Roles (Digital Library)

Libraries are social organizations that connect readers and authors through the content of their collections. Although reader and author are the most prominent roles, numerous people work behind the scenes to enable the simple act of reading a library book. Examining the roles that people play in a physical library will help us understand how to deploy and maintain a digital one.

A fundamental property of digital libraries is that they are, well, digital. Physical libraries are actual bricks-and-mortar buildings, occupying land, with windows, walls, and a roof. Indeed, as topic 1 describes, the new national libraries of the 20th century’s closing decade are monumental in scale. In contrast, digital libraries occupy the far less tangible world of computers, of magnetic and optical storage mechanisms, of network connections and Web sites. These are striking differences, and they impose very different roles and skill requirements on the people who manage the collections and serve the users.

Several basic characteristics are common to most workplaces, including entrances and exits, lighting, temperature control, restrooms, security, parking space (or, more commonly, the lack thereof), and so on. Libraries have two particular extra characteristics: the patrons and the collections. Physical libraries are shared environments where many of the participants are present for relatively short periods of time. The documents and other objects have special requirements with respect to temperature, humidity, and sunlight exposure. Maintaining a suitable environment is a necessary condition for an effective physical library.

In digital libraries the computers still require space and associated services, but they need not be located at any particular physical place. Computers and collections can be distributed across different centers. Copies of the content can be replicated around the world; indeed, this is a good thing—to increase robustness, to reduce the effect of outages, and to preserve the material in the event of catastrophe. The people who manage the digital content may be physically separate from their colleagues, perhaps not even part of the same organization. Hosting of digital collections can be outsourced to the other side of the world in a manner that is obviously not an option for providing access to physical resources.

Wherever they are, maintainers of digital content have quite different concerns from custodians of physical material. They seek environmental conditions that help their computers and disk drives work smoothly, without interruption. Instead of opening hours, car parking, and patrons walking around the library, maintenance staff for a digital library worry about their network connections, firewall integrity, and the load on the Web server. Therefore, the skill sets for working in physical and digital libraries are very different: imagine the chaos that would result from swapping network support technicians for the help-desk staff in your own library!

In practice, most of today’s libraries are hybrid organizations with both physical and digital elements in their collections. This means that staff must have the skills to cover both. Although the expectation that library material be Web accessible sprang up very rapidly with the advent of the World Wide Web, the transition to a digital environment has been reasonably gradual because computers have managed the metadata of physical collections ever since online public access catalogs (OPACs) began to replace library card catalogs in the 1980s.

Global users

Access to full digital content allows users to work far outside the library walls. Library holdings can now be accessed over the global computer network provided by the Internet. Today it is perfectly normal for a user to access library material even though neither user nor content is anywhere near a library building. The fact that there is no need to walk into the library removes all geographical restrictions on access. The result is that everyone in the entire connected world becomes a potential user of digital library resources.

This change has far-reaching consequences. In service-oriented organizations you need to know whom you are supposed to serve. Moving from the physical to the networked world makes it far more difficult to identify the user population (as well as making it difficult to identify individual users—see the next section).

Figure 2.1 shows the Bill of Rights of the American Library Association, whose aim is to promote library services and education internationally. We have already pointed out it differs from Rangana-than’s simple, direct laws of library science. Notice in particular the first article: books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. What is this community? It is well known and fully defined for almost every physical library, but for many digital libraries the community of users is effectively the whole connected world. The fifth article of the Bill of Rights also presents a challenge to digital libraries: a person should not be denied use of a library because of origin, age, background, or views.

The principles of the association’s Bill of Rights are just as admirable today as they were when they were adopted 60 years ago. But there is a clear mismatch between the global distribution of potential users and the pragmatic local aspects of management, funding, accountability, and the legal environment. Patrons are more dispersed, but the funding base remains local. Worse still, budgets are shrinking, because librarians have to swim against a current of popular opinion that questions why, in today’s culture of information overload, we need libraries at all.

Here is how a practicing librarian sees the dilemma.

It’s a growing (ballooning, exploding even) challenge to balance my time between our primary patron base and the random people who find us on the Web. As a public institution, our upper administration has made it clear that, while we give priority to our primary patron base, we are to answer all questions, whenever possible.

Table 2.1: Roles of the digital and physical librarian


Physical content

Digital content


Enabling access to content

Restricting access to content

Managing physical objects produced by others

Publishing content produced by your organization

User support

Face-to-face consultation

Computer-based interaction


Purchasing physical objects

Digitizing physical content


Selecting and processing physical journals

Negotiating electronic access to online journals

IT support

Managing an integrated library system from a large systems vendor

Running content management systems—possibly from open source providers with little backup

Running a Web site

Continual updating and migrating of digital content

Instead of trying to be all things to all patrons, one common approach is to restrict some services to users who can be identified through such means as usernames and passwords.

Roles of librarians

The digital environment has already significantly altered the roles of librarians and is likely to continue to change the nature of information work. Table 2.1 shows some of the differences between the roles of digital and physical librarians.

Just as librarians used to deal with physical objects, now they deal with digital content. Moreover, there has been an associated move from owning information to renting it. This trend strikes at the heart of the librarian’s customary way of doing things.Digital rights management technology, introduced in Section 1.5, can enforce conditions that go far beyond those traditionally imposed by libraries. The effect on libraries—and society—is immense. A sea change is under way in the librarian’s profession, from information-enabler to restriction-enforcer.

Acquisitions and collection development have always been major responsibilities of librarians. But now the job has changed from acquiring physical material to negotiating licenses for digital material. This is particularly striking in the realm of serials and electronic journals, but it will increasingly apply to acquisitions in general.Because selecting electronic resources tends to be done by groups rather than individuals, this has the effect of diminishing the autonomy of individual libraries and subtly changing the role of individual librarians.

Another issue related to acquisition is digitization of physical content. As topic 4 explains, digitization is the process of taking traditional library materials, typically in the form of books and papers, and converting them to an electronic form that can be stored and manipulated by a computer. Many libraries own special collections and unique materials like rare books and manuscripts. There is a strong incentive to use digital library technology to make these materials available electronically, widening access to a far larger user group and increasing the library’s profile and reputation.

Although physical libraries need IT support, it almost always involves installing and maintaining integrated library systems supplied by major vendors. In contrast, digital libraries frequently use open source software and often run several different software systems in parallel. This greatly extends the support requirements. Digital libraries need to establish and maintain a Web site—quite a different proposition from running a traditional library system. The software will have to be updated regularly, and occasionally the library’s entire content will have to be migrated to new hardware and systems.

An overarching challenge for all librarians is to integrate access to traditional library material (owned), online journals (licensed), and information on the Web (publicly available) into a one-stop shop that recognizes the different legal status of the material. Many difficult issues arise, such as how to reconcile site licensing with walk-in library patrons. (A related question is what will happen to today’s students when they graduate and find their university library’s doors metaphorically closed by licensing restrictions?) Some libraries even aspire to service their patrons’ e-books and personal digital assistants, which raises legal questions about delivery models and technical ones about expansion-card compatibility. Countless new roles are being forced upon the librarian.


This brings us to the question of change. We stand at the epicenter of a revolution in how our society creates, organizes, locates, presents, and preserves information. Librarians are undoubtedly among those most radically affected by the tremendous explosion in networked information sparked by the Internet. Advances in information technology generate an onslaught of opportunities and problems that pose a fierce and sustained challenge to librarians’ self-image. As just one example: consider the challenge to librarians inherent in Google’s declaration that its mission is "to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful"—a mission that librarians thought society had entrusted to them alone, and which they had been doing well for centuries.

Of course, change has been ever-present throughout the history of library development, as the synopsis in Section 1.2 illustrates. Furthermore, change is especially true in the digital realm, since technological change continually produces new forms of content and new methods of access. For library staff to work successfully under these conditions, they must continually adapt their skills.

The ultra-fluid environment places stress on managers as well, since they must organize an increasingly diverse workforce. A noted author and columnist about libraries looks for these traits when recruiting new digital librarians:

• capacity to learn constantly and quickly

• flexibility

• innate skepticism

• propensity to take risks

• public-service perspective

• aptitude for teamwork

• facility for enabling and fostering change

• ability to work independently.

This checklist recognizes the need for digital librarians to adapt to technological change. New standards, protocols, delivery mechanisms, and opportunities are continually appearing and have the potential to reshape the digital workplace beyond recognition.

In fact, whole new lines of business can spring up from nowhere. New software systems can create an entirely new area of responsibility for librarians in the space of just a few years. The growth of institutional repositories in the university and research institute sector is a case in point. An institutional repository is a system that collects, preserves, and disseminates the intellectual output of an institution. It is open to worldwide access, often without any restrictions.

With the advent of institutional repositories, librarians became responsible for soliciting new content, negotiating over copyright, managing rapidly changing software systems, and migrating content between the new systems. The new job title institutional repository manager hardly does justice to the complexities of this role. In an amusing article that critically analyses the current state of affairs, Dorothea Salo, Digital Repository Manager of the Wisconsin Digital Collections Center, likens herself to the innkeeper at the Roach Motel: data goes in, but it doesn’t come out. She remarks that repository management is a new subspecialty, so new that most academic librarians of my acquaintance have no idea even how to introduce repository managers to other librarians and (more importantly) to faculty.

The quotations in Table 2.2 give a flavor of the chaos and misunderstanding that surround institutional repositories, and the opposition and—occasionally—praise they evoke. However, this is tangential to our focus here, which is the diversity of skills that staff need. In the same article, a librarian brought in specifically to run the repository is described as a "maverick manager":

Her job description usually includes policy and procedure development, outreach, training, metadata, maintenance chores such as batch imports, and permissions management; it may include programming, systems administration, or Web design as well.

Table 2.2: Quotations about institutional repositories (from Salo, 2008)

"Institutional repository? Forgive me, but—that sounds vaguely obscene." (Graduate student in psychology) "What? No! I’d never want those [preprints] on the web! They’re not authoritative! I’d never use them, either!"

(Senior professor of engineering) "[Engineering faculty] don’t even know the library exists. They never go there; they download all they need.

The library doesn’t even register with them." (Engineering IT manager) "This is Dorothea Salo. She’s our—she does all kinds of nifty digital stuff." (Librarian) "We don’t need to be running all that fancy digital stuff. We need to hire some real librarians." (Librarian) "I can put all that in? That’s great! Why haven’t I heard of you before?" (Faculty member, public policy)

Such managers have no well-defined place in the library’s organizational structure. They may report to units as varied as special collections, digital collections, or online systems.

The fact that many academic institutions have given their library staff this new role.Unfortunately, new responsibility is not necessarily accompanied by new funding—as the "roach motel" metaphor implies. All these factors play havoc with the positions and job requirements of individual librarians.

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