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Book Reviews: Digital Information and Knowledge Management, and Print Vs. Digital

Sylvie Lafortune looks at two books edited by Sul H. Lee dealing with the impact of digital information on libraries, librarianship, information providers and library users.

Sul H. Lee is professor of Library and Information Studies at the University of Oklahoma and Dean of University of Oklahoma Libraries. He is also the editor of Haworth's Journal of Library Administration. As a recognised scholar and an administrator of a large university research library, it is not surprising that he is able to bring together some of the leading library administrators in the US to give their insights on the challenges and opportunities that libraries now face from the massive influx of digital resources. Although the two books deal with the same general theme – libraries adapting to digital information - they do offer a different perspective. The first deals with 'why' academic libraries are moving from collection management to knowledge management and the second examines 'how' this transformation is actually taking shape.

Digital Information and Knowledge Management

This first collection of papers examines new directions that libraries may take to remain relevant in the digital environment and the most obvious direction, it seems, is knowledge management. But as Professor Lee indicates in his introductory remarks, knowledge management is an 'unfamiliar territory' to research libraries and there is no consensus as to how this new approach may best serve them and their users. Nonetheless, digital resources do provide libraries and librarians with opportunities to redefine their roles, to move beyond managing collections – print or digital.

Paula Kaufman begins the discussion by stating that libraries must not only adapt to the transformation of the 'carbon-based world' to the 'silicon-based world', but more importantly must adjust to the juxtaposition of these two worlds. Here is how this translates: in the 21st century, no two libraries will be the same, as the silicon culture will continue to shape the choices that libraries make in terms of the services they offer and the personnel they hire. And we are already witnessing the results of some of these choices as libraries introduce coffee shops, computer labs and Web 2.0 technologies to their complement of services. Next, Dennis Dillon suggests that Google has completely reshaped the information landscape. It is a product of modern society 'with its focus on choice, individualism, and instant gratification, all partaken of without context'. Services like Google, he claims, represent the major problem libraries face today. However, according to Dillon, knowledge management or the development of 'effective knowledge handling tools' will help libraries compete with Google. I note here that Dillon is the only contributor who explicitly discusses knowledge management, although rather superficially.

Judith Panitch and Sarah Michalak explore a fundamental question which, in my view, needs to be thoroughly discussed in all academic libraries: 'what are the unique ways that digital libraries create and contribute to knowledge?' Naturally, the starting point is defining 'digital library' and the authors suggest they are 'collections of analogue materials largely but not exclusively from the library's own holdings, that have been converted to digital form and made available online, plus the technologies and services that support those collections'. They add to this definition, limited to conversion activities, that it allows for collections that are 'deep, complex, sustained and transformative'. In this article, there is a very useful section for librarians on the scholarly value of creating a digital library. In this context, the authors examine six criteria taken from a 1997 study [1] and transpose them to projects such as scholarly digital libraries. Shirley Baker looks at digital projects from a point of view which should not be overlooked: 'not all digital information or knowledge management efforts are successful'. In fact, she reminds us that these initiatives are all about change and innovation in Higher Education and that the challenges they bring are 'less technical than they are financial and social'. She concludes by offering some 'tried and true' advice on what contributes to success such as working with other libraries - public or academic, working with faculty in disciplines where 'collaboration is the norm' and repurposing staff instead of 'exploiting the interest and skills of existing staff'.

Charles Cullen asks: 'Is there a digital purgatory?' and by this, he refers to the increasing need for 'intelligent skepticism' or what in information literacy parlance is referred to as critical thinking when working with massive amounts of digital resources. Essentially, he is arguing for the necessity of human judgment or knowledge management which, he believes, is 'required at nearly every stage of the research process'. So, according to Cullen, 'librarians (some at least) are here to stay'. Nancy Davenport then examines the staffing of the 21st century library in more detail. She notes that libraries are now increasingly staffed with technology specialists who work in partnership with librarians and scholars on building digital resources to support teaching and research. Moreover, librarians are now negotiating purchases of e-products within consortia and managing licence agreements. They tend to perform fewer manual tasks than before and she observes that the work they now do, particularly in academic libraries, requires 'much more in-depth discipline specific knowledge' than in the past. Davenport concludes by suggesting that the role of librarians is evolving to one of catalyst to help drive scholarship forward and 'to develop connections between the academic disciplines and research libraries'. The last article by Gary Shirk looks at knowledge management through the use of information visualisation technologies. More specifically, this author is concerned with how collection assessment and development is evolving when libraries are adding extremely large datasets to their holdings, often in a network environment. Shirk offers his insights as to how emerging digital tools may pave the way to developing a 'topography of library collections'.

This collection of papers is thought-provoking and provides a good overview of the serious challenges academic libraries face today: selecting and managing a phenomenal amount of resources in digital format while providing timely and efficient access to them. However, in my opinion, it could present a clearer perspective on knowledge management and how academic librarians can make use of this practice in their work. Certainly the creation and dissemination of digital information is driving fundamental changes in what librarians currently do but when and how does this become the management of knowledge? Perhaps it is too soon to provide more than the penetrating observations that this book offers. Indeed, its strength is in framing intelligent questions that may lead to intelligent answers.

Print vs. Digital: The Future of Coexistence

This second set of papers takes on a more practical perspective and adds the balancing of print and digital collections to the challenges of managing increasing amounts of electronic resources. In his introduction, Sul H. Lee reminds us that the vast amount of work needed to face these challenges is not easy, nor is it free from tension. Although achieving a balance between print and digital resources represents a goal upon which there is general agreement, there is no consensus as to how and at what pace it should be pursued.

The first article, by Fred Heath, leads us to examine core issues which are driving fundamental changes in research libraries: important shifts in research behaviours and in how university students use libraries. The author provides an overview of the factors which motivated the University of Texas Libraries to close its undergraduate facility and redesign it as a digital learning commons. The information-seeking behaviour of a new generation of students was a key factor in these decisions. Students today value the library as a place and do not use mediated services and print collections as previous generations did. Heath suggests that with intuitive catalogues, the Internet, and electronic resources, undergraduate libraries are no longer relevant in a large research institution. The creation of a learning commons at the University of Texas, he concludes:

  1. keeps their library sustainable because it remains in line with its core mission to support learning and teaching; and
  2. strengthens its ability to support research since it still manages to add 160,000 volumes to its print collection annually.

Next, Joan Lippincott presents a case for libraries to look beyond just co-existence of print and digital resources and instead to seek to create synergies between them. This is a very constructive viewpoint and the projects that can result from this perspective are only limited by imagination and effort. This is all about making creative linkages between print and digital collections with the use of technology, physical spaces and knowledgeable staff. Promotion of library resources may lead to displays of the outcome of their use such as scholarship, learning objects and student-created projects.

Joseph Branin is one of the lucky (or unlucky!) few who have been given the opportunity to envision a new research library. In this third article, the author shares some of his findings while planning for the space needed to create a library in the 21st century. First of all, he soon discovered that during this period of transition brought on by networked digital information, users and librarians are confused about the role of the library and the future directions it should take. However, after an extensive study, it does appear that libraries need space for two major areas: user information technology services and new storage options for print (for preservation). While reflecting on this experience, Branin notes that he needed to concentrate on three activities: '1) social learning needs of students, 2) learning commons space, 3) developing library staff commitment to adopt a "learning over service approach"'.

JSTOR has now been in existence since 1995 and Michael Spinella, its Executive Director, provides in this fourth article an overview of the project as well as some directions it may take in the future. JSTOR [2] was and still is a not-for-profit organisation committed to two goals: 1) preserve scholarly journals in electronic form and 2) provide access to them as widely as possible. Its growth has been such that it is a standard product in most North American libraries. However, according to Spinella, there are many unanswered questions about the long-term economic viability of JSTOR. For example, 'Who owns scholarly literature and how should it be preserved, delivered, and used online?' In order to plan ahead, JSTOR has attempted to assess its success and durability with the use of four basic criteria: expansion in participation, archiving capabilities, usage, affordability and value. Most conclusions show that JSTOR is doing very well but after a decade the question remains: Do libraries need print subscriptions anymore? It seems that none of the players (creators, libraries and publishers) are ready to answer this question yet.

The next two articles look at areas where digitisation is unfortunately falling short for libraries and their users. Bernard Reilly surveys how 'electronic delivery of newspapers is eroding the relationship between the news industry and libraries'. He rightly notes that there is very little archiving of newspapers in digital format, that libraries are substantially reducing their subscriptions to foreign newspapers and that large research libraries are weeding their newspaper backfiles. The author suggests that libraries should work with news organisations to grant libraries rights to archive news content and that NGO's and foundations like UNESCO, Carnegie and Ford should be lobbied to pursue funding for archiving of digital newspapers. Reilly reminds us that a considerable amount of digital news content has already been lost and that this situation may result in a tendency to 'impoverish public discourse today and collective memory tomorrow'. Next, Michael Buckland examines why 'the reference collection does not seem to have made an effective transition to the digital networked environment.' This weakness seems to come from the fact that 'the basic "reference structure" of the print environment: what, where, when, who' is not being transformed adequately in digital format. The author indicates that current technological efforts seem to concentrate more on supporting the work of reference librarians rather than developing efficient user-friendly interfaces to reference resources. It may be that solutions like those he offers - mapping between topic vocabularies and searching across different media forms - are not proving to be as viable as one might think.

The last two papers both argue for a structural change in how libraries operate as they increasingly work in a network environment. First, Dan Hazen looks at how digital information can alter co-operative activities among academic libraries that all support: '1) teaching, 2) research, 3) all organised human expression – or – raw material for future scholarship, 4) unorganised raw data'. Although there have been some collective efforts in purchasing 'expensive, obscure, low-demand resources', by and large, libraries still operate fairly independently. Hazen presents the work that was done at the Janus Conference [3] to 'implement practical measures to better position academic libraries to improve their services to students and scholars.' The result of this conference was an action plan covering six areas where research libraries can mobilise to take charge of change. Hazen concludes by stating that libraries now 'need to act, to complement rhetoric with work'. Unfortunately, this sounds very familiar. The final paper by Karen Hunter, Senior Vice President, Elsevier, addresses the end of the print production of journals from the perspective of all five major players: librarians, university administrators, authors, readers, and publishers. This is a very good overview of the current issues that need to be resolved before taking the 'giant step'. Publishers are still playing the waiting game: 'there is no plan yet in place among major publishers – no date in mind'. Scholars still worry about the prestige of a title if it is no longer offered in print as well as the impact of publishing in digital format only on their career advancement. Authors and readers are concerned with affordable, continuing access to a secure definitive e-version of articles. All parties seem to agree on questions related to archiving. Indeed, Hunter reports that 'preservation is still not sustainable in terms of policy, technology and economics'. How, then, will all players agree to end the publishing of print journals? According to Hunter, to get 'bullet-proof digital archiving', all stakeholders must work in partnership and she adds that for publishers, this may mean taking risks. She does not give any indication of such a partnership arising anytime soon.


This second collection of papers indeed provides us with concrete examples of how libraries are adapting to change brought on by an environment that is increasingly digital. Although both books appeared in 2007, the papers were delivered at conferences held respectively in 2005 and 2006. This succession of conferences on the same theme is an indication of how rapidly the situation is evolving and the transformation is unfolding. Overall, both books are worth reading and were a pleasure to review. They do present an American perspective but I would be inclined to think that most academic libraries outside North America face the same challenges.


  1. Charles E. Glassick, Mary Taylor Huber, and Gene I. Maeroff, Scholarship Assessed: Evaluation of the Professorate (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997).
  2. 'Originally conceived as a project at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, JSTOR began as an effort to ease the increasing problems faced by libraries seeking to provide adequate shelf space for the long runs of backfiles of scholarly journals.' This text is taken from the JSTOR Web site, accessed 19 December 2007 http://www.jstor.org/about/desc.html
  3. The Janus Conference on Research Library Collections: Managing the Shifting Ground Between Writers and Readers, Cornell University, 2005.

Author Details

Sylvie Lafortune
Government Documents, Data and GIS Librarian
J.N. Desmarais Library
Sudbury, Ontario
P3E 2C6

Email: slafortune@laurentian.ca
Web site: http://www.laurentian.ca/Laurentian/Home/Departments/Library/

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