Advancements in technology make it increasingly possible for us to establish a digital Canadian library.
As the role of Canada’s libraries continues to evolve, the majority have become home to hybrid collections with a combination of print, non-print (or “audio-visual”), and electronic resources. Canadian libraries continue to serve their users through the traditional printed books, but, at the same time, they are moving more and more into the digital realm: Electronic databases provide access to thousands of full-text journal articles, periodicals are available through e-journals, and e-books can be read on a number of different platforms. Although some users prefer one format over another, the platforms are not always mutually exclusive, and the use of one medium may lead the user to try another.
But will there come a time when there really are bookless libraries? And is a digital Canadian library feasible? Trying to answer these questions is a bit like looking into a crystal ball or asking a Magic 8 Ball. Google’s effort to digitize the world’s knowledge with Google Books is very ambitious, but has been tied up with copyright issues. The Digital Public Library of America has some pretty big supporters examining the possibility of creating a digitized library for the United States, while Europeana, backed by the European Commission, provides a portal to 15 million digital works from institutions in many EU member states. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) World Digital Library is attempting to provide access to the greatest documentary treasures of the world’s cultures. These, and other groups working on non-commercial digitization projects, are really still in their early stages.
Here in Canada, Canadiana has a mandate to strengthen our documentary heritage content online. The organization serves to co-ordinate, facilitate, and advocate for digitization initiatives, as well as to provide access to, and preservation of, digitized works. A large number of organizations are committed to working together to digitize the documents that make up the history of Canada and Canadians. For reasons such as financial and copyright concerns, there has been little success in initiating a full-scale national digital library.
Copyright is a major issue when looking at the possibility of a Canadian digital library, especially when working with in-copyright but out-of-print materials whose authors and publishers cannot easily be located. The financial situation is another concern, as it is a challenge to fund the expansion of the various digitization projects and ensure their long-term maintenance. Developing a single, searchable portal that provides easy access to the wealth of information that would be available in a digital library is an equally important challenge that needs to be met to make the project successful.
The desire for a Canadian digital library is there, as evidenced by the initiatives undertaken to date. There would be great value in a national digital library: Researchers from across the country could access materials when they need them; students could find reliable and reputable resources easily; the public would have access to an amazing wealth of information; and government and business leaders could find information to help them with decision-making. The technology is available, as many institutions have been working on digitization projects for a number of years, and, at this stage, the development of a search portal should be possible.
A digital library for Canada is feasible, and could be tied to an enormous, worldwide digital collection. It will take a lot of work, collaboration, co-operation, and resources, but the resulting access to such an amazing wealth of information would impact and benefit the world. The issues around the development of such a collection mean that this isn’t something that can be realized overnight, but with co-operation and finances it can come to fruition.
The libraries of the future will be able to provide access to the vast collections from around the world, and will continue to provide an essential human interface by assisting the users to find, evaluate, use, and cite information. They may also continue to be hybrids with collections of print and digital resources: The development of a digital library is not exclusive of print materials, and it does not necessarily mean there will be bookless libraries in the future. Libraries will also continue to be social places in their communities and institutions, connecting people to the information they seek in comfortable, safe environments.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.