Thursday, January 03, 2008

"Digital Collections" – An Oxymoron?

It occurred to me recently that the term, "digital collection" may well be an oxymoron. When libraries 'purchase' a digital collection, it is usually a license, not a purchase at all. How can libraries collect licenses? When a publisher decides to drop a file or database from an online service, what is a library to do about it? We can insist on paying less for the service, but that's about it. Libraries are the repositories of civilization, but if the record of our civilization is all digital and we libraries try to collect it, we are left with nothing - ultimately. What do we own? A file folder filled with contracts.

An example of this recently rocked the law library world when suddenly, without warning, it appeared that Lexis dropped Tax Notes from their service. This has happened with other services. Contract issues between information providers and Lexis or Westlaw have affected the services available to Lexis and Westlaw subscribers. For example, if you don't subscribe to various BNA titles, either in print or electronically, you can't get access to them through Lexis or Westlaw. So, in this modern age, a library charged with collecting, preserving and making available to researchers valuable information (including historical information) can no longer guarantee that what it has 'collected' is still in its collection.

So what are we collecting? Information or information about information?