Biblioteche digitali: prospettive e sviluppo

Contenuto principale dell'articolo

S. Michael Malinconico


Research libraries are in crisis. Their users expect ready, convenient access to an ever-increasing body of information. They expect to have access to that information immediately and at a time and place of their choosing. The quantity, cost and variety of the information resources that scholars need to consult have far outstripped the ability of any single institution to supply them. Budget increases, generally indexed to overall increases in prices, have not kept pace with the extraordinary demands placed on libraries by their users, their collections and their suppliers. Consequently, librarians and library users have turned to modern technologies for solutions to these problems. Librarians and users alike hope that digital libraries will in the long term provide the convenient, universal access that library users require; that it will be more practical to preserve electronic images than paper documents; and that efficiencies possible with electronic technologies will reduce the gap between the demands of a research library's mission and the capabilities of its resources.

Developments that have been completed or initiated in this decade indicate that digital libraries, a new information infrastructure, and enhanced access to information, which has long been anticipated, are all within reach. However, prospects for solutions to the economic problems besetting libraries seem less clear. Some costs will be reduced or eliminated, but new costs, and markedly increased use, may offset these gains. The persistence of the present organizational structures may further inhibit substantial changes.

None of the problems besetting research libraries are more pronounced than those associated with acquiring and providing access to serials. The problems created by rapidly escalating prices of serials are aggravated by the explosive growth in the amount of published information.

Librarians and academic officers began in the early 1990s to explore the capabilities of electronic technologies to solve the problems of scholarly communication in print form. The advantages of electronic publications are numerous and have been widely discussed. It is a fond hope of librarians and library users alike that these benefits can be achieved at costs lower than those for print journals. Regrettably, it seems unlikely that the economic benefits of electronic publication will be easily realized.

It is clear that the use of electronic information sources will inexorably displace traditional sources, and that we are standing on the threshold of momentous changes. There is much anecdotal evidence of that change. Yet, a search of the library and information science literature reveals that we have little empirical data, we have no objective measures of the extent, and scope, of these changes, consequently, we have no reliable means for assessing the rate at which change is occurring. It behooves us to chart these changes so that we can anticipate, and control, their consequences. The IFLA Information Technology Section has undertaken a project to assess the extent to which academic libraries have begun to rely on electronic sources in lieu of, or as complements to, printed sources.

In order to answer these questions, we prepared and distributed questionnaires to several groups of libraries to determine what electronic services they offer and the fraction of their materials budgets they devoted to those services. We asked for this information for the fiscal year then ended, the fiscal year ended two years earlier and the fiscal year that ended 4 years earlier. In this way we obtained 3 data points from which we could begin to establish trends, if any.

Thus, in conclusion, the emergence of digital libraries seems to be quite clearly in evidence. Access to electronic information sources shows steady growth, with the most rapid growth seen in access to remote, on-line databases and in the provision of other electronic information services such as Internet access. Access to full-text electronic materials through online services and locally mounted databases has increased significantly in recent years. Online access to full-text has been especially influential, probably due to enhanced services from companies such as Information Access Company, UMI, Dialog and other providers. As more and more full-text resources become available via the World Wide Web, this trend toward online delivery will undoubtedly increase.

The number of libraries allocating between 5 and 10 percent of their annual materials budgets for electronic services has more than tripled (from 16% to 50%) over the time period studied, while the number allocating 11 percent or more has increased from zero to more than 10%. The fraction of libraries allocating less than 5 percent has decreased from more than 80% to less than 40%. Overall, it appears that libraries are making increasing allocations for electronic resources, and it appears that this money is being drawn from the materials budget. This suggests that electronic information sources are being accepted as important, mainstream library resources and are beginning to compete with sources in traditional formats.

We have also seen a steady increase in the number of libraries canceling serials each year. Electronic sources seem to be having an increasing influence on decisions to cancel subscriptions or to forego purchases. By 1995, the last year for which we collected data, approximately 60% of libraries queried said that they are taking electronic alternatives into consideration when canceling periodicals, up from 26% just 4 years earlier.

The growth rate of materials and other-expenditures budgets of ARL libraries is slowing. ARL libraries' materials budgets seem to have begun to level off in 1995. Other-expenditures budgets are also slowly increasing. This needs to be considered in the context of the rising cost of materials, which have shown a large increases, especially in scientific/technical journals (10%-15%, and more) during that period. This is especially problematical when one considers the rapidly proliferating number of new resources being produced (both print and electronic).

Thus, we can expect that libraries will engage in more not fewer experiments in which electronic resources replace traditional print and microform resources. The present data provide us a valuable benchmark that can be used to chart the evolution of digital libraries. We plan to survey the same libraries again this fall to see if the trends that seem evident now persist. We have also begun gathering similar data from libraries worldwide. These data have not yet been completely analyzed. Since we have surveyed a broad range of countries, we expect a far less clear picture to emerge. Nonetheless, these data too will serve as a valuable benchmark for future understanding.

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