Librarians in the Digital Library

Mark England and Melissa Shaffer North Dakota State University Libraries, P.0. Box 5599, Fargo, ND 58105-5599,, The physical "library" has always defined the "librarian": librarians are associated with library buildings and have served society in acquiring, organizing, and preserving collections of information. Now, with the establishment of virtual digital libraries, librarians have the opportunity to break away from the stereotypes of the past and define themselves in the information environments and services of the future. In the future, the librarian's roles will shift from an emphasis on acquisition, preservation and storage to an emphasis on teaching, consulting, researching, preserving democratic access to information, and collaborating with computer and information scientists in the design and maintenance of information access systems.

The Librarian as Researcher

Librarians are highly skilled in the research process and possess a unique knowledge of the breadth and depth of information resources in various subject specialties. We believe that librarians will increasingly become members of research and development teams. By facilitating access to information -- finding it, delivering, summarizing it -- librarians will move to the beginning of the information production cycle, playing a more substantial role in the information creation process.

The Librarian as Organizer and Publisher

In the digital library environment, the traditional roles of publishers as information packagers and information distribution facilitators and the traditional role of libraries as storehouses of information will be de-emphasized. As universities, regional research centers, laboratories, corporations, and professional societies develop their own depositories of information and make them available to the world's networks, they take on the publisher's and the library's traditional roles. These entities, in this function, have the potential of diminishing the role of traditional libraries and commercial publishers if: (1) faculty tenure guidelines more solidly support publications through these entities in electronic format, returning intellectual ownership of research output to their faculty members; (2) university and scholarly presses become activists in the electronic publishing revolution; (3) everything possible is done to support fairly-priced democratic access to information while supporting intellectual copyright; and, most importantly, (4) information access and delivery systems are designed to meet the consumers' needs. To meet the consumers' needs, digital library systems must be dependable; must be reasonably priced; must have powerful, easy-to-use, intelligent search engines; must have attractive user interfaces; must allow the consumer to inspect the "product" before buying; and must allow access from, and delivery to, the consumer's workstation.

Editors, faculty, and librarians will have important roles as organizers, reviewers, and guardians of intellectual property in the digital libraries of the future. Copyright is a major issue for the digital library and will be until new copyright law adequately addresses various information formats. Librarians will take part in the formation of new copyright law and in the application of the law in the digital library.

The Librarian As a Member of the Digital Library Design Team

We believe that librarians must become more involved in the design and application of information technology initiatives. Librarians must collaborate with computer and information scientists in the design, organization, development, and maintenance of digital library repositories, interfaces, and networks.

To provide the scholars of the future efficient and intelligent access to the world's knowledge is a formidable task. Librarians must be active participants in this process because they are experts at accessing the world's information resources today. Their areas of expertise are different than the computer and information scientists. The librarian's knowledge of the world's information resources and their knowledge and experience in directing users to information will be essential in the development and maintenance of the digital library's information access and delivery systems. The librarian can contribute to information selection, acquisition, and organization as well as the design of the search engine and user interface, for example.

The Librarian as Teacher and Consultant

Technology is far ahead of information literacy education. Few users of today's libraries are effective and efficient users, and no matter how sophisticated interfaces and search engines become in future information access systems, people will still need to be educated regarding their use. Users will need to possess an understanding of essential information gathering skills and tools. Systems of information production and distribution will need to be taught. Users will need to possess an understanding of the organization of information resources, of research strategies, of basic reference works, and of information access and delivery tools. They must understand how to define and refine a research topic, how to analyze an information need, and how to critically interpret and evaluate information resulting from research. The librarian, therefore, has a critical role in the digital library of the future as educator and consultant.


In the future, the librarian's duties will see a shift from a primary emphasis on acquisition, preservation and storage to an emphasis on teaching, consulting, researching, preserving intellectual and access freedom, and collaborating in the design, application, and maintenance of information access systems.

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