UK Office for Library and Information Networking, University of Bath
This is a prepublication draft of a guest editorial of the same title appearing in The Electronic Library, Vol 17, No 4, August 1999, p. 207-11.
Please quote the printed version in any citation.
Networking is a part of the fabric of our activities, visible and invisible. In libraries, as elsewhere, this growing importance accounts for a progressive change of emphasis, as the `field' within which networking is important extends. Early discussions focused on technologies, on the automation of tasks, on bits, chips and fibres. More recently, discussion has broadened to think about service and `content' issues, as networking becomes increasingly central to research and learning; to the delivery of public services; to trading; and to the organisation of work and the work of organisations. We are now beginnning to see a new emphasis as we focus on the creation and recreation of the institutional forms through which we work, play and communicate in a digital environment. This is evident in the questioning of established values and practices. Consider for example current discussions about the future of entertainment, or about how we interact with financial services, or about democratic participation, or about the delivery of educational opportunity. In each case, to a greater or lesser degree, futures are being discussed in an environment influenced by networking.
The institutional focus is clear also when we consider some of the current issues with which the library community is grappling. Who is responsible for preserving the intellectual record? Historically, libraries, archives and museums have curated large parts of the intellectual record within their respective areas of interest. For libraries, this was a role formalised in the context of national libraries, and in practice widely dispersed as a benign consequence of the redundancy of the printed record. Copies of books exist in multiple places. What is to happen now, when electronic materials may be licensed not bought, and where this redundancy is much reduced or eliminated? What is the future of scholarly publishing? Authors, publishers, libraries, other intermediaries are uncertain participants in a changing pattern of roles. What is the role of the public library in delivering services for the citizen? This has yet to be established, as has the range of services, as libraries and other organisations work through what it means to move to richer networked civic services, to open government, to participation in voluntary and community initiatives. How does one support equitable access to knowledge, imagination and learning? What licenses and agreements will secure access to electronic information resources for the city, for the region, for the citizen? How does one support a life-long learning agenda, alongside a range of learning initiatives?
Indeed, one could suggest that where there is opposition to digital services it is often rooted in a concern that the long-standing institutions which frame the library role are being forsaken without a clear sense of the prospective purpose and values of new services in a novel digital environment. However, one could also suggest that a discussion which focuses only on the library, and not on the changing context of the institutions it interacts with will substitute slogans (e.g. the information society) for analysis.
The next step will be to consider how practices and services are embedded in sustainable institutional contexts. Take a topical example. There is much current interest in 'subject gateways', databases of Internet resource descriptions which provide access to Internet resources selected according to particular quality and relevance criteria. Examples are SOSIG, OMNI, and EEVL in the UK. There are now many worldwide, and there is considerable interest in collaboration and developing the service model. How does one secure the long-term future of such services, which are currently funded in diverse ways, usually with short-term or vulnerable research or programmatic funding. In the UK, their value has been recognised and a new organisation, the Resource Discovery Network (RDN), has been set by the JISC to coordinate their development based on higher education (JISC), research council and other funding. At the same time there is likely to be growing commercial interest in this area. Libraries and other organisations engage in resource desciption activity and collaborative frameworks to support this are beginning to emerge. National libraries have historically created the bibliographic record; what role will they have in this more diverse environment? The national libraries of the Nordic countries, the Netherlands and Australia, for example, have been active in considering their role. Learned societies and others are also active. In the background, the technologies for resource description and information management are evolving, and, as I discuss below, the nature of network information itself presents challenges to this type of activity. The environment is fluid. Institutions are immature. Things are still, as it were, under construction.
Institutions are relatively persistent embodiments of values and practices. Libraries must co-evolve with the institutions of which they are a part (educational organisations, local authorities, health authorities, businesses, etc), themselves subject to significant change and questioning. They must interact with the institutions of trade, of entertainment and others. All influenced by the developing network environment, which is increasingly providing the material base for new ways of working and interacting. As Phil Agre neatly summarises: 'It no longer suffices to ask "what effect will the Internet have on ...?". Rather, we must comprehend the institutional world from which the Internet arose, and the many and various institutional worlds with which the Internet now coevolves, and make sense of the technology in that dynamic context.' 
For example, the academic library's services will need to be aligned with changing learning and research behaviour, and with the aspirations of their organisations. These might include the desire to become a global learning and research resource, competing internationally, or the desire to more fully engage with a regional hinterland developing delivery into work and other local environments. Other libraries will have other alignments.
This breadth makes it difficult to know where to begin a brief discussion. Rather than presenting an overall narrative, I thought I would sketch some issues under a selection of specific topics. I hope this rather general discussion will complement the more specific contributions which make up this themed issue.
These topics are unified in that they are aspects of a more general idea: libraries and other institutions are developing in a new shared space created by flows of data. Transport networks created new 'spaces' which overlaid local places, allowing higher levels of interaction between them. Telecommunication networks continue this development. The new network space is characterised by a further lessening of material and spatial constraints, as institutions increasingly depend on flows of data which join people and organisations worldwide.
The user is not only a visitor to a library; he or she is an inhabitant of a network space which is crowded with opportunity. Increasingly, the user focus will be a personal one, an environment in which they interact with resources, process them, create them, share them. They will expect resources to be available through digital libraries, learning environments, games, their customary work and workflow habitat. We already see how this is shifting the emphasis of automation from inward-looking collection management to outward-looking services to the user. Active users in a shared space have new demands. They want resources bundled in terms of their own interests and needs, not determined by the constraints of media, the capabilities of the supplier, or by historical practices shaped by superseded forces. The growth in the variety, volume and volatility of digital resources means that effective use depends not merely on pointing people to resources, but on supporting selection, aggregation and re-use. It means providing personalised services, supporting the management and sharing of user profiles. It means providing interpretive environments in which resources are situated in relation to wider contexts. It means supporting reuse and repackaging of materials. It means adapting access and use to the needs of users or groups of users, rather than to the constraints of particular media or systems. Some of these issues are behind Stories from the web, for example, a Library and Information Commission funded initiative, where UKOLN is working with several public libraries to create a space in which children can explore works of literature and communicate about them.
This user focus links directly to a need for greater integration. In a shared network space, a new way of working is required, one which recognises that network services do not stand alone as the sole focus of a user's attention but need to be part of a fabric of opportunity. Services need to be aggregated in support of business objectives and user needs. They need to be able to pass data between them - between a search service, a requesting service, and an accounting service, for example. This consolidation is increasingly necessary in a network world where variety is potentially confusing and adds effort for the user or developer who has to discover what is available, cope with many different interfaces, negotiate different authentication systems, work out terms and conditions, manage different results, and move data between services. Human attention is more valuable than computing resource, and it should not be wasted in unnecessary tasks.
Of course, the web provides a level of integration. It has transformed information use by providing pervasive file transfer and user interface services. It is a simple form of 'content infrastructure'. However, services now call for richer content infrastructure. And, working in a shared space suggests that there are scale economies to be achieved in making more services infrastructural rather than developing them on a service by service basis. Current developments in the web community are being driven by a need to share structured data (to automate supply chains, for example); to ensure the authenticity of people, services and content in an open environment; to reduce the cost of transactions; and to allow software components to communicate more easily. These developments reduce the 'friction' in the flow of data, enhancing the 'connectedness' of the network space.
As content infrastructure becomes richer and more pervasive, the network space becomes more functionally interconnected, allowing content to be shared more easily, providing better security, and supporting cost-effective solutions where previously the barriers of implementation where too great. This provides a better basis for sharing some types of activity, allowing scale economies to be realised, changing the cost structures of information delivery and use.
The UK Higher Education sector provides an interesting example of developing trends. There is a belief in the utility of shared activity, realised through central deployment of funds, which meshes closely with the recognition that higher education institutions now occupy a shared information space. So, there has been investment in a range of information services, concerted actions, and support services in addition to a common network infrastructure. These include a national authentication service, specialist data centres which provide bibliographic and other data sets for community use, mirroring and caching services, structures for community-wide licensing of software and data, advisory services, resource discovery services, and so on. Based on the experience of several years, it is now recognised that 'integration is key' and a 'distributed national electronic resource' has become a policy objective supported by programme funds. The DNER is under development, but is seen to comprise a collection of information and information management services which are articulated in such a way that they can be presented in as seamless a fashion as possible to the user, or to the user's mediating environment. Such seamlessness will depend on greater content infrastructure: the ability to search across resources, to pass off requests to different services, to be silently authenticated, to navigate, and so on.
What this means for higher education institutions, and their libraries and information services, is that they plan services in direct acknowledgement of this range of central activity, on which they are dependent in various ways, and which in turn crucially depend on the network and developing content infrastructure.
Of course, these developments support other types of sharing. Groups of libraries are investigating how they might support 'deep resource sharing', where they move to manage a collective resource in support of their users. Libraries have always been committed to resource sharing, but it has really remained an activity at the margins. This is partly because it has been realised through labour-intensive, clumsy systems which inhibit the activity they support. Richer content infrastructure will make such resource sharing more realisable.
We might imagine things changing more significantly. In the UK, public library provision is organised on a local authority basis. This is often a very small unit within which to support desired service development leading to duplication of effort, dispersal of expertise, and limited opportunity for research and development activity. One could imagine a realignment of activity where local service points remain, but there is a concentration of activity at a regional level to introduce scale economies, more fully exploit the collective resources of the region, and engage more effectively with cultural and development policy which will be driven through regions. A regional centre could develop network services, negotiate licenses, and concentrate systems development activity and expertise.
Examples could be multiplied. It is clear that working in a shared space will increasingly cause some activities to be switched out into shared operations where it makes economic or service sense to do so. However, some of the institutional forms within which this work might be carried out are immature, vulnerable to policy change.
Take a straightforward library example first, that of document supply. Historically, the library operated as an intermediary between the user and the journal literature and its suppliers. In the shared network space, providers, users, and intermediaries are all in active relation, changing the balance of use. Accordingly we see the emergence of self-archiving on the part of authors, direct article supply on the part of publishers, and subscription agents are stepping into a developing niche as aggregators. New players have also emerged -- ingenta for example in the UK -- who sense a user demand for integrated services for the discovery and delivery of scholarly materials. There is a reassortment of roles along a supply chain, in which all players are now potentially in direct contact with users, and consequently a more crowded market.
In a wider context, we can see other convergences which may involve some new division of labour across historically distinct activities. Again, these are driven by the need to serve the user in a shared space. Take two examples: learning and cultural heritage. The move to resource based learning, the need to deliver work-based courses, the development of a life-long-learning agenda, the internationalisation of education, as well as other pressures, mean that the creation and management of learning materials will become an increasingly important activity. The design and development of digital learning environments is receiving much attention, as is the design and development of digital or hybrid libraries. The points of contact and comparison between services responsible for learning resources and those responsible for information resources will grow, especially as learning environments and digital library environments emerge as attempts to provide more congenial habitats for engagement with resources. These convergences pose interesting questions about roles and responsibilities for which no general pattern is yet available.
Libraries, archival institutions and museums have shared interests. These interests have been recognised at policy level in the UK where a new Museums, Libraries and Archives Council will replace existing library and museum bodies, and act as an advisory service to government. Within DGXII of the EU, a new Cultural Heritage Applications unit will look at these issues. Again, there is a recognition of points of contact and comparison, and a shared interest which may lead to new types of cross-domain services for which we have few models. This is bringing these communities together, not only to discuss technical issues but how to support active users through new types of services.
Again, we could note other examples, with civic information for example, where libraries and other organisations may reassess their individual provision in light of joint objectives.
A major feature of this shared space is that fluidity is a dominant characteristic of resource creation and use. Fluid because data flows: it can be shared, reused, analysed; can be adapted, reconfigured, copied, and newly combined in ways which were not possible before. A resource dissolves into multiple individually addressable resources, or can be aggregated in multiple combinations. Resources can carry information about themselves, can communicate to automate processes or deliver new services, and can yield up use or status data which can drive decisions and inform behaviour. The creation and use of flows in a digital medium offer unprecedented flexibility, enhancing and augmenting services.
However, with fluidity also comes the challenge of managing a fugitive and fragile resource. Data may be fugitive in several ways. Resources may be generated from some underlying resource, or dynamically created in response to a particular combination of circumstances. Data may not be recorded when created, they may disappear without trace if an appropriate business or policy framework is not in place, or they may not have documentation which provides the context, provenance or identity necessary for appropriate use. Data may only be available subject to particular agreements, and disappear when rights elapse.
Data is fragile because `content' depends on multiple structures and contexts which are vulnerable to change or obsolescence, whether these are physical media, encodings, logical structures, operating systems, interpretive and analytic tools, and so on. The long term costs of digital content ownership are only now being recognised and the need to manage preservation strategies to minimise those costs and secure resources for the future is critical.
Fluidity foregrounds the need to support control and trust relationships. Just as the accessibility of resources is potentially enhanced in a digital environment, so is the ability to control that access in fine-grained and subtle ways. However, techniques for control lag behind techniques for access. The authenticity and identity of users, service providers and resources needs to be established. Where an increasing amount of cultural and commercial activity is based on the flow of signs and symbols, where our identities and services are increasingly mediated by digital environments, the nature of the rights associated with personal identities and intellectual products have profound implications for the management of information resources. The management of rights becomes critical as models based on the granting of rights to use data for particular purposes or durations become common. Technologies for control are the subject of significant attention and are essential for building institutions in a digital environment. As they become infrastructural we will see major further growth in commercial and other activity, as users and providers acquire confidence in the security of transactions, and the cost of doing business goes down. This brings us back to the remarks about rising level of infrastructure and integration above.
Some of the discussion in the last section could be summarised using Nicholas Negroponte's well known distinction between 'atoms' and 'bits'. Libraries have historically managed atoms, physical objects which are massively duplicated, circulated and stored. Increasingly, they are managing bits, where weightless data flows join the library, their users and others in new combinations. The acquisition of atoms worked through well understood processes developed over many years. Books were bought, circulated, resold. Legal deposit arrangements ensured the retention of several copies of an item. Copyright legislation governed what use could be made of their content. As I have already discussed, this had a number of consequences. It meant that intellectual content was 'published' or 'made public'; it was available for purchase, or for reference through a network of educational and public institutions. Once 'published', it was in circulation. It meant that preservation was at once a managed activity, and a happy by-product of the redundancy built into the system.
However, for many classes of material we are seeing a new pattern of supply and acquisition. Data is made available under license: it is not put into circulation, it is available for particular groups of users, under particular conditions, for particular periods. What does this mean for research libraries who provide access to the intellectual record in its historical continuity? What does it mean for public libraries who are faced with new costs and the challenge of doing deals which provide access at a reasonable price while not undercutting the provider's other markets through public access? What does it mean for the concept of a collection, or for inter-lending, or for fair use. Again, we recognise that much needs to be done.
So to conclude. Developments are radically unpredictable, involving the interaction of user behaviour, accelerated technical change and service development. We did not foresee the utterly transforming influence of the web, or the wide takeup and use of email. We have little real sense of what useful hybrid or digital libraries are like: most of what we have is experiment or prototype and exists in partial form. Our business models are immature: activities are not routine. We have yet to secure many new services through appropriate institutional forms. And the library must evolve to support the wider context of which it is a part, working in new relation with other institutions. However we can note some trends. There is a shift from collection management to serving the active user, for whom the library does not stand alone as the single focus of attention. Local provision increasingly has to be assessed against shared and remote resources. New divisions of labour are arising which question established roles and responsibilities. Operating in a shared space opens up points of contact and comparison, collaboration and competition, with a range of other organisatons. We can see this happening with digital services for the citizen, support for formal education and other learning opportunity, scholarly communication, cultural heritage services, knowledge management. This is against a technical backdrop which is seeing richer levels of 'content infrastructure' in support of business processes.
Networking, then, is not an additional factor, one external influence. It is, increasingly a part of the fabric within which development takes place. Where does all of this leave the library? It is at a critical transitional stage, where it may develop new institutional forms in active relation with the institutions, themselves changing, it serves. At a time like this, it is important to be mindful of the values the library has upheld over centuries, and to be mindful that they have changed and need to change. They have supported learning, scholarship, enterprise. They have selected, acquired, organised information, learning, and imaginative resources for the benefit of their users and future users. They have created congenial assembly places which support the interests of readers and their resources. They have opened doors on opportunity, in support of personal fulfilment and prosperity. They have ensured equitable access to the intellectual record. They have secured the historical record; preserved the memory of communities and peoples; provided the resources through which people have understood themselves, and helped them shape the future. Libraries have supported business, social and cultural life as instruments of civilisation and prosperity.
These roles are an important legacy. They are not the exclusive preserve of libraries, but they are central to the ongoing role of library institutions. Libraries are now evolving across network spaces and physical places. They are developing their role within a shared network space. 'Technology' is important for the very reasons that many people think it is not. We now live in a network space, and it is up to us to do our very best within it. Without building richly interconnected services, based on emerging content infrastructure, libraries will not provide effective services within that space and they will betray their legacy.
Lorcan Dempsey is Director of the UK Office for Library and Information Networking (UKOLN) at the University of Bath, and a co-Director of the Resource Discovery Network Centre. UKOLN is funded by the JISC and the Library and Information Commission, and is supported by the University of Bath. He is writing in a personal capacity.
For RDN see http://www.rdn.ac.uk/
 Phil Agre. Yesterday's tomorrow. Times Literary Supplement, 3 July 1998. [These remarks about instituations are somewhat reductive. Agre's publications are among the most interesting considerations of libraries and their institutional contexts. See his home page: http://dlis.gseis.ucla.edu/pagre/]
 Stories from the Web. A project funded by the Library and Information Commission. http://hosted.ukoln.ac.uk/stories/
 Remarks here and elsewhere are based on Scientific, industrial and cultural heritage: a shared approach. Lorcan Dempsey et al. A report prepared for DGXIII of the EU (forthcoming)