Library directors’ views on digitisation

Independent consultant David Ball was asked to chair the consultation with library directors as part of the Spotlight on the Digital project. Here he reports on his key take-aways.

As part of the continuing consultation on Spotlight on the Digital, two focus groups for library directors or their nominees were held at the end of November 2013 in London and Birmingham.

The main aims were to discover:
• The experiences gained and challenges faced by institutions in ensuring sustainability of digital collections;
Practical responses, both strategic and tactical, to the challenges;
• Approaches to measuring ‘success’.

About 20 delegates attended, representing a wide range of libraries – academic, special and national.

As independent chair/observer I found that two apparently contradictory themes stood out:

• First, there were difficulties in getting libraries automatically included, in particular by academics, in the process of creating/acquiring digital resources at an early stage of an academic project such as a research project involving digitisation of material – they tended to be reactive rather than proactive.

• Second, the digitised is not fundamentally different from the hard copy and may be covered by most existing collection management strategies, which are an established mechanism for library/academic/management involvement in the acquisition of all resources.

The contradiction of course arises from the perceived novelty of the digitised form, but partly also from the lack of infrastructure and skills to deal with it: for print these have been developed over hundreds of years.

It also became clear that digitised materials are of pervasive importance for many areas of a Higher Education institution’s mission: research, obviously, and as a means of demonstrating its impact; teaching, through inclusion in the VLE/MOOC; income generation, through providing an attractive shop window of activities to support marketing; and also community involvement, e.g. with schools and community groups.

However, it was also proving very difficult to convince academics, IT colleagues and university managers of the need to make the curation, exposure and exploitation of digitised resources an institutional goal and priority.

Sustainability seemed a major issue for just about all institutions represented: not surprising given the lack of institutional buy-in to create and maintain appropriate infrastructure. While some of the larger universities had sizeable digital library teams to provide technical and other support, most were dependent on separate IT departments, which, even when converged, seemed seldom to understand and support the value of digitised materials.

Digitised resources for research were of major importance, potentially providing evidence of impact for any future REF and benefiting from the current interest in and emphasis on research data management.

Another growing area of interest is integration into VLEs, encouraged to an extent by the move away from systems tending to the monolithic, such as Blackboard, towards systems with separate persistent repositories of digital learning materials.

Emphasis here again was on gaining support from academics to ensure first that the materials were embedded in their teaching and second to create/discover and themselves deposit digitised materials.

There was much useful discussion of practical and technical problems and solutions, the place of above-campus approaches, the need for toolkits.

But one main recurring strategic theme is the need to convince decision-makers and opinion-formers within universities of the value and importance of digitised resources.

Evidence, in the form of measures of impact or success, is needed, but very difficult to define and provide.

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