Digital Strategies for Libraries

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Digital Strategies for Libraries

by Betsy Walli

Docid: 00021994

Publication Date: 1802

Report Type: TUTORIAL


Today’s libraries increasingly serve as digital information centers that
provide access to electronic books and journals, audiobooks,
audio CDs, DVDs, and online databases. This new role requires that libraries
develop new strategies for the selection, acquisition, distribution, and maintenance
of library resources, addressing both management of digital assets and
management of information technology (IT) infrastructure.

Report Contents:

Executive Summary

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Although the traditional image of a library as rows and rows of books
persists, many of today’s libraries bear a greater resemblance to a corporate
workgroup facility featuring rows and rows of PCs and thin-client terminals.

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As this trend continues, libraries may
eventually become primarily digital information centers, providing access to
electronic books and journals, audiobooks, audio CDs,
DVDs, and online databases, including the biggest database of all, the
Internet. For librarians and library administrators, managing such
diverse digital content demands the development of new strategies for the
selection, acquisition, and maintenance of digital resources.

These strategies are likely to include:

  • Digital distribution services, which can help libraries augment their
    digital collections with thousands of e-book, journal, and e-audiobook titles.

  • Digital collection products, which help libraries make their digital collections available for
    public consumption.

To manage its information technology (IT) infrastructure,
each library must consider strategies for:

  • Acquisition, deployment, and support of PCs, digital readers, and
  • Maintaining a "virtual branch" presence to serve patrons remotely and 24/7.
  • Controlling Internet access in accordance with usage policies.
  • Protection and recovery of digital assets and services.

To reduce the cost of IT infrastructure, some analysts advocate not
providing on-premise access to digital collections, since most of the digital
data is also available via a Web interface (through the library’s virtual
branch); patrons would then visit the library physically only to access print books
and other hardcopy content.


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As today’s libraries increasingly are called to serve as
digital information centers that provide access to electronic books and
journals, audiobooks, audio CDs, DVDs, and online
databases, they are being forced to reinvent themselves. According to the US
Library of Congress, "whatever stability and predictability libraries once
had as ordered storehouses of the treasures of the printed
word were shattered by the digital revolution. The intellectual function of
libraries – to acquire, arrange, and make accessible the creative work of
humankind – is being transformed by the explosion in the production and
dissemination of information in digital form, especially over global

Their new role as digital information centers requires
that libraries develop new strategies for the selection, acquisition,
accessibility, and maintenance of library resources, addressing both management
of the digital collection, and management of the information technology (IT)
infrastructure. An important factor in the success of these new strategies will
be the technical skill and knowledge of library staff. Libraries should realign
their workforce and job descriptions to accommodate digital responsibilities;
train existing staff in new technology; hire technical experts such as network
technicians; and provide staff members with opportunities for professional
development and outside technical training. When designing their digital
strategies, it is important for libraries to engage all stakeholders –
including patrons – to reduce misunderstandings and promote buy-in among the

Digital Distribution Services

The top e-book distributors and
vendors include 3M, Baker & Taylor, EBSCO, Ingram Content Group, Library Ideas, OverDrive, Recorded Books, Scholastic,
SirsiDynix, and Innovative (who acquired Polaris in 2014). Digital
distribution services help libraries augment their digital collections with
thousands of e-book, journal, and e-audiobook titles.
The library-specific products and services available from companies such as OverDrive and EBSCO provide libraries with a single,
integrated platform for procuring digital content from various publishers,
making it easier for library planners to compare formats, pricing, and terms
for digital purchases.

OverDrive. One of the
most prominent digital distributors is OverDrive,
which offers more than 3.3 million digital titles, principally e-books and audiobooks, from more than 5,000 publishers, including
Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, AudioGO, Harlequin, Wiley, and Bloomsbury. OverDrive
provides its 40,000 library and school clients with customized download
Web sites – or "virtual branches" – which look and feel like the
clients’ own physical branches. 

EBSCO. Utilizing the services of
EBSCO, libraries can offer their patrons more than 950,000 e-books, 60,000 audiobooks, 360,000 serials, and hundreds of databases,
subject centers, and digital collection development resources. Most
impressively, from a strategic perspective, EBSCO provides its library partners
with tools for creating and providing access to their "e-content"
collections, including:

  • EBSCO Discovery Service (EDS) –
    Allows users to search all of an institution’s resources from a single
    search box.
  • LinkSource and EBSCO A-to-Z – Helps
    libraries organize e-resources.
  • OPAC on EBSCOhost
    Allows libraries to use EBSCOhost as the
    front end of their online catalog.
  • Workflow Integration – Helps
    organizations integrate their electronic resources into their corporate

EBSCO also provides reporting to help libraries monitor usage of the e-books they own or subscribe to.
These reports include information such as how many times:

  • An e-book collection was accessed (via search or direct link)
  • A particular e-book collection was searched
  • A user was turned away from a title because of a limit on either the number
    of simultaneous users allowed for that title, or the number of checkouts allowed per user
  • The text was viewed in the online reader
  • The entire book was downloaded

Digital Collection Management

collection products, such as CONTENTdm, help
libraries make their digital collections available for public consumption. CONTENTdm is available through OCLC, the world’s largest
library cooperative. This product helps libraries make their digital
collections – whether local history archives, newspapers, books, journals,
maps, slide libraries, or audio/video assets – fully searchable on the
Web. Librarians can restrict access to collections or individual items by
user name or IP address, or limit access to images while simultaneously
allowing access to descriptive metadata. Other features include:

  • Support
    for high-quality, large-format images without a browser plug-in.
  • Integrated
    optical character recognition (OCR) for full-text searching.
  • Customizable
    user interfaces.

Figure 1. CONTENTdm

Figure 1. CONTENTdm

Source: OCLC

A library’s digital collection resides on a CONTENTdm
server, either a local device installed on-site, or an OCLC-hosted server (to
eliminate subscriber maintenance).

IT Infrastructure

While the necessity of devising IT
strategies is certainly not unique to the library industry, the rapid
transformation of libraries from book depositories to digital information
centers can leave library officials scrambling to respond to new library
realities. To manage its information technology (IT) infrastructure, each
library must develop strategies for:

  1. Acquiring and deploying PCs and other
    "digital readers" (to satisfy patron demand).
  2. Balancing digital content volume against
    available server space.
  3. Controlling Internet access in
    accordance with usage policies.
  4. Protecting digital collections and delivery
    systems against computer viruses and other contaminants. (Some choose to
    regularly engage an outside expert, such as an "ethical hacker," to
    probe the institution’s digital defenses, and make recommendations for security
    and personal privacy improvements.)
  5. Amending the business continuity plan to provide for the recovery of digital assets and
    services, as well as conventional paper assets and services.
  6. Implementing a document imaging or similar scheme to ensure that "at risk"
    paper volumes are converted into a readily maintainable
    and non-volatile digital form.
  7. Providing real-time PC and networking
    support (to ensure library assets are available on-demand).
  8. Maintaining a "virtual branch"
    presence (to serve patrons 24/7).
  9. Splitting budgetary resources between books and
    IT equipment.

Current View

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The e-book Revolution

After exploding onto the library scene over the last several years, e-book penetration is leveling off. According to surveys of e-book usage in
US libraries conducted by the Library Journal and the School Library Journal,

  • 95 percent of academic libraries offered
    e-books in 2012 (including PDF versions of scholarly articles or textbooks,
    as well as academic journal articles accessed online as HTML pages). 2
  • 94 percent of public libraries offered e-books
    in 2015 (down from 95 percent in 2014). The median number of e-books per public library collection
    grew to 14,397 in 2015, nearly double since 2013 and comprising 11 percent of all books available.
    However, circulation of e-books was slightly down in 2015, to 12,400 from 13,418.3
  • 56 percent of K-12 school libraries offered
    e-books in 2015, down from 66 percent in 2014, and median circulation per library decreased to 75 in 2015 from 100 the year
    before. However, the median number of e-books available per library increased slightly to
    235, comprising two percent of all books available to students.4
  • In 2017, print books accounted for only 55 percent of libraries’ circulation,
    down from 63% in 2012, while the share for audio and video offerings rose from 31% to 35% of circulation.
    The circulation share for ebooks remained level at 7%.

Figure 2. Circulation

Figure 2. Circulation

Publishers’ Evolving Policies

The digital revolution – the Internet and
e-books – is changing the library’s traditional compact with information
providers. Unlike their hardcopy counterparts, e-books are less likely to
get lost or deteriorate over time. Fearing that the reduced need to replace
e-books could cut into their profits, many e-book publishers initially would not
sell to libraries. Only as recently as June 2014, Simon & Schuster became
the last of the Big Five publishers to license e-books to libraries. (The Big
Five include Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and
Simon & Schuster.) After initial protest, libraries are grudgingly coming
to accept the restrictions publishers impose on e-book purchases, such as publishers
leasing e-books for only one year, enforcing a form of "planned
obsolescence" under which e-books are disabled after circulating a set
number of times, or disallowing interlibrary lending of e-books.5 Librarians
also report frustration with the high costs per title for e-books, and some are
reconsidering or reducing their e-book spending in response to price increases
by some publishers.6

Library Journal found that the most popular acquisition models in U.S. academic libraries was perpetual access – title by title purchasing,
which was preferred by 39 percent of respondents. The seven most popular acquisition models are shown below and in Figure 3.

  • Perpetual access – title by title purchasing
  • Subscription
  • Demand-driven acquisition – purchase
  • Upfront purchase with maintenance fee
  • Demand-driven acquisition – short term loan
  • Ebook approval plans
  • Combined ebook and print approval plan

Figure 3. Preferred Acquisition Models (U.S. Academic Libraries)

Figure 3. Preferred Acquisition Models (U.S. Academic Libraries)

Source: Library Journal


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Rethinking Hardware

Today’s library is beginning to look more like a corporate workgroup
facility, with each year seeing the deployment of more and more PCs and other
electronic gear. However, libraries may want to rethink their strategy of
providing on-premise access to digital collections, since:

  1. There
    is a significant capital cost to maintaining an ever-expanding PC pool.
  2. Providing
    on-site technical support is expensive.
  3. Utility
    and other service costs are corrosive to a slimmed-down library budget.
  4. Most
    of the digital data available on the premises is also available via a Web
    interface (through the library’s virtual branch).
  5. Some
    analysts believe that specialized e-book hardware is in the process of
    being replaced by software platforms, such as Blio,
    an e-book platform that is available for free download.7

Under these conditions, a library might elect to reverse
its hardware build out, and return the library building itself to largely a
books-only foundation. As in the past, patrons would visit the library
physically only to access books and other hardcopy content. All
electronic transactions would be conducted remotely via the library’s virtual

Holding onto Paper

A 2012 study reported by Pauline Dewan in New Library World reported that "11
percent of academic users said they would be reading mostly electronic books in
the future, 26 percent mostly print, and 56 percent a combination of the
two."8 However, Dewan noted several
reasons why academic users in particular have been slower than they might have
been to switch from paper to e-books:

  • Academic
    titles being available only on platforms with a poor user interface.
  • Lack
    of features important for academic use (e.g. jumping between endnotes,
    index, and text; adding notes, highlighting, and bookmarking; and
    pagination consistent with print version for citing references).
  • Eye
    strain from reading on computer LCD screen.
  • Dependence
    on Internet connection and electricity.
  • Cost
    and risk of breaking or losing personal e-readers.
  • Unable
    to have several books open at once.
  • Difficulty
    of skimming, reviewing, comparing, or getting an overall view of texts.
  • DRM
    restrictions that severely restrict printing and concurrent access to

A 2016 survey by Library Journal found that the main obstacles to usage of e-books include9

  • Users’ preference for print books
  • Users not being aware of e-book availability
  • Difficulty reading onscreen/online
  • Printing limitations
  • Platforms that are not user-friendly
  • Inability to download or read off-line
  • Issues with digital rights management
  • Limited titles available

In “The Hidden Costs of E-books at University Libraries,” Peter Herman lists additional disadvantages of e-books for university libraries:10

  • Screen-based reading interferes with comprehension.
  • On-line reading encourages skimming rather than in-depth or concentrated reading.
  • Interlibrary loans are not allowed.
  • e-book packages destabilize the collection, because vendors can and do remove books without notice: Books simply disappear.
  • Publishers offer e-journal article and e-book packages at a low initial price, but after the library is “hooked,” annual price
    increases outpace inflation and crowd out other items in the library’s budget.


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Despite the challenges of offering eBooks, few libraries can afford to exclude them from their collections.
The question facing most libraries is not whether to offer a digital collection, but how to best manage it.
In crafting their digital strategies, libraries should:

  1. Adopt
    an e-first approach to most new
    acquisitions, purchasing paper as a last resort.
  2. Ensure
    that collections are described in a manner that allows patrons to discover
    the characteristics of the collections, and their detailed content. Good metadata is the key. A study reported in
    New Library World reported that 41 percent of academic patrons
    did not even know that their academic library owned e-books.11
  3. Avoid
    digital experimentation, especially on the device level. e-book readers, for example, are being introduced at a
    dizzying pace. Should libraries invest in the Amazon Kindle, the
    Sony Reader, or the Apple iPad? It’s too
    early to tell.
  4. Employ
    digital technology to preserve aging paper collections, and to render such
    collections more available.
  5. Provide
    a fee-based print-on-demand service for patrons who want their digital
    content converted to paper form.
  6. Support
    mobile systems. Yale University science librarian Joe Murphy sees
    "the near universal adoption of mobile technology," pointing out
    that libraries must be prepared for the inevitable change of patron
    expectations concerning mobile devices.12
  7. Keep
    ahead of the technology curve. Lauren Pressley of Wake Forest
    University cautions that "augmented reality apps" – some
    featuring 3-D imagery – are poised to have a major educational impact over
    the next two to three years. For example, the library at North Carolina State is
    working on an augmented reality app known as WolfWalk,
    which links information about buildings and services to geographic
    coordinates on campus.13
  8. Collectively
    bargain through the American Library Association (or other similar
    cooperative) to resolve problems related to publishers and other content
  9. Leverage
    Google’s labors to make more books available by embracing the Google Books
    Library Project. Google is presently working with several major
    libraries to include their collections in Google Books. The aim is to
    create a virtual card catalog that would show
    users information about each book, often including a few sentences to
    display a search term in context. Google Books should be part of
    every library’s digital content collection.


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About the Author

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Betsy Walli is a licensed marriage and family therapist and an independent writer and editor
with experience in academic, technical, and marketing topics. Dr. Walli holds a masters degree in counseling from California State
University, Fullerton, and a Ph.D. in linguistics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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