Karen Calhoun on digital libraries

Review of : Calhoun, K. 2014. Exploring digital libraries : Foundations, practices, prospects. Chicago: Neal-Schuman. 322p.

As a library practitioner I am always a bit weary about the term digital libraries. I have had sincere doubts about the role of library practitioners in digital libraries

“some would argue that digital libraries have very little to do with libraries as institutions or the practice of librarianship”

(Lynch, 2005). But this new book of Karen Calhoun has removed al my reservations against the term digital libraries, and built the bridge from digital library research to practical librarianship.

First of all, Calhoun has written an excellent book. Go, buy, read and learn from it. For anybody working in today’s academic library settings, a must read. Calhoun elegantly makes the connection between the digital library scientists that started in the previous century and the last decade, to the current questions we are dealing with in the academic library setting.

Calhoun describes the context around the usual pathways, from link resolvers, to the metalib solutions ending with the current options of discovery tools. But those off the shelf solutions are not too exciting.

Where I liked the book the most, and learned a lot was around the chapters on the repository. Those are insightful chapters, albeit I didn’t always agree with Cahoun’s views. Calhoun and I probably agree on the fact that repositories are the most challenging areas for academic libraries to be active in. Calhoun did not address the fact that this has resulted in an enormous change in workflow. In the classical library catalogue we only dealt with monographs and journals. In repositories we are dealing with more granular items such as book chapters, contributions to proceedings, articles and posters. That is not only a change from paper to digital, but also a completely different level of metadata descriptions. That are changes that we are still struggling to grasp with. I see in the everyday practice.

A shortcoming of the book is that Calhoun equated repositories with open access repositories. That is a misnomer to my mind. It is perhaps the more European setting where most academic libraries get involved in current research information systems (CRIS). This crisses form an essential part in the university digital infrastructure and feed a comprehensive institutional repository. The repository becomes thus far more than only a collection of OA items. Dear Karen have a look at our repository. More than 200,000 items collected, of which 50,000 available in Open Access. But more important, next to the peer 55,000 peer reviewed articles we have nearly 35,000 articles in professional or trade journals that boast our societal impact. We have also 27,000+ reports, nearly 18,000 abstracts and conference contributions as well. Institutional repositories to my mind should be more than Open Access repositories of peer reviewed journal articles alone. The institutional repository plays an important role in dissemination al kinds a “grey” literature output. Calhoun could probably learn more from the changing European landscape where CRIS and repositories are growing to each other and as a result completely new library role arises, when libraries can get a role in the management of the CRIS. But that is a natural match. Or should be.

What Calhoun made me realize is that we have a unique proposition in Wageningen. Our catalogue is comprehensively indexed in Google and nearly as well in Google Scholar. The indexing for our repository goes well in Google, but for our repository we are still struggeling to get the contents in Google Scholar. We have a project under way to correct this. But no success guaranteed, since Google Scholar is completely different from Google. No ordinary SEO expert has experience with these matters. But that we are indexed both in Google as well as Google Scholar are valuable assets. With our change to WorldCat local we have something to loose. We should tread carefully in this area.

Where I learned a lot from Calhoun, is from those chapters I normally don’t care too much about. The social roles of digital libraries and digital library communities. Normally areas, and literature, I tend to neglect, but the overview presented by Calhoun, really convinced me to solicit more buy-in for our new developments. We are in the preparation of our first centennial (in 2018) and running a project to collect and digitize all our official academic output. Where we present the results? Our comprehensive institutional bibliography! Of course. Not an easy task, but we are building our own, unique, digital library.

Disclaimer: I don’t have an MLIS, but work already for nearly 15 years with a lot of pleasure at Wageningen UR library, where I work in the area of research support.

Calhoun, K. 2014. Exploring digital libraries : Foundations, practices, prospects. Chicago: Neal-Schuman. 322p.
Lynch, C. 2005. Where do we go from here? The next decade for digital libraries. D-Lib Magazine, 11(7/8) http://www.dlib.org/dlib/july05/lynch/07lynch.html