Feature: Moving the library online

Trinity has partnered with Microsoft to develop its online library

Trinity has partnered with Microsoft to develop its online library

Irish universities are getting in on the idea of digitised, interactive libraries, with a new partnership between Trinity College Dublin and Microsoft setting the tone, writes Adam Maguire.

THE MOVE towards digitised university libraries is gaining momentum worldwide with copyright concerns creating the only real doubts about how the transfer to digital will pan out.

As part of a partnership announced recently Trinity College Dublin is to work with Microsoft on the development of a user-friendly online environment for its digitised works, which includes some historical documents and work from the humanities department. Dubbed a “Virtual Research Environment” the infrastructure will attempt to draw all of this content in to one network, making access and collaboration between academics easier.

However, while the deal is ground-breaking by Irish university standards the move towards a digitised and interactive library is not new internationally. In countries such as the US and UK most large universities have long-established digitisation units that are working to make printed works available online – particularly those of historical significance.

“In the US there’s been quite a long tradition of digitising what’s called ‘special collections’, which would be rare and unique things,” says MacKenzie Smith, associate director for technology in the MIT libraries. “Quite a few institutions in the UK have also done that . . . typically they’re put on a website in public.”

In many cases the main motivation for digitisation has been preservation of work. However, the most important driver has been increasing the accessibility of content to a wider audience.

“[Some works] are very difficult things to get to today unless you’re a researcher with a lot of money to travel,” says Smith. “I think access is the bigger problem although preservation is part of that.”

Smith adds that the rate at which this move to digital is happening has increased significantly of late, particularly since Google undertook its aim to digitise millions of books for its Book Search service.

Digitisation is also happening at the other end of the timescale among modern books, although in this case at source. Many publishers now – particularly in the science and technology fields – accompany their printed works with “ebook” and “ejournal” editions which can be read on a standard computer or compatible eReaders.

“The trend is very much to go electronic in all areas,” said John Kennedy, systems librarian at the University of Ulster. “There are a number of pluses in doing that; one of which is that you can have several people access something at the same time, another is that they can do so whenever and wherever they want.

“Another big benefit for us is that it cuts down on the kind of space we need to stock the physical copies in the first place.”

Of course when publishers create digital copies of their own, the ownership rights around them are relatively clear – the same cannot be said for work produced long before the digital age.

This fact is the one thing creating real concern among universities, as there is legal uncertainty over whether they can digitise at all under existing agreements.

As yet, no one knows how far “fair use” stretches and libraries are having to seek agreement with rights-holders on a case-by-case basis in order to free up the work for users.

A failure to get such clearance could have a dramatic impact on the potential of the digitised library, which can be used to turn static work from a book into something adaptable and modular. In fact, a more integrated and layered communication platform is an integral part of what Microsoft is promising Trinity College, including what it calls web 2.0 features like tagging, instant messaging and RSS feeds.

“When something is digitised the computer has the power to process the information in a way that I don’t have the time to do,” says Prof Jane Ohlmeyer, the Erasmus Smith chair of modern history at Trinity College. “You want to be able to get the machine to do all that tedious cross-matching for you.”

At its most basic level this social media edge allows people to edit and discuss documents in real time from opposite sides of the globe but the benefits can go far deeper than this. One example often cited is the new potential for data “mashups”, which involves the combination of two independent sources of information to create something entirely new.

Where in the past this may have involved laborious grunt-work on the part of the academic as they siphoned isolated pieces of information from pages to compare and contrast, attaining such results is now as easy as the click of a mouse.

“The trajectory here is pretty clear – eventually all of our texts will be digital,” says MacKenzie Smith. “I don’t think there’s any debate about whether we’re going to create digital libraries, it’s just a question of how quickly we can make it happen.”

Click here to read an interview with Tony Hey, the corporate vice president of Microsoft Research, who led the deal with Trinity College.

This article was published in the November edition of the Innovation supplement in The Irish Times.

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