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A Bridge to the Future: Observations on Building a Digital Library

Over the past few years, academic libraries throughout the world have been in a state of transformation as a result of the impact of information technology. No area of the library has remained untouched. The impact on collections, services, staff, and facilities has had major ramifications on budgets, planning, and training. The experience of Rutgers University Libraries illustrates the extensive planning, work effort, possibilities, and investment required to develop the digital library.

In the fall of 1997, the Rutgers University Libraries embarked on a strategic planning process to define how the libraries would operate in the subsequent five years, the length of time participants in the process could describe a future impacted by rapidly changing digital technologies. A steering committee was formed, composed of faculty from a variety of disciplines, undergraduate and graduate students, several key administrators, and librarians. The committee spent nearly a year examining the ways that the library system could best serve its users: 48,000 students and 2,600 faculty across three major campuses, along with a growing complement of offcampus educational sites and remote users.

Planning with the Community

The result of the committee’s work was a planning document ( describing how the Rutgers Digital Library Initiative will preserve and build on the traditional strengths of the library—its scholarly resources and services— while developing the digital library of the future. The process of developing the plan was critical for university understanding and buy-in to a new sustainable library model.

In 1997, electronic journals were just beginning to take hold and information technology was being incorporated into the classroom. Many faculty, especially in the humanities and social sciences, were wary of the library’s reducing the monograph budget significantly, dropping print journals, and spending time on dubious digital projects with teaching faculty. The ability to discuss the changing information environment, its potential for positive impact on teaching, learning, and research, and the greatly enhanced services that it might facilitate was necessary to building consensus on how to move ahead.

The plan, widely distributed to the community and referred to as we build the future, was also the basis for a university-wide budget advisory committee to recommend a funding model for university contributions, library re-allocation, and external fund raising to support the DLI.

In each of the years since the plan’s inception, the libraries have re-allocated funds to collection development, in particular, and raised nearly $2 million in external funds, while the university has contributed $16.6 million over that same time period for collections, equipment, and capital renovations. Having a rational plan that is widely known and accepted, and by which impact and success can be measured, is a very powerful tool.

Goals and Considerations

While our libraries will have both print and digital resources, the DLI’s goals focus on developing a user-centered information technology infrastructure across all university libraries (currently 14 physical buildings on 3 campuses). This includes designing more effective services that capitalize on technology; acquiring, organizing, and disseminating highquality digital content; creating new multimedia content with other faculty colleagues; experimenting with digital preservation; and continually assessing and evaluating the impact of information technology, making appropriate changes in the provision of services and information resources.

In the first years of the DLI, the libraries have made much progress in implementing more effective user services with technology. There is a strong Web presence, online forms for requesting library materials and recalling books, circulation notices sent via e-mail, online reserves, and e-mail reference services. The libraries acquire and license excellent digital content (more than 6,000 full-text journals, 100 databases, and 96,000 monographs) and partner with faculty in creating databases and new instructional materials. (A few examples of the digital library resources that can be accessed on the Web are: Learning Links for Spanish Language Acquisition, the Eagleton Public Opinion Poll, Medieval and Early Modern Databank, New Jersey Environmental Digital Library, Electronic New Jersey, and the Women in Leadership Database.)

The processes of acquiring and creating digital content and services as we develop the DLI have highlighted both practical and theoretical considerations that are not unique to Rutgers, nor to any library that is re-creating itself in the digital environment. A few of the key areas are examined below.

Organizational Structure. The Rutgers model for an organizational structure to support digital library development reflects both the institutional and library culture.While geographically dispersed across the state in three major campuses, the libraries and the university work closely as one system. All committees and efforts are composed of librarians and staff in many units. As a result, we have avoided limiting expertise to a designated few while the rest remain in the print environment.

There are leader groups, in the Scholarly Communications Center in New Brunswick, in the newly developing Margery Somers Foster Center on the Douglass Campus, and in the Center for Instructional Information Technologies on the Newark campus. But all librarians are engaged in some form of digital library development—Web page development, databasecreation, liaison with faculty on the design of new curricular materials, metadata standards implementation, electronic information acquisition, or improvement of access tools.

We have also seen a tremendous blurring of the lines between and among traditional library units. The acquisition of a new electronic resource requires the collection development, public services, cataloging, and systems staff to collaborate on bringing this resource to the community. Flexible groups and new workflow strategies are constantly being developed. Our partnerships with the university’s faculty, Teaching Excellence Centers, and computing services have expanded, and our statewide and regional partnerships have grown in importance.

Staff Development Needs. Because our future is working with digital technologies, ongoing skills development for every staff member is critical. We realized early on that the libraries would need to focus on training and development more closely. As a result, a library committee developed a report ( that recommended the new position of training and development coordinator. While technical skills training is important, soft skills for working in teams and project management expertise are becoming increasingly important as we work collaboratively to design and implement new services and content.

Hiring and retaining good staff have become more competitive. As the level of sophistication of our services and collections rise, our ability to maintain and improve on them requires a growing number of staff with an increasing level of expertise. We have used student assistants very successfully, but a core infrastructure is essential to manage a sophisticated operation.

While we attempt to maintain a good level of technical expertise for all staff, we have converted some positions to higher level technical support to maintain the infrastructure and support database creation and management. Re-allocation of staff to the systems support area may come from areas where certain functions are declining, such as circulation and serials check-in. This area will continue to require constant monitoring and budget support.

Facilities and the New Digital Infrastructure. The digital infrastructure has had a major impact on the physical environment of libraries. Many libraries have seen both the monograph circulation and physical use of their library buildings decline. This is due, in part, to the successful delivery of services and collection content over the Internet.What we are now seeing is a different need and use of the facilities. To a certain extent, open access computing labs remain necessary for those students who wish to do their work near related print resources and competent information staff. As students work more collaboratively, group study/work spaces and rooms equipped with technology are being requested.

Staff space has been impacted equally. Digital project and consultation space is essential. Where grant funds bring temporary assistance, unassigned workstations are necessary. Flexibility in network wiring and wireless technology must be incorporated into the design of all libraries. The costs of maintaining and upgrading the technology infrastructure, including equipment, has risen dramatically in the last several years. Electronic databases cannot be accessed on ancient equipment; staff cannot work effectively without the proper tools.

Metadata Standards/Interoperability. As the amount of digital information grows exponentially, it becomes increasingly apparent that our users will need to search across multiple databases and drill down into needed content. The development of such projects as the Open Archives Initiative (, which is developing a metadata protocol "to supply and promote an application-independent interoperability framework that can be used by a variety of communities who are engaged in publishing content on the Web" is a critical contribution to digital libraries. The developers of digital content must have core standards that include preservation and digital rights associated with them. As libraries develop digital content, these standards must be firmly in place and built upon.

Digital Collection Development.When most libraries began to create digital content, the impetus came from a number of areas: a desire not to be left behind, opportunities presented by funding sources and/or faculty interest, a need to develop local expertise, the desire tobring special collections to a broader community, or the hope of preserving the physical artifact.While all these interests are worthy, the long-term implications of the costs/benefits of creating and maintaining digital collections now must be seriously reviewed.

The Commission on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) has provided some guidance to digital project developers( The document asks for specificity of purpose and the identificationof those who will benefit; the determination of all costs at the outset; a description of the value added by digitization; and how the materials will be selected and the project maintained over the long term. Because digital projects require a significant investment of resources, CLIR recommends that libraries consider collaborations with other libraries, archives, and centers in the development of new digital collections.

Copyright and Intellectual Property. Often a digital project is chosen or rejected because of copyright issues surrounding the use of the materials. This area is still in flux as new legislation that extends copyright ownership and interpretations of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act are argued before the courts. Many libraries engage in useful projects based on their special collections, or try to negotiate with copyright owners, or create entirely new digital content.While there is limited flexibility in this area, it is important to support initiatives, such as the open archives movement in order to make more information freely available; to be diligent in monitoring new legislation that impedes open access to information; and to educate the user community to fair use.

Assessment in a Changing Environment

As we venture into a more digital environment,many of the traditional measures of an excellent library have become eroded. How will we know that we have been successful and what benchmarks might we use to compare ourselves with peer institutions and against ourselves? The Association of Research Libraries has developed a New Measures Initiative ( that is testing new measures of effectiveness.

The Rutgers University Libraries have created an assessment committee to continuously evaluate what we are doing. The committee has conducted user surveys about general satisfaction, electronic reserves, and electronic collections. These surveys are just the beginning of a broadbased assessment of how the digital environment created by our libraries is affecting the research, instructional, and learning functions of our university.

If it is to be sustainable over time, strategies used to support a digital library need to be adjusted from time to time.We need to continue to weigh how we can best respond to the changing information needs of our user communities and refine attributes of our digital services and resources.

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