Features - Virtual Libraries: Myth and Reality

(Archived February 14, 1997)


Sabrina I. Pacifici has been the Director of Library & Research Services for the Washington, D.C. office of Chicago's Sidley & Austin for 13 years. For the past decade, Sabrina has also been a legal newsletter editor and publisher and a frequent writer and speaker on issues relating to law firm technology. She is the Editor of Law Library Resource Xchange (LLRX), and can be contacted at spacific@llrx.com.
The concept of the virtual library is attracting increased interest because of the burgeoning medium called the World Wide Web. Some technology-happy circles are heralding the virtual library as the single most comprehensive and valuable source of information in the world--and the inevitable replacement for the traditional library. A groundswell of voices chanting the mantra, "You can get everything you want off the Internet" has created the myth of the unassailable dominance of the Internet.

In light of this phenomenon, it is useful to separate myth from reality, and the practical and innovative from the impossible and the unnecessary.

First, a matter of definition. In the broadest sense, a virtual library is a system by which users access information that resides solely in electronic format on computer networks, without respect to physical location of the information.

The virtual library exists independently of the amount or nature of the electronic information to which it provides access. There are no limits on the size, content or value of data in a virtual library. It's definition is shaped by individual or organizational need. A user in Washington, D.C., for example, can access, read, and print information from a computer located anywhere in the world.

This information may be data about links where information resides, called meta-indexes (such as the World Wide Web Virtual Library, found at http://www.w3.org/hypertext/DataSources/bySubject/Overview.html), or data about other data, called metadata (for example, George Washington University's Jacob Burns Law Library online catalog at http://jacob.nlc.gwu.edu/screens/opacmenu.html), or, if you are lucky, the actual data sought (such as the full text of congressional bills on Thomas, http://thomas.loc.gov). In this sense, LEXIS, WESTLAW, CDs, and the Internet can all be elements of a virtual library.

 

The virtual library exists independently of the amount or nature of the electronic information to which it provides access. There are no limits on the size, content or value of data in a virtual library. It's definition is shaped by individual or organizational need.

 

 

Libraries were among the first users of alternative media, such as microfiche and microfilm, tapes, sound recordings, and electronic files, which were the predecessors of today's online commercial database systems.

An Evolutionary Process

The virtual library did not arise out of the Internet--it's been evolving since the 1960s. During that period, both private and public libraries initiated innovative long-term projects to facilitate access to their continually expanding hard-copy collections. These programs integrated emerging information technologies with traditional printed materials. Libraries were among the first users of alternative media, such as microfiche and microfilm, tapes, sound recordings, and electronic files, which were the predecessors of today's online commercial database systems.

Early technology projects focused on the creation of electronic card catalogs known as OPACs (online public access catalogs). By the 1980s, the success of these ventures resulted in OPACs replacing traditional card catalogs in many academic, public, and special libraries. They also allowed libraries to engage in further cost-effective cooperative efforts to facilitate resource sharing and expand access to subject-specific resources beyond the walls of an individual library.

Another technology advancement involved the growth of electronic databases of subject-specific information such as ERIC (Educational Resources Information Center) and INSPEC (the Database for Physics, Electronics and Computing). These electronic databases quickly became an important information tools for libraries seeking to expand their resources beyond what they could physically house in their own collections.

But most of these databases were indexes only, leaving the users to locate copies of the actual text themselves. By the mid-1970s, full-text databases had been developed, and the legal community was quick to integrate them into their research operations. Today, proprietary full-text databases such as LEXIS and WESTLAW remain essentially unchallenged in the scope, depth, and quality of information that they provide to legal researchers.

 

 

The Library of Congress has a collection of approximately 110 million items, with more than 20 million in storage that have yet to be cataloged. With an anticipated conversion rate per year of 5,000 books (an average of 200 pages each), a mere 5 percent of the library's current collection, exclusive of any new acquisitions, will be digitized by the year 2216.

Going Digital

The creation of a digital library is a challenging and complex task. For example, the Library of Congress has initiated the Digital Library Project (http://www.loc.gov) with the goal of converting 1 million book pages a year into digital format that will be accessible on the World Wide Web.

But the magnitude of the task is overwhelming. At a current average cost of $6 to $8 per page, the projected expenditure is $60 million over the next five years.

The Library of Congress has a collection of approximately 110 million items, with more than 20 million in storage that have yet to be cataloged. With an anticipated conversion rate per year of 5,000 books (an average of 200 pages each), a mere 5 percent of the library's current collection, exclusive of any new acquisitions, will be digitized by the year 2216.

But cost and time are not the only issues. The Internet is an information free-for-all, with no standardized organizational structure or defined mandate. While libraries are quintessential examples of information order, the Internet has been described as "information chaos."

Library users know that they are likely to locate information necessary to fulfill their requirements. Virtual library users, on the other hand, can count on no such assurance.

There's no doubt that valuable information is available on the Internet. However, finding the information quickly and efficiently and downloading it in an acceptable format is an altogether different matter. For example, a search on the term "virtual library" using the AltaVista search engine (http://altavista.digital.com) yields more than 100,000 hits. It is probably safe to say that there are not 100,000 books or articles written on this topic, but there are certainly that many digital documents that describe themselves using that term or point to others that do deal with the topic.

This example highlights both the drawbacks and benefits of digital documents on the Internet. The Internet includes thousands upon thousands of lists that point to exponentially larger numbers of "potential" sources of information from which to choose. Of these potential sources, few have any actual value to the researcher. As a result, a major problem is separating the information wheat from the information chaff.

While libraries are permanent archives of information, the Internet is often no more than a temporary host to only the most current information on a given topic. Therefore, while a virtual library can be an excellent electronic resource, it is not a replacement for the traditional library.

Another obvious advantage of traditional libraries over virtual ones: Because of copyright laws, books are rarely found on the digital shelves of virtual libraries. With the exception of those in the public domain, such as Moby Dick and the collected works of Shakespeare and Dante, few have been legally transferred, with appropriate permission, to the Internet.

 

 

While libraries are permanent archives of information, the Internet is often no more than a temporary host to only the most current information on a given topic. Therefore, while a virtual library can be an excellent electronic resource, it is not a replacement for the traditional library.

 

 

According to Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at the Research Libraries Group Inc., people are willing to read only three screens worth of information before printing them out.

Intellectual Property Issues

Information about books abounds on the Internet, but transferring their content to an online environment erases the required distinctions between publisher, writer, owner and consumer. In the digital environment, the act of copying and distributing material is as easy as a couple of key strokes, and therefore creates more problems for the already controversial area of "fair use" rights.

Distribution on the Internet is global, and once material appears in a virtual library, its duplication cannot be controlled. Currently, there exists no universal control mechanism to impose a fee structure for its use. Implementing some kind of online metered use of information in the digital environment is an overwhelmingly difficult task for a system that purports to be free, and there is no evidence that this issue will be resolved any time in the near future.

Issues of intellectual property rights and for-profit publishing thus form critical obstacles to the full-scale implementation of a truly digital library.

And although we appreciate the value of a virtual library that will, for example, supply us with information and an online purchase mechanism for millions of book titles (see http://www.amazon.com), we certainly do not want to read books online.

According to Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at the Research Libraries Group Inc., people are willing to read only three screens worth of information before printing them out. This fact is supported by research from the Book Industry Study Group, which estimates that Americans will spend $31 billion on books in the year 2000, an increase of about 63 percent over what they spent in 1990.

Virtual Publishing

Consequently, the Internet has not eliminated the demand for books, but rather has given rise to a new format, virtual publishing. There has been a steady increase in new publications created specifically for the digital environment (an example is the virtual newsletter on legal research and technology issues, Law Library Research Xchange, http://www.llrx.com), that you are reading right now!

Corporations, trade associations, law firms and universities, as well as private individuals, are creating thousands of digital documents and making them available through public access Internet web pages, as well as to specific user communities through in-house networks known as Intranets.

These documents range from magazines, newsletters, articles, and marketing and promotional information to scientific and scholarly writings. Many are documents that exist only in their virtual forms. For the most part, these materials represent a new generation of documents that many organizations construe as intellectual property assets.

Organizations have thus gone into the business of digital publishing as a means of capturing the "brain trust" of their employees to share within the company and with current and potential clients. Many law firms' home pages offer electronic articles by attorneys from the firm on practice-specific legal topics as a marketing tool to attract potential clients. Often, these materials are written to accommodate the web page format, so they are brief and focused.

 

 

Organizations have thus gone into the business of digital publishing as a means of capturing the "brain trust" of their employees to share within the company and with current and potential clients.

Intranets--institutional Internet networks using Web navigational software--are fast becoming a major focus of Fortune 500 corporations. Millions of corporate dollars have been spent on in- house connectivity to link employees worldwide with everything from human resources information to proprietary in-house databases.

The growth of Intranets may diminish the need of large users to rely exclusively on costly third party systems for connectivity of this sort. For example, according to InformationWeek (Sept. 9, 1996), the accounting firm KPMG Peat Marwick spent $95 million in 1995 to expand its technology infrastructure, including corporate networking, establishing an Intranet, and linking to the World Wide Web. The KPMG project illustrates the growing importance of corporate Intranets now accessible at each employee desktop.

Educational establishments have also embraced the concepts of Intranets and virtual libraries. The home pages of numerous libraries, colleges, and universities across the country (such as the home page of Florida State University College of Law, http://www.law.fsu.edu) provide practical electronic information that complements the services of their library counterparts. They provide access to numerous OPACs and many hypertext links to institutional information located on their pages and on related pages of hundreds of other institutions.

Book, Libraries Survive

Before joining the bandwagon declaring the demise of the library and the knowledge content format known as the book, consider the following: Several years ago, the technology industry heralded the death of the book at the hands of the newest technology marvel, the CD-ROM.

CDs promised a form of virtual library comprising the full text of materials from encyclopedias to legal treatises, enhanced by embedded hypertext links that facilitated the user's movement from point to point across virtual pages of virtual volumes. Now CD publishers acknowledge that they have been broadsided by the movement toward the Internet, with user interest having been transferred to the newest form of virtual libraries, those found on the World Wide Web. As many librarians predicted, CDs have taken their place as a niche technology that is used to complement other digital and hard copy resources.

The global infrastructure of the Internet has unleashed a flood of information to a rapt public. This in turn has stimulated an increased demand for information that has resulted in a building boom for new libraries across the country--and the world. These institutions have expansive electronic resources that complement their vast and increasingly valuable paper collections.

Libraries will continue to defy the predictions of their demise and to be a driving force in information storage and delivery long after the Internet is replaced by the next generation of information technology solution.


This article was reprinted with permission of the Legal Times.