The Digital Transformation

Professor Dr. Peter Funke
Professor Dr. Peter Funke

Big data, digitisation, open access – research libraries are facing some major challenges, which must be taken into account in DFG infrastructure programmes. The introduction of specialised information services is a further step in this direction.

by Peter Funke

When someone predicts the impending demise of an institution, it tends to outlive expectations. A few decades ago, the imminent disappearance of libraries was predicted, yet now, at the beginning of the 21st century, we are seeing the opposite: new libraries are being built, including some architecturally stunning examples, and old institutions are enjoying fresh interest and growing visitor numbers. In the 1990s it seemed that university computer centres would increasingly take over the job of academic libraries. But through a smart and flexible strategy, libraries have managed to adapt their traditional infrastructures to a fast-changing digital world and not only maintain their position in the research system, but actually expand it – thanks in part to the support of the DFG.

The remarkable transformation of our libraries in recent decades is due primarily to new technologies delivering ever higher quality digitisation of all kinds of knowledge resources. In spite of all the doomsayers, books have a long life ahead of them yet – even if they are no longer only read in printed form. Maintaining access to literature remains a core task of our libraries, be it in the reading room or on the computer screen. But they must also ensure that they provide new forms of media to organise and give access to information.

This is no small undertaking. When a library service runs smoothly, all is well. Yet many users are often unaware of the technical, organisational and above all financial challenges associated with keeping it that way. The everyday use of the internet and search engine hit lists are continually increasing user expectations of having access to comprehensive, upto- date digital information almost instantaneously. However, it is all too easy to forget that this content – unless provided on an open-access basis – can only be acquired with significant financial outlay on the part of libraries, whose budgets, paradoxically, continue to fall.

It is important to the DFG to ensure the continued availability of literature and other sources of specialised information for the purposes of research. Ever since it was founded, the DFG has maintained a funding programme dedicated to the establishment and development of information infrastructures that go beyond the standard basic functions of a library and benefit researchers throughout Germany.

A key element of this funding was a plan for special subject collections, established back in 1949. This was a response to the fact that, unlike France or Great Britain, for instance, federal Germany had no national library. An acquisition system was gradually established in which a large number of libraries shared the task of acquiring a comprehensive stock of research literature from abroad and making it available for loan all over the country. After the catastrophe of the Second World War, this effective supply system played an important part in enabling German researchers to reintegrate relatively quickly in the international research community.

The system of special subject collections continued largely unchanged for a number of decades, although with regular modifications, and the question eventually arose of whether the original mandate of acquiring as much foreign literature as possible across all subjects still met the needs of users in the digital age. A comprehensive evaluation carried out in 2010–2011, which included a large-scale user survey, prompted a fundamental reorganisation of this funding instrument in 2012.

The new name of the programme, Specialised Information Services, reflects the new objectives. The system is designed to allow researchers based in Germany, irrespective of where they work, fast and direct access to specialised literature and research-specific information that is not available at every institution in the same scope and in the same quantity. By concentrating on specialist publications and on offering information focussed on specific disciplines, the system aims to supplement the local information infrastructure at universities and research institutions by providing services for peak demand.

In this way, the DFG aims to develop a lasting information infrastructure which serves the specific interests and requirements of these disciplines and thus provides an essential component for first-class achievements in basic research. In terms of acquisitions, this means concentrating on specialised material which is not already available elsewhere but is of high relevance to research. If digital media are to be consistently integrated, new licence models must be developed to allow content to be shared between research institutions for entire disciplines. Other key funding areas will include the digitisation and provision of research data and the retrodigitisation of research-relevant printed material.

The gradual introduction of the new funding programme, which began in 2013 and will be completed in 2015, is no easy task, and will not become any easier. There will be initial questions and challenges that will need to be discussed and addressed through close cooperation between all the parties involved. The new specialised information services can only be optimally implemented through dialogue with users.

At the same time, libraries, as both repositories of knowledge and information exchanges, must rise to this additional challenge in order to secure their essential and prominent position in the research system. To do this, in addition to the support of the new DFG funding programme they will need adequate public funding in order to fulfil their basic mandate. What is certain is that this investment will pay for itself, because excellent research always depends on an excellent information infrastructure.

Professor Dr. Peter Funke is Vice President of the DFG and Director of the Institute of Ancient History / Institute of Epigraphy at the University of Münster.

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