Should Libraries Still Be Charged with Collecting in a Digital Environment? (1)

Libraries have been building and cultivating collections of trustworthy print publications to fulfill their function as reliable storage facilities for centuries. The scope and selectivity of the collection were always criteria for the library’s rank. Collection development has typically been regarded as the noblest task of the academic librarian. Today, digital publications are ubiquitously available. Funding agencies consider the continued collection of printed materials by libraries to be problematic, because there is no guarantee that there will be a future demand for them. From this perspective, it seems reasonable for libraries to care only about information and texts in electronic/digital format as currently needed by their users. In this essay I argue that library collections, which are a combination of printed books, other media, and digital resources, still add great value to research. Every single library, however, can fulfill its task only within a network of other libraries.

Im Lesesaal der Staatsbibliothek Berlin

There is no other institution for which the question of collecting is so existentially important as it is for libraries. Government archives receive their material more or less automatically through the administrative activity of the institution to which they belong. The reason for most museums’ existence is similar: to add original objects to their holdings and to develop them into unique collections. For them, digital media are only the means to an end, to improve users’ access to those objects. Academic libraries predominately deal with non-unique objects that are accessible from many different places. Thus, it remains completely open as to whether or not libraries should develop their own collections for the future. At any given moment in the here and now, thousands of decisions for or against collections are being made that will be pivotal for the future of libraries, their function, and appearance.

Funding agencies complain the loudest about the alleged “waste” of money by libraries. Financial experts accuse libraries of purchasing sources for an uncertain demand without being able to promise that they will ever be read. They ask if libraries could not acquire just the publications that are currently necessary for teaching and research purposes. Financial officers and chief accountants emphasize the efficiency of a just-in-time purchase and delivery system in the industrial sector and claim that these methods should suffice equally well for libraries.

Another example of abandoning the old paradigm of collecting in anticipation of a diminished demand is the decision by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation) in 2012 to give up the principle of special collecting fields and instead favor specialized information services. The decision to end this program in 2012 was controversial among German librarians. Although representatives of the German Research Foundation repeatedly emphasized that the change in priorities was merely a correction of their funding policies and was not to be understood as a statement about the development of library collections, their message was clear: the development of comprehensive collections in the sense of a reservoir was no longer supported. Consequently, a new program was adopted that is intended to support new information services “under special consideration of the research interests in the respective specialist communities,” or “Fachinformationsdienste”. As a result, the focus in funding shifted from collecting to information services. If one is willing to forgo collection development in anticipation of demand in libraries, librarians would condone the procurement of virtual material and say farewell to printed literature. Only electronic publications can be provided immediately, that is, upon demand. The acquisition of books, however, would be too time consuming and costly in comparison. Would such a transformation—one that is in fact already in place and produces data on its own—be feasible and desirable?

In certain scientific fields, an e-only policy is not only feasible but more critical when research results evolve on the basis of or in competition to other comparative research projects: in the experimental, simulation-capable and observational forms of research (that is., in most natural and social sciences, technical disciplines, and medicine), the maximum speed and precision of information are of the utmost importance. Research results in these fields are almost entirely digitally accessible and see a high level of distribution. Libraries serve in such cases as distributing institutions and intersections of scientifically produced knowledge.

Nevertheless, one question remains open: If libraries no longer offer collections according to the abundance paradigm, then researchers must know exactly what they are looking for. It would be a misconception to assume that researchers only consult a library when certain publications are needed. Libraries work like the finest search engines, enabling users to discover much more than what they thought they were looking for. Surely, searches in the World Wide Web result in productive findings, but library collections open up access beyond search algorithms with their often-clumsy pathways of knowledge in an uncurated environment.

Collecting in the twenty-first century. From museums to the web
Der Beitrag erschien 2022 in diesem Buch: Collecting in the twenty-first century. From museums to the web. (Rochester, NY: Camden House, ISBN 9781571139702), S. 67-78.

To put it another way, scholars often enter a library—and this is true for all disciplines—with the same expectation as readers paging through the newspaper. They cannot say in advance what exactly is of interest to them. They browse headlines and select an article from the content provided, sometimes here, sometimes there. The newspaper offers a wealth of information, from which perhaps only every twentieth article is read attentively. Similarly, researchers and scholars examine new acquisitions at a library or journals on display in order to find out what topics are new or are currently being discussed in their respective fields. Like a newspaper, a library collection can provide information and inspiration—assuming it is rich, inviting, and accessible, and stimulates discovery. The lack of a cooperation. How can researchers become familiar with neighboring disciplines if there is no curated pre-selection, and online publications have to be supplied each time anew and in their entirety?

How does this serendipity-principle work in a traditional library? Let us take as example a book that deals with literature and art in Germany around 1970. The librarian would place the physical book on the shelf, either under art history or literary theory. Any librarian would be well advised to include a catalog reference—or tag—that brings attention to the field of philosophy, so that a Nietzsche scholar interested in Nietzsche’s views on art would also be able to find the book. This researcher will then undoubtedly discover a discussion from around 1970, in which Nietzsche’s aesthetics were an important point of reference. Between the book’s shelving and subject indexing, the library establishes connections between publications. A collection’s abundance challenges the library visitor to make multiple decisions as to what contexts are meaningful for their area of interest. They may find a book on the same shelf, for example, that treats their problem from a completely different perspective, or they may discover something unexpected while searching the catalog. Confronted with not one but many answers to questions that did not exist before the bibliographical search had begun, the user finds a string of connections, made by the librarian, to this publication. Collections maintained by librarians, therefore, are far more than just the sum of their individual publications. Nikolaus Wegmann calls this phenomenon the “labyrinthine character of the library” that embodies its true strength.

Within the humanities, a strict e-only policy would not only be undesirable; it would not even be feasible. In 2017 a total of 72,000 printed books were released in Germany alone. Only roughly a third of the subscriptions to magazines and journals, for example, of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek—one of the most e-friendly libraries in Germany— are available in digital format. For example, there is no digital version of the journals that are crucial for the field of musicology such as “Die Musikforschung,” “Acta musicologica,” or “Musiktheorie.” Moreover, the majority of publications of the twentieth century still under copyright are available only in print; a very small percentage have been published online by Google Books; however, they are incomplete and illegal according to German law. Only as of the year 2000 did a significant number of legal (that is, publisher-licensed) e-book editions begin to become available in addition to the printed versions. The humanities cannot do without the substantial portion of literature that is still exclusively available in printed form. The historian Martin Schulze Wessel pleads to this effect in a widely acclaimed article:

Literaturbeschaffung hat langfristige Folgen: Was nicht gekauft wird, ist künftig nicht vorhanden und lässt sich nur selten nachträglich erwerben. Die . . . Geschichtswissenschaften . . . leben vom Paradigmenwechsel; was heute bedeutsam erscheint, kann morgen irrelevant werden. Der Politikgeschichte der fünfziger Jahre wäre das Sammeln von Quellen und Literatur, die für sozialgeschichtliche Fragestellungen wichtig ist, nebensächlich erschienen; die Sozialgeschichte der sechziger Jahre hätte alltagsgeschichtliche Fragen bei der Literaturbeschaffung ignoriert, und alle zusammen hätten sich kaum für den Erwerb von Büchern und Zeitschriften zur Frauen- und Gendergeschichte eingesetzt. Welche Themen künftig relevant sein werden, wissen wir nicht.

According to Schulze Wessel, who eloquently presents the position of the German Association of Historians, the consequence of abandoning future-oriented collecting practices would be the loss of entire research objects for the humanities. For this reason, he maintains that researchoriented libraries should continue to develop collections on a broad scale.

These collections would be a combination of printed books, various other media, and digital resources alike. Books, like all other media, must be shown in a catalog system that is not only an inventory list but also treats them according to the principles of Linked Open Data and consequently standardizes them. Linked Open Data means that bibliographic data must be released without restriction under open licenses for further processing and linking. The principle of standardization requires, for example, that the name of an author will be listed in all its variations. This is easy to handle when libraries participate in the collaborative production of standard data. In addition to millions of personal names, for example, the German Gemeinsame Normdatei (Comprehensive Standard File) now also contains geographical names, conference titles, work titles, and so on, with all its variations—for an unambiguous assignment of a person or thing. If the same rules are applied internationally, the standards files can also be exchanged via an identification number on a large scale.

There are two aspects that justify the continued existence of individual library collections.

Beyond matters of organizing book and media collections, the broader question of what libraries collect and how they may form a network is of the essence. There are two aspects that justify the continued existence of individual library collections: the selection of sources worthy of storage and the establishment of relationships between collections. The idea of a “digital world library” that contains virtually everything that has ever been published is as utopian as it is horrifying. We would be confronted with a gigantic heap of disorganized and hence useless information not unlike what the Internet already produces. Collecting and indexing is such a complex and intellectual achievement that it cannot be organized centrally for humanity as such or even for a single nation.

Der 2. und letzte Teil des Beitrags folgt. Gegenüber der Buchversion leicht gekürzt und ohne Anmerkungen. 

Diesen Artikel zitieren: Michael Knoche: Should Libraries Still Be Charged with Collecting in a Digital Environment? (1), in: Aus der Forschungs­bibliothek Krekelborn, 15. August 2022, URL: Aufgerufen 28. September 2022

Michael Knoche

Michael Knoche war von 1991 bis 2016 Direktor der Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek in Weimar. Letzte Buchveröffentlichung: Die Idee der Bibliothek und ihre Zukunft (Göttingen: Wallstein 2018). Persönliche Website:

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