to the eLib initiative through the phased roll-out of the DNER.[10] There can be no doubt that, in agreeing to this, the UK's national funding bodies are not only capitalising on all that was achieved by eLib, but are also seeking to emulate that programme's remarkable contribution to the building of the academic digital library in the UK.


1. See: Joint Funding Councils' Libraries Review Group Report (Chairman: Sir Brian Follett). Bristol: Higher Education Funding Council for England, 1993. (Available on the Web at: http://www.niss.ac.uk/education/hefc/follett/) [Back to text]

2. See: Libraries and IT: Working Papers of the Information Technology Sub-committee of the HEFCs' Libraries Review. Bath: UKOLN, 1993. (Available on the Web at: http://www.niss.ac.uk/education/hefc/follett/wp/ ) [Back to text]

3. JISC Circular C4/94 - FIGIT Framework, p.1. (The full text of the circular is available on the JISC website, at http://www.jisc.ac.uk/pub/c4_94.html) [Back to text]

4. JISC Circular C1/95 - FIGIT Progress Report on Expressions of Interest. (Available at http://www.jisc.ac.uk/pub/c1_95.html) [Back to text]

5. See: JISC Circular 3/96 - The JISC's Electronic Libraries (eLib) Programme. (Available at http://www.jisc.ac.uk/pub/c3_96.html) [Back to text]

6. The expression "a distributed national electronic resource for higher education" was being used as early as mid-1996 (it appears in JISC Circular 3/96, q.v.). It is clear from this that the eLib planners already foresaw the later development of the DNER (see below), and that there was direct continuity between eLib and what has followed it. [Back to text]

7. Ibid., p.2. [Back to text]

8. See: JISC Circular 3/97 - Electronic Information development programme: eLib Phase 3. (Available at http://www.jisc.ac.uk/pub97/c3_97.html) [Back to text]

9. For a description of the DNER, see: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/pub99/dner_desc.html; also the accompanying DNER Vision Paper. [Back to text]

10. The JISC Strategy, the JCEI's Information Environment Strategy, and the (DNER) Information Environment Implementation Plan, can all be found on the JISC website at: http://www.jisc.ac.uk) [Back to text]

Reg Carr
Director of University Library Services & Bodley's Librarian, University of Oxford
Chair of the JISC Committee for Electronic Information (1997-2001)
November 2001