Development of Digitization Programs at Small College Libraries

This post was originally written for my library management class, as part of an assignment where we imagined ourselves to be working at particular library and to imagine how that library would deal with challenges related to our areas of interest. I chose to write from the perspective of the Digital Initiatives Librarian at Baruch College of City University New York.

The William and Anita Newman Library of Baruch College (a small branch of the public City University of New York) has lately been considering an issue that is facing many libraries: how can libraries develop processes for the creation and sustenance of increasingly common digital collections, including increasing access to special collections via digital initiatives and the stewardship of born-digital materials? The changing usage patterns of library materials by students and researchers means that users increasingly expect books and other resources to be available via the Internet, regardless of their location, and the switch to computer-generated records for both administrative and personal record-keeping demands a new, comprehensive approach to the storage and preservation of archival “documents.” This complex issue raises a number of questions that need to be addressed, such as who will be responsible for these projects, what sorts of technology resources are available or needed to implement and sustain such programs, and perhaps most importantly, how will each component of these projects be strategically prioritized?

In many cases, such projects grow organically from an extension of traditional library services, or as ad hoc projects by scholars or departments who feel that there is a gap in the current resources available to them. For example, librarians at Baruch College may begin sending scans or photographs of research materials to scholars rather than making copies, since these formats are usually more detailed and better quality. Eventually, it may be determined that for efficiency’s sake and to reduce wear on fragile materials, it’s better to save the files in case they are requested again later. This can lead to librarians deciding to proactively digitize materials that are heavily used, and eventually, to incorporate these processes into their normal workflows and budget considerations, thereby creating a digital program from the ground up. This particular strategy has the advantage of being experimental and iterative, and allows librarians to work out the kinks, so to speak, but can also hamper development due to restricted resources and/or not being officially supported by the larger institution, especially at a small college library such as this one. Librarians are traditionally committed to freedom of information and access, and could see the implementation of digital programs as a way to not only help their institutions move into the future, but as a way to express and promote this foundation of their profession and personal ethics.

Political considerations can also play a role in the creation of digital programs. Librarians, faculty, and other powerful figures on campus who see the digital revolution as the wave of the future may lobby for their institutions to invest in technological infrastructure instead of diverting resources to more traditional areas. Influential donors may also be part of this process – for example, pledging to donate their collection with the stipulation that it be cared for in a particular manner, which will then entice the institution to invest in new technology in order to secure patronage. These lobbyists often have similar motives to those mentioned above: personal fulfillment of goals for the future of society, the desire to see their institution at the cutting edge of knowledge management or creation; but also the financial success of the institution as a business model. These supporting figures will most likely be looked to for guidance on the implementation of these new processes, which may or may not be compatible with current library operations or resources. In many ways, however these individuals are a powerful force for innovation in a traditionally slow-moving system. In a smaller institution, libraries such as the Newman may have to work harder to justify extra resources, and having vocal, influential supporters can go a long way towards convincing the administration of the need for what might otherwise be considered unnecessary investments.

Institutions can also implement programs in a top-down manner, although this is less common than a mixture of the three approaches. Usually, the institution bureaucratizes a process that is already in existence, with the support of influential figures within the organization. However, there are drawbacks: bureaucratization can be a drawn-out affair that, in its worst incarnations, results in solutions that are not practical for the problem they are supposed to be addressing. Although this process can be time-consuming due to the levels of hierarchy that it must pass through, having allocated resources and strategic goals can make it easier for the library to focus on specific projects that are deemed important. Having the perspective of multiple committee members about how the library’s digital program aligns with the goals of its parent institution and how best to utilize its special resources can be insightful and present a more encompassing viewpoint than that of a single or small group of librarians.

Since Baruch College is a small, public institution, it would probably respond differently to the implementation of such programs than a large, private institution’s library, but there are also areas where the specifics of Baruch’s infrastructure would make it seem to act like a larger institution. For example, even though the College is small in itself, it is also part of a larger public university system, which might add more layers of bureaucracy, depending on how much freedom CUNY gives its individual branches. Larger universities have more resources, and can be willing to take risks on projects that smaller institutions with less money cannot afford – but they also have more layers of hierarchy than a small library where individual librarians might be encouraged to be creative and cultivate new ways of doing things. Even were Baruch College given a considerable amount of autonomy within CUNY, as a public university it is subject to more stringent regulation than a private institution of the same size, which might have a more politically- or human-focused way of implementing new initiatives. Certainly, the type and size of a library are indicative of how they most likely operate, but differing circumstances and institutional cultures are as or more important in determining how an institution responds to new problems and opportunities.