Books and Bytes

 


By Dolores Davies
Illustrations by John Weber

It’s the grand paradox of the digital age that while life is much easier, it has also become increasingly complex. The libraries of today hold myriad examples of this frustrating duality.

The modern academic library aims to exploit digital resources for the maximum benefit of library users while still maintaining much needed physical resources and spaces.

Brian Schottlaender, UC San Diego’s University Librarian, strives to master this balancing act, in a world where content is king—but is increasingly digital.

Under Schottlaender’s leadership, the UC San Diego Library has been an early adopter of what is known in the library world as “the digital shift.” Schottlaender has established himself as a national and international leader in a number of library initiatives designed to provide users with mega amounts of information and knowledge.

“When I came to UC San Diego in late 1999, less than 10 percent of our collections budget went to acquiring electronic resources. Now, more than 80 percent of it does: journals, music, images, and, finally, books—all are increasingly being made available in electronic/digital form. Perhaps the biggest consequence of this shift is that neither content nor those who consume it are tethered to the physical library.”

That is a sea change in how libraries do business. Equally amazing are the scholarly benefits in a world where libraries are more connected than ever before. Now they offer up a vast amount of resources, accessible 24/7, by anyone with a computer or smart phone, from any location. Digital and electronic resources, however, often require vast amounts of bandwidth for storage, and are inherently less stable than their hard-copy cousins.

“As wonderful as digital resources are, they present significant preservation challenges, primarily for three reasons: they are unstable, they are complex, and there are a lot of them,” explains Schottlaender.


David Minor, the Library’s director of Research Data Curation, is only too familiar with these challenges. Minor collaborates with faculty researchers at UC San Diego in implementing effective strategies to preserve their research and teaching data.

Preserving and ensuring the future accessibility of the immense holdings developed by the Library is daunting enough, but a major public research institution like UC San Diego also faces the formidable challenge of preserving the vast amounts of digital information generated by faculty and student research.

“Increasingly, our faculty are being required, as a condition of their grant funding, to ensure that their research is made available and accessible to the public,” says Minor. “We view that as an important, core service for the research community. The Library is providing the technical infrastructure to make this happen, working with various campus organizations in a collaborative environment.”

Digital resources require huge amounts of storage, as well as new protocols and standardization to render the resources manageable and continuously accessible.

“A physical book is just a book. Unless you take it apart or use it to create an artistic piece, it can’t be anything else,” says Schottlaender. “With digital resources, they are available in various “views” or for various delivery devices. They are much more easily corrupted than printed resources and their storage media have much shorter life spans than paper.”

Under the leadership of Brian Schottlaender (above), the UC San Diego Library has been an early adopter of what is known in the library world as “the digital shift.”

With next-generation technology emerging every 2–5 years, digital formats are unreliable. Unlike a book written 100 years ago that is still accessible and readable today, libraries must migrate huge volumes of media to new formats to ensure that digital content remains accessible. Remember 8-track tapes, Betamax, and floppy disks? The content from these and other formats from the recent past is at increasing risk of becoming irretrievable.

Because it is extremely expensive for any institution to make its entire holdings available digitally, libraries have partnered with entities like Google, and collaborated with peer institutions to make their material more accessible, to scholars and others across the globe.

With more than 100 libraries on the 10 UC campuses, the University of California libraries make up the largest research/academic library in the world, with approximately 34 million volumes in their holdings. The UC libraries, including UC San Diego’s Library, were early contributors to the Internet Archive, an initiative to digitize out-of-copyright publications and make their full text accessible on the Web.

In 2006, the University of California joined the Google Book Search Project, an ambitious international effort to digitize book collections from the world’s top university and public libraries.

In 2008, the UC San Diego Library became the first library in Southern California to contribute hundreds of thousands of volumes to the initiative. “The Google Books Project went beyond the Internet Archive by not confining itself to out-of-copyright content,” says Schottlaender. “Along with the University of Michigan, UC was one of the prime movers behind this initiative, and our library was the first Southern California library to have content digitized by Google. More than a half million volumes—including more than 100,000 from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography Collection—have been digitized and are searchable through Google.”

The University of California’s most recent and perhaps most ambitious digital collaboration is HathiTrust (Schottlaender was a founding chair of its Board of Governors). The Trust, which comprises all of the major university libraries in the nation, collates much of the content of both the Internet Archive and Google Books, and more, into a single digital library managed by and for its partner institutions.

“By participating in mass digitization projects like Google Books and HathiTrust, we have greatly expanded access to the UC libraries’ substantial and world-renowned collections,” says Laine Farley, executive director of UC’s California Digital Library. “The beneficiaries are not just our faculty, students, and scholars, but also the general public in San Diego, California, and around the globe. There have been several significant mass digitization initiatives in the library world. I’m pleased to say UC and UC San Diego have been involved in just about all of them.”

In spite of the dramatic increase in mega-digital libraries and the multitude of resources available to library patrons at any time and from any place, libraries continue to be crowded places.

“Libraries—including UC San Diego’s—have been engaged in a radical rethinking of space. With the exception of those in the disciplines that continue to practice ‘long-form’ (i.e., book-length) scholarship, our faculty and students show a marked preference for digital content,” says Schottlaender. “Consequently, our space need no longer primarily serve as storage for print collections and we are beginning to retool space for other needs: technology-enhanced group studies, information commons, high-tech maker spaces, and community outreach activities.”

Amidst the deluge of digital data, libraries—now more than ever—have had to concern themselves less with book repairs and more with how to preserve digital resources in a cost-efficient way that ensures their accessibility for future generations.

“When digital content is proliferating at an unprecedented rate, we have to ask what is ‘worth’ preserving and who decides?” Schottlaender says.

Schottlaender has been engaged in numerous efforts to ensure that universities like UC San Diego have the infrastructure in place to support the huge and diverse quantities of digital material now and in the future. The UC San Diego Library is a founding partner of the National Digital Stewardship Alliance, a Library of Congress initiative charged with mapping out national standards and best practices for preserving and sharing digital content.

The Library was also a founding member of the Digital Preservation Network, which is working to preserve digital information for the academic community by establishing an efficient and reliable distributed network that meets certain economic, technical, legal, and political standards. The Library is a leading partner—along with the San Diego Supercomputer Center—in Chronopolis, which supplies institutions with digital preservation services at Web-scale.

“Academic libraries like ours,” Schottlaender explains, “are helping to develop not only the technical infrastructure needed for digital preservation, but also the necessary standards and governance infrastructures.”

In today’s technology-driven environment, the untethering of information from the printed page has reshaped the ways teachers teach and students study. It has also transformed the ways in which scholarly information is managed and delivered. The challenge we are facing and will continue to face, says Schottlaender, is not just which of an increasing array of formats to support, but how best to preserve the content that reflects our work, our lives, and our culture.

Dolores Davies is the director of Communications & Outreach for the UC San Diego Library.