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

Issues in the Digital Library:

Keynote Address to the Oxford University IT Support Staff Conference, 26 June 1997

I want to begin in the time-honoured way, by explaining the title of my talk and by defining its terms. The heading for my talk is not "Issues in a digital library", but "Issues in the Digital Library" (with a definite article, a capital 'D' and a capital 'L'). And that distinction is very important, given the nature of what I want to say. 'A digital library' may mean a number of things to you, but I want to make it clear from the outset what 'The Digital Library' means to me in the context of this address.

I am not going to talk about my long experience of computerising, or automating, traditional academic libraries. That's to say, I'm not going to describe the various IT applications which are now in place in Oxford's libraries, or indeed in the various other university libraries I've worked in. Nor am I going to talk about - as some of you may be expecting - the kind of digital library or libraries which you, as 'IT people', may think of first and foremost when you use that term - that is, electronic archives of digital materials, which may include software as well as terabytes of numerical or other data. Instead, what I want to talk about is the very specific concept of the Digital Library (capital 'D', capital 'L') as conceived, defined and promulgated over the last few years by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC). And what I want to do with you today is to explore some of the issues associated with the development of that concept and its implementation in universities throughout the UK Higher Education System, and in particular its impact on all our working lives, both in the IT and the libraries sectors as our activities converge.

So, 'the Digital Library' in the sense that I'm referring to it today, is, I suppose, a kind of 'vision thing', or at least the overarching strategic view of the UK's principal academic IT funding body - which is, after all, where we get most of our money from to do most of what we do …

For quite a number of years now, 'building the Digital Library' has been a primary objective of JISC and of its predecessor bodies as they have sought, not simply to create and to develop the technical infrastructure for electronic communications in universities, but also to populate that infrastructure with what might loosely be called 'electronic content'. This particular objective was given sharper focus in 1993 by one of the principal outcomes of the Follett Review of university libraries, which resulted in the creation of the so-called Electronic Libraries Programme (more familiarly known as eLib), under the aegis of FIGIT (the Follett Implementation Group on IT).

Things have moved on very fast since FIGIT was set up, and new terminologies and structures have already replaced the earlier ones, although the overall concept still remains the same. The JISC Five-Year Strategy, covering the period from 1996 to 2001, now speaks of "developing a distributed national electronic resource for academia", and JISC is now in the process of investing many millions each year on the pursuit of that goal. As the strategy document explains, JISC is aiming "to encourage and facilitate the availability of electronic information" and to "ensure the electronic propagation of the intellectual output of UK higher education in a coherent, and highly visible, manner".

So this is what I mean by 'the Digital Library'; and it is something which, in our own way, and to a greater or lesser extent, we are all involved with in our daily work of supporting the academic community here in Oxford. In that sense, too, 'the Digital Library' already impacts on us all; and, as the JISC pursues its strategy and unfolds its further funding initiatives, its impact is certain to be borne in on us more and more over the coming years.

We would do well, therefore, in order to discern the wood from the trees, to stand back just a little from our daily work at the coal face, and to take this opportunity, in the context of the broader national picture, to ask ourselves just what are the major issues involved in this process of building 'the Digital Library'. Only then, when we have outlined and grasped these major issues, will we be in a position to understand the implications for us here in Oxford at the work-a-day level.

So what are the major issues connected with developing this particular Digital Library concept, and how will they impact on us?

Well, if I was giving this talk on a different day, I might identify another set of key issues; but there are eight that I've identified to talk about briefly today. And they are (in no particular order): funding; structures; partnerships; technological developments; user needs; the management of electronic resources; human issues; and institutional information strategy.

So what about funding - that all-important requirement without which virtually nothing happens? Well, there are two principal aspects to this particular issue in Higher Education, and they are: the national and the local levels of investment in IT. And I think we can say that, at the national level in relation to the Digital Library as conceived by JISC, the picture is quite hopeful. Reasonable funding levels for the basic technical infrastructure which underpins the development of the national Digital Library seems to be assured, at least; and one of JISC's four main action lines in its published strategy is (and I'm quoting here) that "the JISC will continue to provide a pervasive, high quality, production and development network, and will expand this provision to include a dial-up and video services infrastructure. Super-JANET will continue to expand, through Metropolitan Area Networks where appropriate. Addressing the demands for international networking will remain a high priority" (end of quote). JISC also intends, over the planning period to 2001, to continue to fund and develop the portfolio of its current range of information centres and datacentres - things such as the Arts and Humanities Data Service, BIDS, BUBL, EDINA, MIDAS and NISS (all of which are themselves an integral part of the support and development infrastructure for the Digital Library). The Electronic Libraries programme itself, which is currently funded to the tune of about £13m per annum by JISC, is likely to see its investment levels cut eventually to about 40% of its present level - but this is simply because it is envisaged that only a proportion of eLib's 60 or so current projects will turn into services for which it will be appropriate to provide ongoing funding in the longer term. So investment will certainly continue at the national level to enable the Digital Library to continue to grow.

But what, then, of funding at the local level - at the level of the individual institution? Well, I think it's fair to say, in the first place, that Oxford should expect to get its share of any development funding which JISC makes available for any new national initiatives in the Digital Library programme areas, and I'll say a few words about the possibilities there a little later. But I'll just say now that if we're going to get our hands on such funds for any desirable local developments, then the libraries sector and the IT sector here in Oxford are going to have to liaise very closely and to work very hard to lever any such monies out of JISC. If we just sit on our backsides, those kinds of funds won't simply fall into our laps. (And I was very pleased to see that one of the recommendations in the recently published OUSC Review is that OUCS "should be encouraged to play a wider role nationally … to take a greater part in national initiatives, and to look more to external sources of funding". And I can tell you that I and my colleagues in the libraries sector will be happy to extend our collaboration with OUCS in following through this recommendation. There are still some major funding opportunities related to the development of the Digital Library which will enable us to meet some of our local funding needs at JISC's expense!).

But, of course, we shall all continue to rely most heavily on the University's own willingness to invest in the support and development of IT applications. And here, I think, there are one or two hopeful straws in the wind. Of course, as we have found over many years in the libraries sector, there is never enough money to do everything that is required (let alone to do all the additional things that we, the information professionals, can see the need for!). But at least the University's General Board has identified IT and library needs as two of its strategic priorities for funding, and the University's 1997-8 spending plans have gone quite a long way towards restoring some of the earlier or threatened cuts in spending on IT. The new role envisaged for the IT Committee should help also, I think, in keeping the rising costs of computing services at the forefront of the University's expenditure planning, and perhaps also in getting better value for money out of existing resources, just as the new Libraries Committee is aiming to do. But the really big challenge, I believe, lies in the need to spread the benefits of IT as evenly as possible across the University as a whole; and that is certainly not going to be easy in the collegiate system of such a very complex institution as Oxford. The fact is, we could all do with more funds, and that will always present problems when funding levels generally are not as plentiful as we think they ought to be!).

As far as my second major issue is concerned - structures - again, the issue breaks down into national and local aspects. At the national level, JISC itself has recently restructured and streamlined its sub-committees; and building the Digital Library (or "creating a national distributed electronic resource") has become the responsibility of the CEI (the Committee on Electronic Information), which is made up of computing service directors, librarians and academics who have some prominence in their fields. Chaired by Lynne Brindley (of LSE), the CEI is a good example of a converged approach to information services at the national level. It oversees the eLib programme, and has two Working Groups - the Development Working Group, to consider and advise on technical matters, and the Content Working Group, which is responsible for dataset deals and for digitisation programmes, with the main CEI itself pulling all these elements together into a co-ordinated whole.

At the local level, in Oxford, my impression is that, although we have quite a few groups beavering away in all these areas, we may need to consider how best to ensure that the work of our various different groups is consolidated more coherently to better effect across the University. I suspect that some form of closer co-ordination between OUCS and the libraries sector might be a good place for us to begin, especially if we are going to position ourselves well as an institution to gain maximum advantage from the kinds of nationally-funded initiatives being promoted by JISC and the CEI. Although the OUCS Review has no specific recommendations to make to us in this area (because, as it says, the libraries sector is currently undergoing a process of structural and managerial change), I still believe that we need to begin a dialogue soon about ways to enhance joint working between those of you who are principally responsible for the infrastructure, and those of us who are principally preoccupied with digital content.

Which brings me neatly onto my third major issue - partnerships: an area which I believe is of key strategic importance for us if we are to make real progress here in Oxford towards our own local version of the Digital Library.

JISC itself, and the CEI, have already laid a strong emphasis on the importance of partnerships - with commercial providers and with public and private organisations outside Higher Education. They have encouraged collaborative working between universities, and between university libraries and computing services. In Oxford, as elsewhere, the library sector already has strong collaborative links with other library groups - with CURL (the Consortium of University Research Libraries), with the British Library, with the NPO (the National Preservation Office) and, at international level, with RLG (the Research Libraries Group of America). But, to complete the picture, we in the libraries sector need to compare notes more systematically with the IT Committee and with IT support staff - especially, perhaps, with those who, like us, are centrally-funded by the University. And, above all, we need to see each other as partners in the creation of the Digital Library, and we need to work jointly on projects which will move us tangibly in the same direction. This is certainly one of the things to which I shall personally be giving attention over the coming months in consultation with relevant colleagues and potential partners. It is, I believe, a crucial issue for us all…

As far as the next issue on my list is concerned (technological developments), it is of course absolutely essential, if we are to take full advantage of national (and international) initiatives, and if we are to make local progress of our own, that we should be right up to speed with all the technological developments which are happening out there. (And not just au fait with what is going on, but, where it suits our agenda, to be directly involved in those developments). And while the responsibility for the technical aspects of such involvement lies principally with you, the IT people, there are nevertheless related aspects to which expert staff from the libraries sector have their two pennyworth to contribute - and I'm thinking here of the need for better search and discovery tools, for cataloguing and organising digital objects, and for developing better user interfaces to bibliographic and full-text datasets. There are numerous areas like this where library and computer skills need to be brought together to translate the latest technological developments into improved information services for the users of our networks.

Which brings me on neatly to the fifth in my series of key issues (and it's one that we have too often forgotten in the past): user needs. We can all be as expert and as well-informed as we like as information professionals; we can all be as close to the cutting-edge, and as forward-looking as it is possible for us to be. But if we do not continually remind ourselves of the day-to-day realities of what our users need from us, then we will be in danger of becoming irrelevant to them and of forgetting or primary purpose - which is to serve the teaching, learning and research of the University community as a whole. And so we need, not simply to be out in front of those we serve, but to be publicists, awareness-raisers, handholders, interpreters and trainers; and we need, above all, to build evaluation into everything that we do. We need to listen, to monitor, to survey and to analyse what our users tell us. In the libraries sector, the Thomas Report, the Kenny Report, and my own remit as Director of University Library Services all repeatedly emphasise the refrain "responsiveness to users' needs". The former Libraries Board, as some of you may be aware, carried out a major survey of users in 1996; and the Bodleian is about to embark on a similar exercise. This kind of thing is (or should be) a vital part of what we all do; and if we are to serve our constituencies properly, it's something we need to do regularly. To that end, we have recently seconded the Bodleian Statistics Officer into a new libraries-wide role to make this kind of thing part of our routines; and I believe that we need to extend it into all aspects of our information service provision if we are to carry the academic community with us in our progress towards the Digital Library. So I look forward to joint discussions with you, as IT support staff, to work out common ways of embedding the evaluation of user needs into our service planning and delivery. It's a theme that JISC will expect us to weave into our work, and rightly so.

And when it comes to the issue of managing electronic resources effectively, we are being made increasingly aware, in the libraries sector, that new services and new activities related to those services, are demanding new skill of us - skills that we do not already possess because we are moving into uncharted waters of which no-one has yet had long experience, and that, in certain respects, we can only learn by doing. Hence the value of obtaining external project funding from bodies like JISC. The so-called 'Hybrid Library' initiative is a case in point. Library systems like ours in Oxford, with vast collections of print-on-paper materials, and serving a variety of users with varying needs (not all of which are ever likely to be met by electronic delivery), are having to learn how to manage both collections of traditional materials and electronic resources at one and the same time. JISC has recognised that "we have few if any exemplars of good practice for the hybrid library" and that it is "important to develop models for academic and service planning and organization which … seemingly integrate the old and the new formats", to create what JISC describes as "an information continuum" for users. Oxford, as some of you may know, has recently put in a bid for a hybrid library project; but even if that bid fails, the management of electronic resources within existing large research collections will remain a key issue for us to address. Cross-domain resource discovery, too, and other new emerging needs, such as long-term digital archiving of electronic resources, are topics which require addressing in the development of the Digital Library; and in all these areas we in the libraries sector need to work closely with IT support staff as we seek to develop good practice together and to share whatever expertise we can jointly bring to the resolution of such problems. And, certainly, if the proposed legislation to extend legal deposit into the electronic publications arena ever hits the statute book, then Oxford will find itself right in the spotlight in relation to the management of national electronic archives! So for this reason alone, it will be essential for there to be library input into the work of the recently-constituted Computer Archiving Group here in Oxford …

And all of this, of course, will focus attention more and more, as we move inexorably towards the realisation of the Digital Library, on human issues - the seventh major topic on my list. It remains to be seen, I suppose, whether we shall be able to obtain staff in sufficient numbers to develop and manage the Digital Library as well as we would like. But however many (or however few!) of us there are, we shall all need better training than we have at present. The fact is (and I doubt if anyone present will seriously disagree with me on this): the University does not at present invest anything like the appropriate amount on staff training and development; and those of us who are in a position to have some kind of influence on strategic funding decisions in Oxford have a duty to ensure that more resources are put into it.

But at least there are a few positive signs that this particular issue is going to be addressed more systematically than hitherto. In the libraries sector, a new Sub-Committee on Staff Training and Development has been set up as a body reporting directly to the Libraries Committee; and we are about to advertise for a new, full-time Staff Training and Development Officer, whose remit will include a large element of IT skills training and support. As an outcome from the OUCS Review, too, the IT committee has accepted the need to identify expenditure on training as a key element in the OUCS budget, and will also be setting up a Training Group to pursue developments pro-actively. It will be essential, in my view, for there to be cross-representation on these two training committees, and for any new initiative to be fully co-ordinated across IT support staff in every sector the University. The Digital Library will simply not bring its full benefits to us here in Oxford if we fail to address such human issues effectively.

And finally, there is the elusive issue of an institutional information strategy! The fact is, as I'm sure you're all aware, that Oxford does not (yet?) have such a strategy - and this in spite of the fact that the English Funding Council now routinely asks for one to be developed and included in the University's annually-submitted forward plans. Oxford, of course, is not alone among universities in being in this position; but I'm firmly convinced that, as the Digital Library is developed, both nationally and locally, and as the kinds of issues that I've outlined today begin to be seriously addressed, so the need to set them more firmly within a clearly delineated information strategy will become more acute. I can tell you from my experience as Dean of Information Strategy at the University of Leeds, that it is in all our interests, as well as in the interests of the users of the services we develop and deliver, that the funding, organisational, human and management issues involved in providing IT support, in this university as in any other, should be an integral part of the strategic planning process of the institution, at the highest possible level. Only when those who plan and manage the University's affairs take systematic account of the strategic importance of the effective management of information as a key instutional resource - only then will our work in IT support be properly integrated into all the core functions of the University - teaching, learning and research - and only then will the Digital Library form a primary element - as it eventually must - in the University's continuing pursuit of excellence in all that it aims to do. I look forward to that time with you, and hope that it will not be too long delayed!

Reg Carr
Director of University Library Services & Bodley's Librarian
26 June 1997