Digitization and Media Trends Putting the Virtual into the Real

Putting the Virtual into the Real
Putting the Virtual into the Real | © Paulista - Fotolia.com

Digital media are taking on ever-greater significance in German libraries. And the ongoing virtualization of library holdings calls for new forms of presentation and communication.

Germany’s public and research libraries are steadily growing their repertoire of e-books, e-papers and other digital media. In the wake of the worldwide spread of mobile Internet, users are increasingly looking for online media. So far, however, there can be no question of the libraries downsizing their physical stock. “We currently carry about 9,000 e-media – as against a total stock of 1,3 million media”, reports Inka Jessen, head of the Stuttgart Community Libraries. But she adds that “e-book borrowing is all the greater”.

The challenge often lies in finding a way not only to present the comparatively costly e-media in virtual catalogues or on the web, but also to make them visible on the library premises. 

The gap on the shelf

Janin Taubert, who won the librarians’ magazine b.i.t. online Innovation Award in 2013 for her Master’s thesis entitled Absentia in Praesentia? On the presentation and promotion of digital media in physical space, distinguishes between various strategies to this end. “The user-oriented approach is mainly aimed at closing the gap on the shelf.” That can be done using physical placeholders such as stand-up displays, says Taubert. Or QR codes, which are scanned and lead users to the desired medium.

“We hardly have to advertise our online assortment, though, because it’s already well known”, says Inka Jessen based on recent everyday experience. And yet she does stress the importance of building a bridge between the physical and digital domains. At the Stuttgart Central Library, in the sections arranged by subject, users will find laptops on the shelves that provide links to corresponding databases and websites, so the visitors can use them for search. In the Music section, for example, the link takes you to the Naxos Music Library, which carries millions of digitized classical and jazz CDs.

From photo frames to 3D

In addition to such pragmatic approaches, libraries are also trying marketing strategies. The idea is not so much to represent each individual medium, but to create an unusual spatial situation,“like reading lounges with e-readers, which function in physical space as portals into the digital world”, says Taubert. Increasingly widespread are also so-called digital-signage solutions: “Basically, electronic posters, in other words systems that play digital texts, videos, music, so they can be used to advertise various offerings”, explains Taubert. This digital signage ranges from simple digital photo frames and more complex multi-touch screens on which to search the library’s holdings to gesture-controlled presentations of digital copies in 3D display, as are used at the Bavarian State Library in Munich.

Furthermore, some libraries are banking on communication strategies that emphasize their role as learning centres and educational service-providers, e.g. through e-learning programmes and cross-media formats. Jessen gives the example of a walk-through animated cartoon and performance installation on the premises of her own library. Another good example is screens in the reception area alternately displaying net art and “micro-readings”, i.e. filmed readings by as yet undiscovered writers.

User participation

The ongoing digitizationis also generating new opportunities for users to participate in the selection of future library acquisitions. Research libraries are increasingly making use of “patron-driven acquisition” (PDA for short), a model in which a certain number of user requests will trigger an order to purchase items in an online catalogue for the library in question. PDA has not yet caught on at public libraries, though they do of course react to their patrons’ wishes. And librarians can analyse painstakingly-kept user statistics to determine which media groups are requested more or less frequently, adds Jessen. “But when it comes to e-books in particular, we can’t accommodate every request owing to licensing and copyright issues.”

Libraries as film producers

On the other hand, the digital profiles of German libraries are being steadily expanded and interlinked. The Stuttgart Municipal Library, for example, has teamed up with the Ludwigsburg Film Academy to produce a video entitled Worte sind Taten (“Words are Deeds”). It guides the user through the library via an app and, at various locations, shows short films of artists telling stories from Baden-Württemberg – this is a so-called “augmented reality” format. The library has also put together an Online Animation Library in collaboration with the Stuttgart Animated Film Festival, a database in which to view the festival’s prize-winning cartoons. Jessen views “being a producer and offering exclusive digital content ourselves” as a promising approach for the future. However, stresses the library head, “The physical collection remains important, for young people, too.” Only the trend, she adds, happens to be towards more compact content.

Janin Taubert does not believe library holdings might become completely virtual in the foreseeable future either. At present only a small portion of new publications are available in e-book form. Her forecast: “Physical and digital will complement each other.”