Libraries chase digital dream

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A survey of nearly 100 librarians and more than 200 researchers reveals that around half of the UK’s library catalogues can be accessed online, compared with only 31 per cent five years ago, claims the UK-based Research Information Network (RIN) in its recent report, ‘Uncovering hidden resources’. However, the RIN warns that much more work remains to be done before all significant material can be readily traced through online catalogues.

So-called retroconversion is the conversion of a library’s research collections from paper to digital format so that researchers can access a library’s holdings remotely. Widely considered to be a major and costly undertaking, today’s researchers expect to have online access to library catalogues otherwise valuable information will simply be overlooked. But this is no small request.

In 1997, the ‘Bryant study’ outlined the sheer scale of the task, reporting that in the UK's higher education sector an incredible 28 million records - around six million individual titles - required conversion A further nine million records in the country's public library sector needed conversion. The total cost of retroconversion was put at £80 to 100 million.

Six years later, another survey from the UK’s Consortium of Research Libraries (CURL) identified more than 14 million items still requiring retroconversion or cataloguing. And while the RIN’s recent survey clearly identifies significant progress over recent years, the task of retroconversion is far from over.

While two thirds of librarians estimated 50 per cent of their research collections are now online, the remainder said there has been no change in the coverage of online catalogues over the past five years. Indeed, one of the librarians surveyed by the RIN claimed there are almost one million music titles in the UK ‘for which there is no good electronic record’.

On the plus side, the RIN study reports that 84 per cent of the librarians surveyed plan to undertake further retroconversion in the future, including the upgrading of existing catalogues and making more resources online. This spells good news to the researchers. As one researcher put it: ‘to some extent my research is led by what is available online.’ But before widespread progress can be achieved, the RIN says several issues need to be tackled first.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the first issue involves cash. As chief report contributors Helen Greenwood of Loughborough University and RIN director Michael Jubb write: ‘Maximising the benefits of [future] collaborative initiatives depends on extending the range and scope of readily-available information about the holding of UK libraries. This will require significantly more funding than is currently available to libraries to pursue this work.’

While the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) is touted as one possible financial source, RIN’s planning and projects manager, Stéphane Goldstein, confirms that so far, no definite sources of funding are in place. ‘HEFCE and JISC are possible sources, but we have nothing specific and these sources are far from certain,’ he adds.

And once funding is in place, money issues still exist. In the survey, librarians highlighted that funders’ objectives can actually hamper retroconversion progress. ‘Many externally-funded projects were subject based, which [only] allowed us to partially catalogue certain collections,’ said one surveyed librarian.

Money aside, staffing - especially the need to have dedicated staff - is another factor standing in the way of future retroconversion. One librarian stated: ‘It is better to have dedicated staff rather than fit the work in with other duties’, while another even commented, ‘we try to get temporary assistance from the local school library’.

Cataloguing standards and classifications are further sources of concern. According to the survey, some librarians require a more appropriate format for data storage and retrieval while others urge the use of up-to-date internationally-recognised classification schemes over in-house adaptations.

Clearly much needs to be done before a comprehensive system of online catalogues is complete. Undeterred however, the RIN is keen to work with organisations such as he Society of College, National and University libraries (SCONUL) and CURL to establish a UK-wide strategy that addresses the key issues, and explores new and cheaper ways to tackle retroconversion.

‘We will wait for the report to be absorbed a little but could then form a working group with bodies such as the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council,’ says Goldstein. ‘We really do need to pull everything together and should not adopt a piecemeal approach to retroconversion. So far we have empirical evidence but we need solid policy recommendations.’