The Research Library’s Digital Challenge
It is at the research library that we run smack up against the power and ubiquity of the Internet, and where the question of future relevance becomes harder to answer. Why would you go to a research library if you can find what you need faster and more efficiently online? The answer is you wouldn’t, and this explains why, globally, visits to research libraries have been declining dramatically. The decline may become even more precipitous as Google gets deeper into its Google Books Library Project; for this multiyear effort, the search giant has been scanning tens of millions of books and has already secured the cooperation of about two dozen richly endowed library systems, including Harvard’s, Princeton’s, and Columbia’s.
By turning over substantial parts of their collections to Google, aren’t libraries contributing to their own obsolescence? That risk is always there, but the libraries’ hands are tied. Most of them barely have the funds to preserve and expand their physical collections — and a comprehensive digitization initiative, at a cost of roughly US$15 to $25 a book, would cost some of these institutions $1 billion or more. There’s no getting around the fact that in working with Google, the libraries are taking the same kind of chance newspapers have taken in making their content free on the Internet — the risk that fewer and fewer people will feel the need to hold the physical object in their hands.
Research librarians need to accept that people will no longer come to them for certain things, now that the information is available online, but they also need to think about the role-expanding possibilities that the Internet affords them. Where research librarians were once primarily in the business of being collectors and curators, and of providing one-on-one research assistance to those seeking it, they now have an opportunity to share their expertise and collections with a much wider audience. Digitizing the best parts of what’s in the vault and making a virtual exhibit out of it? Bringing related collections from other research libraries under one digital roof? Helping to actively build a virtual community of scholars and shaping the research agenda? The research-librarian-cum-blogger? It’s time to try new things. The alternative is having no digital strategy to speak of at a time when research is overwhelmingly moving online.
The issue of copyright has already slowed Google’s efforts to create a universal online library. Many of the most valuable rare materials that libraries possess, and that researchers would be interested in — early versions of a manuscript that would go on to become a literary classic, for instance, or the correspondence between world leaders during a time of crisis — are protected by U.S. copyright laws, which cover written materials from 1923 onward. A library acting as the guardian of such materials couldn’t turn them over to Google even if it wanted to. Complicating matters further, many libraries have rights to use and share physical documents but don’t have intellectual property rights to digitize or create a digital representation of them, since agreements to manage many of these collections predate the Internet.
Google is, of course, aware of the copyright issues, which it spent two years negotiating with the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers. And it went a long way toward settling the matter in October 2008, when it agreed to pay $125 million to compensate authors and publishers and to set up a registry to guarantee copyright holders payment for the use of their materials. As a result of the settlement, the vast majority of rights holders are likely to let Google post the full content of their books online. That may prompt research libraries to opt to not digitize some of their most valuable collections, to preserve exclusivity through physical possession — a move that may help them in the short run but that could cause disaffection among researchers in the long run.