Virtual library project provides new access to resources

As universities, libraries and scholarly organizations around the world begin to explore the digital technologies, more and more is being heard about that enigmatic thing called the "virtual library." Increasingly, questions are arising concerning the complex financial, cultural, organizational, educational and legal issues involved in a transition from primarily print collections to a greater reliance on electronic information resources. At Emory, a $300,000 grant from the Luce Foundation in New York City has allowed the University to launch a three-year, $900,000 project to study issues relevant to developing a "virtual library" and to develop a blueprint that will effectively link new technologies with traditional print collections, for the benefit of students and scholars.

A "virtual library" is not a place or a thing; rather it is the capability to provide access to information resources at other institutions across town, or across the world, using digital technologies. Over the past few years, elements of the virtual library slowly have been incorporated into the traditional Emory libraries collections. Online catalogs of library holdings are accessible to anyone connected to the campus computing network, while more recently electronically linked collections of compact disc databases, providing access to key periodical indices and abstracts in many disciplines, have become essential components of student and faculty coursework. Much remains to be done in the technological realm, but even more difficult issues involving organization and management, economics, education and legal questions must be addressed and understood for the libraries to function effectively in the networked environment.

The Luce grant has allowed Emory to begin assessing these and other related issues through demonstration projects and collaborative undertakings with other institutions. As Provost Billy Frye attests, Emory got involved in the virtual library concept because "it has become increasingly untenable for college and university libraries to meet the information needs of their faculty and students . . . [due to] the increased costs of acquisitions, the exploding volume of publications and the costs of preserving and maintaining decaying collections." There is the potential in the "virtual library" to offer new hope for gaining access to a greater world of information resources than was ever dreamed possible in the past.

A cooperative spirit

Creating, accessing and maintaining this world of resources is possible only through collaborative partnerships among institutions, and to work successfully these institutions and their libraries must redefine their concepts of collection building and ownership. Discussions between Emory, Harvard and Yale, for example, are moving toward creating a shared electronic resource that would not be possible to create in the traditional print medium. One such collaborative project takes it start with the creation of a digital image file of the Arnett Collection of African artifacts held by the Carlos Museum. Complimentary digital images from the museums and art galleries of the other institutions could be added later. Building on this image file, and in collaboration with faculty scholars from the three institutions, relevant text files will be added, creating an "information palette" from which researchers and students in fields from art to history can electronically access and use this dynamic tool. Calling this project an "exciting and refreshing collaboration between institutions and faculty," Betsey Patterson, Virtual Library Project coordinator, explains that such collaborations have not been typical or possible in the past, but they now are becoming a necessity. Sharing access to collections, and technical expertise, among many institutions not only makes an effective use of the technology, but also makes good fiscal sense, said Patterson. The three institutions are exploring other collaborative projects including creating a digital collection of sermons representing three centuries of American cultural and social development.

A collaborative initiative between the Emory Libraries and Scholars Press will explore some of the issues and assumptions that affect publishers and authors of scholarly jounals, and the libraries that collect them. The SELA (Scholars Press-Emory Libraries Linked Academy) Journals Project will study the feasibility of producing four key electronic journals in religious studies. Supported by a three-year, $250,000 study grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, this project will publish digital editions of the journals alongside the traditional print version, examining cost, production, distribution and usability issues. Patterson emphasizes the importance of "understanding the impact of the digital environment on scholars' information habits and needs. In this project, we will be looking at how the digital world will influence the changing roles of scholars, libraries and publishers."

The unique collaboration illustrated in these projects is representative of many of the efforts under way at Emory and elsewhere to define the concept of the virtual library. In 1995 Emory was invited to join with 15 other major university libraries and research organizations in the National Digital Library Federation. The federation's goal is to develop guidelines for electronic collections and mechanisms for providing shared access to the electronic resources now in development at Emory and other institutions.

On Emory's campus, similar electronic partnerships are developing among university departments. A partnership between the General Libraries' Special Collections Depart-ment and the Information Technology Division is creating an interactive tour of the archives of U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn '61C-'62L. Using screen-touch technology, the CD ROM will display selected images, sound recordings and motion pictures that provide a virtual introduction to Nunn's life and work, as well as a preview to the Nunn papers, which are not yet open to the public. Easy electronic access to these and similar rare materials opens new opportunities to scholars around the world, while also addressing some important preservation issues.

Another campus initiative is examining some of the issues related to the role of the scholar in the electronic environment, and assess what kind of support services and campus infrastructure is necessary to enable faculty to make effective use of the electronic information resources available to them. Comprised of information technology specialists, librarians and social sciences faculty, the project team will create a model for discipline-based information support services. Joan Gotwals, vice provost and director of libraries, cautions that as the universe of resources (electronic and otherwise) expands, "we must become savvier consumers. As the infrastructure adjusts itself to provide more and more access in electronic format, the whole universe of teaching and scholarship begins to change. We need to link the librarians' subject expertise with technical skills and network connections in faculty offices to provide a supporting environment for faculty. With that service infrastructure in place, they can truly take advantage of these new resources and explore new teaching and research possibilities. There is the potential to have a tremendous impact, but with that comes a tremendous responsibility."

According to Frye, the University libraries will not turn away from "our traditional approaches to information management, but we will look beyond them." As Gotwals advises, "Print collections and electronic media will exist side by side for many years to come. Indeed, the role of the libraries is to link past, present and future." One such link already exists in Woodruff Library's Lewis H. Beck Center for Electronic Texts and Services, yet another new outpost of the evolving virtual library concept. The center houses a growing collection of electronic full-texts, many of them rare manuscripts and collections that would not be available to Emory scholars in any other form. The Collections include more than 100 medieval Spanish texts from the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid, a massive collection of early Christian writings, and a CD ROM of early medieval manuscripts held in the British Library. In addition to providing an access point for commercially produced full-text databases, the Beck Center also serves as a laboratory to digitize texts from other formats such as print and microfilm into more accessible electronic files, using scanning software. Center Coordinator Charles Spornick is working on several such projects now, in collaboration with Emory faculty.

Building for the future

The Woodruff Foundation, meanwhile, has attended to the library's present and future needs by providing a $15 million gift to build a Center for Library and Information Resources as an addition to Woodruff Library which, in a second phase, will link to a renovated Candler library. With a projected 60,000 square feet on four levels, this addition will provide an integrated service environment, bringing together a mix of technology specialists, librarians, information resources of all kinds, and a large number of user workstations.

Illustrating the marriage of old and new skills outlined by Gotwals is the center's redesigned reference area, linking librarians, academic computing consultants and multimedia specialists at a shared service area. Housing group study areas, group study space, user services, electronic classrooms and enhanced development centers for multimedia and other electronic resources, the new building will help serve as a catalyst to Emory's growing realization of the virtual library.

Thanks to the foresight of benefactors such as the Woodruff, Luce and Mellon foundations, Emory library users stand ready to cross between the virtual and the real with a click of the mouse or a flip of the page.

--Matt Montgomery