Research Library Digitization Has Found Its Moment
Long-term Investments Pay Off and Provide Lessons for the Future
Academic libraries have been on the leading edge of universities’ digital transformation for two decades. As a result, they were prepared for this moment of crisis. The broader lesson here, not just for libraries but for the entire higher education sector, is to continue investing “just in case” in enabling capacities—rather than, in this time of looming cutbacks, budgeting narrowly for today’s immediate needs only.
Recent weeks have seen the collapse of the print format. With academic libraries closed during the pandemic, acquisition, processing, browsing, circulation, and interlibrary lending have come to a halt for tangible materials.
But even before the pandemic, the primacy of print had passed. Academic libraries are no longer principally defined by their tangible collections nor even their physical spaces. They are easily the most digital part of the academic enterprise at traditional institutions of higher education. Libraries have fostered the creation of extraordinary digital collections, through a combination of content licensing, open access initiatives, and collection digitization. They have provided infrastructure and services that are accessible remotely. While libraries remain more than just their digital collections and services, the digital transformation has allowed libraries to provide tremendous value to the faculty members and students who have been displaced.
One especially outright hero today is HathiTrust. Its Emergency Temporary Access Service enables its members to make vast swathes of their unavailable print collections accessible digitally. In essence, whatever components of a given member institution’s print collection have become temporarily unavailable can be “loaned” digitally to affiliates of that institution. For some members, this amounts to millions of books, in some cases well over half the print collection. The ability to simply “turn on” digital access to such a high share of the print collection on a temporary basis is an absolutely amazing benefit to Hathi members. It would be a surprise if other libraries were not clamoring to join the collaboration just for this benefit alone.
While Hathi’s current value to researchers is unquestionable, I want to celebrate the investment that its members have made over the past decade long before pandemic emergency access was necessary. The partnership of research libraries that came together to create and sustain HathiTrust saw the importance of controlling a digital copy of the books that were digitized by Google. Yes, they foresaw and fulfilled a variety of resulting opportunities—computational access to the corpus for research, modernizing how government documents are managed, digital access for those with print disabilities. But, most of the investment was, at its heart, to enable the libraries to control the digital files and preserve them independently of Google. Put another way, much of the investment was made “just in case” it was needed.
Librarians have a phrase for this kind of “just in case” investment: digital preservation. But preserving digital content is not an easy undertaking for a library. This is not because it is so technically challenging to do (although it is). Rather, it is because the value of these “just in case” preservation investments is intangible–and its rewards are deferred. As I have written elsewhere, organizations must invest in preservation often less out of a sense of anticipated exclusive returns and more to contribute to a community mission.
Looking ahead, we all hope the crisis will soon end. And when the disruptions are over, and library buildings reopen, emergency access through HathiTrust will come to an end. I suspect that when this happens, many academics will find that, happy though they are to return to the stacks, they will miss having access to those digitized books. Perhaps copyright owners and the HathiTrust partnership will find a way to continue such a service on an ongoing basis. If that were to happen, research libraries’ just-in-case digital preservation investment will have yielded remarkable returns.
The “just in case” investments that research libraries made in HathiTrust and a variety of other aspects of their digital transformation deserves special consideration at this time of looming cutbacks. Universities and libraries will be faced with difficult budgetary choices, and sometimes little choice at all, for the upcoming fiscal year and beyond. But cutting back to core services that respond to immediate needs will leave them poorly prepared for the future. Finding ways to continue to invest in infrastructure and capacity that meet tomorrow’s needs—which can include priorities from digitally enabled pedagogies to digital preservation—is clearly essential.