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Paper no 32









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By Paul Bentley

Article originally published in Online Currents May 2004 and reprinted with kind permission of the publishers Enterprise Information Management Pty Ltd. 

In October 2003, following a year-long inquiry, the Australian Senate released its report on the role of libraries in the online environment.  My review in the January/February issue of Online Currents considered contexts for management of libraries in Australia, particularly proposals for a national information policy.  This month, I take a look at the report’s other recommendations concerning national leadership, connectivity, content, legal deposit, skills, promotion and funding.


The inquiry committee placed its hopes on future decisions by two bodies.  It urged the Cultural Ministers’ Council to reactivate a working group to advise on library and information matters, including the development of a national information policy.  And it suggested that the National Office of the Information Economy (NOIE) be required to consult with the National Library of Australia on all matters affecting the library community.

It is easier to call for leadership than to create it, particularly when industries are in a state of flux.  Sometimes yearning for leadership is a reflection of the insecurities of those who seek it.  Further consideration of national leadership issues is desirable after the release of the National Collections Advisory Forum’s feasibility study.  There may be unpredictable consequences.


The committee dealt with technology in terms of connectivity, rating it ‘as the most significant practical issue’, but noted that ‘technological black spots’ need to be addressed.  In view of the pressing need for improved broadband access in public libraries, it urged the federal government to negotiate with telecommunications carriers to establish a discount rate for broadband access to public libraries or consider imposing a requirement on carriers under the Universal Service Obligation Agreement.  It also urged that further funds be allocated for expanding broadband access in libraries.

Although connectivity covers wider territory than ICT rollout, the transformational dynamics of technology are widely accepted.  OCLC’s 2003 Environmental Scan predicts that we are moving into a period of technology change that may be as significant as the shift from mainframe architectures to client/server architectures.  There will be a “profoundly new technology architecture landscape within the next five years.”  It identifies the elements of an increasingly interconnected environment from developments in the Semantic Web, grid computing and wireless technology, which will offer new forms of collaboration and partnership.  In libraries, OCLC says, there will probably be a more plural systems environment with less reliance on integrated library management systems.  It is desirable for librarians to be more involved in shaping these developments.


The Committee described local achievements in the management of content through initiatives like Kinetica, AskNow, PANDORA, PictureAustralia, Australian Subject Gateways Forum, state library networks and projects for special groups.

It made several recommendations for implementation by four bodies.  The National Library of Australia should be given additional funding to facilitate wider access to Kinetica and to identify key databases for which national site licences might be desirable.  NOIE was urged to consult closely with the library community on the development of the register of Australian Government publications, publicise public libraries as Internet access points in its online register; and commission research on public awareness of government information and the means of access to it.  The Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts was urged to expand its heritage digitisation programs, particularly to major cultural institutions.  And the new Australian Research Information Infrastructure Committee (ARIIC) was asked to consider making Australian postgraduate theses more accessible, something that is already on its agenda.

The inquiry defined public information as information made freely available for public use and information made available for a fee, a definition with a short-term perspective.

It acknowledged that significant issues need to be addressed, including the development of guidelines for collaborative archiving and preservation of a range of electronic resources, collaboration with publishers to promote best practice, the development of streamlined user-friendly access methods, and the handling of dynamic databases.

The management of digital cultural assets and online information services in Australia will no doubt feed off the broader vision and more urgent tone of European and American studies and commentaries dealing with public and private sources, scholarly information and cultural heritage material.

The inquiry focused on public libraries, a deficiency acknowledged by the UK Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA, formerly Resource), which was nudged into the Wider Information and Library Issues Project (WILIP) after its Framework for the Future report was criticised for being piecemeal in its approach.

Clifford Lynch warns of an emerging crisis in preserving digital cultural heritage because of the shifting responsibilities over preservation and access.  But he also warns against forced, premature solutions.  GE Gorman provokes questions on the merits of many digitisation programs in his article Can we afford it? Is it worth it? How do we decide?, questions answered in more detail by Diane Zorich’s A Survey of Digital Cultural Heritage Initiatives and Their Sustainability Concerns, which calls for rationalisation and the adoption of better business practices.   OCLC runs its highlighter over the central issue: “The question is not what should be digitised and preserved, it is how we together, as a community of libraries and allied organisations, move our trusted circle closer to information consumers at the level of their need.”

To minimise failure, those pulling the big levers will presumably take note of the cynicism and concerns of colleagues recorded in the OCLC environmental scan.  “There is no more substance behind ‘digital preservation’ than there was behind ‘print preservation’.  We all talk about how important it is and we don’t do either.  Besides, there’s no money for preservation of any type…Why preserve something that is not durable in the first place?…Access licences have effectively taken the discussion of preservation out of the realm of the possible—we don’t own the content and we can’t archive it…We’re all saving the same stuff—we need a national last copy and preservation program.”

Neil Beagrie, in his background paper for the US National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program, anticipated these concerns in concluding that digital preservation is poorly funded in relation to the scale of the challenge.  Institutions have received little or no additional core funding to address digital preservation.  Funds have been made more widely available to provide digital access than digital preservation.  Preservation must be dealt with early in a work's lifecycle, or valuable materials could be lost forever.

The widely held view that the problem can only be solved by national regimes is a fixture of major plans.  The European Commission’s Digicult Report calls for the establishment of intermediary organisations, the development of business models to create revenue, reduce risk and explore niche markets, and the development of capacity, networks and portals to facilitate widespread participation.

The Library of Congress, now with US$100 million from the Congress under its belt for its program, acknowledges the scale of the task.  Its initial work will focus on establishing a national network of committed partners, with defined roles and responsibilities, to address selection and collection development, intellectual property, business models, standards, practice and preservation architecture.  The US Congress is also considering a report “to transform learning and training for the 21st Century” through a Digital Opportunity Investment Trust, partially funded by a portion of the proceeds from the sale of electromagnetic spectrum.

The Australian library sector displayed clear-sightedness in pre-Internet days when in 1994 the ACLIS Task Force on Preservation of Electronic Information released its position paper.  “If we are to accept the preservation of Australian-related electronic records as a responsibility of libraries, archives and museums, then we most recognise that we shall be preserving an increasingly diminishing and increasingly less significant proportion of our documentary heritage.  If other organisations respond to the challenge, libraries will become increasingly marginalised and irrelevant.  If other organisations do not respond, then a progressively larger proportion or Australia’s documentary heritage will be lost.”

The difficulty of the task is underscored by results in regulated environments.  Preservation of Australian government information is controlled by new legislation, standards and guidelines.  Auditable requirements are designed to address the ‘black holes’ in government recordkeeping systems as a result of the increased use of PCs and other factors such as multi-skilling, downsizing and outsourcing, and to give emphasis to the use of holistic strategies for the management of business critical information.  The success of this new regime, however, is patchy.  In the federal sphere, two recent Australian National Audit Office reports concluded that most government organisations are not yet fully committed to the new regime.

Management of digital material in less regulated environments is not yet at first base.  Adrian Cunningham has for years been calling us to address a possible crisis in non-government sectors through an Australian documentation strategy.  In October last year, the Noel Butlin Archives organised a symposium to consider the decline of business archives in Australia, uncertain recordkeeping and archival practices in business organisations, and deficiencies in the transfer of material to collecting institutions.  Ross Harvey and Anne Lloyd are compiling a list of Australia’s lost and missing documentary heritage for the Memory of the World Project.

The senate inquiry did not consider legal deposit and intellectual property rights in sufficient detail to form a definitive view, but urged that the extension of legal deposit to digital materials be taken on board in the current review of the Copyright Amendment (Digital Agenda) Act 2000.  It seems unlikely that deliberations on the act will get bogged down on important, if thorny questions about the efficiency and effectiveness of managing the process.

In an online environment, the task of managing traditional material does not stop.  In noting the widespread confusion and a lack of consensus on how to balance digital and non-digital worlds,  OCLC records major concerns: “Librarians are way too focused on published material - they should leave that to the Amazons and concentrate on the hard stuff…Special collections need to be liberated and desegregated …We need to provide what the market wants but we haven’t established what that is…Simple indexing and ranking are good enough for open Web resources— get over the cataloging issue!”  But it quotes Clifford Lynch in calling for security blankets to be discarded: “We must be careful not to overly emphasise the parts of this knowledge ecosystem that are familiar, that we are comfortable with intellectually, socially and economically, to the exclusion of the new, the unfamiliar, the disturbing, the confusing.”

Keller, Reich and Herkovic in What Is a Library Anymore, Anyway? say it is better to be safe than sorry, when they point to Stanford University’s work on LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe).  Duplication and redundancy is a virtue, they say.  Any system or environment that rests on a single point of access is subject to failure.

In examining the issue of access to online material, the inquiry noted the impact of the online world on the provision of services in universities and it acknowledged priorities for action in the Higher Education Information Infrastructure Advisory Committee report, issues now being addressed by ARIIC.  It noted an initiative, as an example of possible government action in the future, of the Australian Department of Health and Ageing in providing free Internet access to an online medical database.  In forming its recommendations, it said that it had received divided opinion about the merits of national site licences and it looked towards a maturing marketplace to produce more widely accepted options for managing fees, costs and services.

Discussion on subject gateways and portals centred on the Australian Subject Gateways Forum’s activities and on work by the higher education sector, which acknowledges the need for better management of subject gateways by university and research agencies.  There was no mention, however, of portal projects emanating from NOIE.  Nor was their any consideration of the use of portals as devices for stimulating wider collaboration between governments, businesses, universities and libraries, revealing flaws in the way information is handled and creating opportunities to transform services.


The inquiry applauded the profession’s commitment to upgrading its own skills and its efforts to develop skills in others.  It noted perceptions about the relevance of librarians in a changing information industry workforce, concerns about an ageing profession, the increased emphasis on ICT components in undergraduate and postgraduate courses, the decline in those undertaking library courses, the need for better ICT skills in librarians and the importance of continuing education and training.  However, it confined its recommendations to encouraging ongoing research on adaptive technologies for the use of online equipment in public libraries by persons with disabilities.

It is an area that the profession itself must address.  The Museums, Libraries and Arcbives Council, drawing on conclusions in Towards a Strategy for Workforce Development, calls for a thorough overhaul of professional educational needs in the UK and better co-ordination between the various bodies involved in workforce development to confront a ‘cultural malaise’ and address shortfalls in leadership, management, advocacy, technology and commercial skills.  In Australia, the Australian Library and Information Association, Australian Society of Archivists and Records Management Association of Australia are responding to the realities of the marketplace and changes in university education by tinkering with membership classifications, certification and training issues.  Create Australia’s new museum and library and information services training package reflects the changing language of competency.  Amalgamation of the IT-led information disciplines continues to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

Information literacy is an imperative that is rated highly by the profession, but is it an overblown concept that attracts misdirected energy and expenditure?

Certainly the ‘digital divide’ drives the World Summit on the Information Society’s agenda and similar programs.  Statistics reinforce a global need: wealthy nations are rapidly accruing the advantages of the global IT revolution, but less that 7 % of the world’s population is online and less than 20% has access to a telephone.  About 99.7 % of the population of the industrialised world can read and write, but in poor countries national literacy rates are as low as 25%.

The senate report accepts this societal need, even for a country with high literacy.  Libraries, it says, have a significant role to play because they are one of the very few organisations to which a majority of the population belongs.  “They have already made a highly valuable contribution, unobtrusively, to an information-literate Australia but must be able to maintain and improve their services, particularly with regard to training and outreach activities, to continue their good work.”  ALIA, the Council of Australian University Librarians and the Council of Australian State Libraries all have policies or standards promoting the value of information literacy to members and a wider constituency.

Information overload is also touted as a cause for library action.  It has become difficult to differentiate between quality material and dross, the argument goes.  According to one report, it has caused an 8 per cent drop in productivity.  Bawden, Holtham and Courtney, in examining its multiple and complex causes and solutions, say that, although information overload is an overused concept, it is a real and continuing issue. But, enforced standardisation of information literacy as a well-meaning attempt to overcome overload, they say, may do more harm than good.

Muir and Oppenheim also temper enthusiasm on the matter: although there is widespread acceptance that the digital divide is a problem and universal access is desirable, the efficacy of initiatives to address these issues is unproven.  GE Gorman encapsulates information literacy as a trendy replacement for professional competence and user education.  Some authors suggest that work on intelligent search agents and interfaces may be more deserving of effort.  And Krystyna Weinstein, no doubt influenced by the principles of knowledge management, says that, as people become less able to absorb all available information and knowledge, they should give themselves permission to not know, then work with others who might know.

Some professional people and senior citizens work and relax without disadvantage in the absence of a computer or an Internet connection.  The educational system is continuing to develop skills in locating information and thinking critically.  The benefits of assisting the elderly or immobile to shop, bank and chat online may be considerable.  Librarians need to continue to help people use their services.  In Australia, information literacy may be more of a commercial opportunity than a social obligation.


The inquiry observed that, although public libraries are used by a majority of the Australian population, their ability to assist users to harness the potential of online services has not been adequately recognised.  There should be much more promotion of what libraries have to offer, “above and beyond their role as a supplier of recreational reading.”  It encouraged federal and state governments to include statements about the availability of further information in public libraries when promoting Government e-services.

This will be helpful, but will hardly address the complexities of marketing a sector with diverse products and services.  Nor will it address the need for more effective advocacy to influence decisions by governments, businesses and colleagues.


Australian libraries rely almost entirely on government funding.  There is currently no recurrent federal funding to public libraries, except for commitments to the National Library of Australia and grants through programs like Networking the Nation.  The federal government also supports, indirectly, libraries in the education sector, although the precise amount, according to the senate report, is a mystery.  Bequests and corporate donations play an insignificant role in Australian library operations - few libraries have a high enough profile to attract corporate sponsors.  Public libraries raise less than 10% of their income from user charges.

So far as public libraries are concerned, local government is now carrying a disproportionate share of funding, compared with a more equitable situation in the 1970s, when state governments contributed up to 50% in some cases.  Where there is shared responsibility for public library funding between state and local government, the committee recommended that the states increase their share of public library funding to match local government levels of contribution. 

Unrealistic expectations were discouraged. Funding, the committee warned, is about “recasting an existing shrinking pie.”

Figures published by OCLC stimulate thoughts on how the federal government might attempt to recast the shrinking pie.  Australia’s spending on information and communication technologies as a percentage of GDP ranks second behind Colombia and ahead of Singapore, the UK and Japan. It also ranks very highly in terms of library spending as a percentage of GDP (third after South Korea and the United Kingdom) and in terms of per capita library spending (second behind the UK).  But it ranks 12th in terms of education spending, behind Saudi Arabia, Norway, Malaysia, France, South Africa and a string of other countries.

Allocating funds within libraries is a matter for librarians rather than governments. The OCLC report shows striking similarities across countries. In broad terms, about 53% of annual operating funds is spent on staff as the primary asset, 27% on traditional stock, 3% on electronic content and annual electronic subscriptions, and 17% on other areas, mainly facilities and administration.

OCLC predicts that funding for libraries, museums and other institutions reliant on the public purse may continue to decline in the short term.  Traditional opportunities for economies of scale – such as copy cataloguing – have dried up because of changes to content formats.  It calls for, among other strategies, flexible e-commerce models and better handling of financial issues.

MLA, in its WILIP report, says that, although libraries don’t have enough money to meet current demands, a bidding culture is wastefully generating too many overlapping pilot projects.  Its call for sustainable models is underscored in more detail by Diane Zorich in her report on digital cultural heritage initiatives.  Several reports stress the need for libraries to make more visible the value of services and the cost of delivering that value.


The limited scale of its research, the narrowness of its field of vision, and the uncertainties of the online environment made it difficult for the committee to draw far-reaching conclusions.  But at least the inquiry provided the library sector with another opportunity to consolidate its thoughts and engage in conversation with influential stakeholders.

The committee was uncertain about the report’s impact.  Referring to the example of past parliamentary reports, it said “Governments of all persuasions have hastened slowly to respond to calls for improved library services.  The chances that government decision makers will adopt its recommendations seem less certain in an election year.

Libraries in the online environment will depend, by and large, on further action by librarians.


Libraries in the Online Environment, Part 1: Contexts


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