Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Establishing a Digital Library Centre

John Kirriemuir outlines some of the issues for the establishment of digital library centres in UK Higher Education institutions.

This article discusses some of the issues that arise when an academic department, unit or institution moves from possessing a few digital library projects and services, to possessing an integrated digital library centre.

The article is based on:

  1. the experiences of the author, who has worked in four digital library centres (according to the definition in the next section) in UK higher education.
  2. replies from various people who have been employed by digital/electronic library projects and services over the past decade, to emailed questions about various aspects of digital library centre culture
  3. examples of incidents or case studies of things that have occurred within UK digital library centres

It does not prescribe a 'one model fits all' plan for all budding digital library centres. There are many factors and variables, some constantly changing, that influence a successful - or unsuccessful - centre; this article touches on a selection. Having said that, large consideration is given to the issues of staffing and funding, which (along with the struggle for accommodation) appear to be the main issues that preoccupy people involved in running digital library centres.

Defining the Digital Library Centre

Before proceeding, it is necessary to define what a UK higher education-based digital library research centre is. As one reply to this question put it:

"It's one of those things that is obvious when you see it - you can quickly say whether something is a digital library research centre or not. Trying to define an authorative catch-all definition that every centre - and non-centre - is happy with, is another thing altogether..."

By its very title, such a centre is a place where research into 'the digital library' is carried out. However, both 'research' and 'the digital library' are themselves vague, all-encapsulating terms; the phrase 'digital library' alone signifies remarkably different things to different people [1].

In addition, it could be argued that many university, and some FE college, departments carry out some kind of digital library research. For example, identifying the right database system to store information relevant to the subject domain of a department could constitute 'digital library research', as could designing a web site in order to provide access to content produced by the department, or providing department-wide access to a range of third-party electronic information services.

Because of the fuzziness of terminology, and the pervasiveness of digital library technologies in most aspects of education and information systems, acceptable synonyms of 'digital library centre' could include 'electronic library centre', 'information management centre', 'virtual library unit', 'learning technology unit' and many others.

However, there are a number of groupings and departments in UK academia that explicitly promote themselves as digital (or electronic, networking, learning technology or IT) research, development or service-oriented centres. These include centres such as the CDLR [2], CERLIM [3], CIRT [4], ILRT [5], LITC [6] and UKOLN [7]. There are also distinct groupings of projects within UK higher education departments of information science (more commonly known as 'library schools') such as the Information Management Research Institute [8], which promote themselves as some variation of a 'digital library (research)' centre.

We looked at a number of these centres and groupings in order to identify the activities they conducted. The ten most common were:

  1. digital library services - creation, maintenance, enhancement.
  2. evaluation of digital library projects, services and programmes.
  3. consultancy in digital library matters.
  4. developing digital library demonstrators - usually, but not always, as part of a funded project.
  5. research in a variety of aspects of digital/electronic library matters.
  6. training in some aspect of ICT, or digital library usage.
  7. fund raising for the centre.
  8. digital library project and service coordination - either as the sole partner, or as the lead partner of a consortium.
  9. digital library centre, service and project-oriented publicity and promotion.
  10. organising and promoting digital library events.

As an added complication, it could be argued that there are a number of centres carrying out most of these activities that do not market themselves as digital library (research) centres. For example, EDINA [9] provides a wide range of electronic data-oriented services, in addition to events, service coordination, promotion and so forth.

In addition, the JISC-funded Resource Discovery Network [10] coordinates a number of 'hubs' i.e. centres that provide a range of internet resource discovery and related electronic services in specific subject domains; these are either based around a long-established service, such as EEVL [11], OMNI [12] and SOSIG [13], or are based around newly established resource discovery systems. These hubs, though service-oriented as opposed to research-oriented, are typically involved in seven or more of the aforementioned ten activities. In addition, as one subject gateway research officer put it:

"...even though we maintain a service, we still need to carry out research on a continuous basis. Better interfaces, methods of integrating our service with the RDN and others, faster information download, techniques to increase recall and precision, monitoring usage..."

For the purpose of this article, we will drop the word 'research', so as to include those centres that provide mainly digital library services, therefore leaving us with the 'Digital Library Centre', or DLC for short. We will define the DLC somewhat unscientifically as being:

'A centre containing two or more digital library-oriented services or projects, where the services and projects interact in technical, personnel, promotional or other ways, and where the majority of activities in the aforementioned list of ten are carried out.'

The benefits and the drawbacks

What are the benefits of running a DLC?

  1. the skills and experience of staff can be used across a range of projects, and the non-project components of the centre, as opposed to being used on one discrete project. This benefits both the development of the staff, and the development of projects and services.
  2. the centre will have a higher profile than a disconnected collection of projects, therefore (theoretically) attracting potential funders and skilled staff.
  3. the more staff there is, the greater the pool of contacts and collaborators (through those staff), and the more people who may become aware of the more obscure sources of funding.
  4. proposals can be submitted for work based on previous or current work in the centre, therefore increasing the chances of those proposals being funded.
  5. the centre should have more 'clout' within the host institution, and is therefore able to fight for better/adequate accommodation and other institutional resources.
  6. with good (and independent) financial management, there is more flexibility in moving monies between projects, services, initiatives and other budgets within the centre.
  7. some activities can be carried out more efficiently; for example, a number of closely-related projects or services could carry out joint dissemination activities.

Obviously, there are drawbacks to establishing a DLC; otherwise, most HE institutions would possess one, and all DLCs would succeed and prosper. Significant problems encountered by such centres include:

  1. funding non-project staff, such as centre administrators and directors; many conventional funding sources will only fund staff directly employed on a project or service, and will expect the bidding centre or institution to provide appropriate administration, directorial and other non-project based staff out of its own funds.
  2. in the same vein, funding non-project activities, such as centre-oriented PR (web site, leaflets, presentational expenses).
  3. finding increasing amounts of funding in order to retain staff who are increasing in experience and skills.
  4. accommodation. This really should not be a problem; a successful DLC can bring in substantial funds to the host institution, raise the institutional profile, provide a range of services and information to other units within the institution, and assist in raising the RAE rating of several departments. You would therefore assume that Higher Education institutions would happily provide sufficient accommodation. This is not the case; most UK HE DLCs have fought a permanent struggle to gain satisfactory accommodation of anywhere near the standard of similarly sized units in the same institution.
  5. you will need to speculate before you can accumulate. Before hiring staff who will secure funding, the aformentioned accommodation has to be located for them, in addition to desks, PCs, stationary and the like; this will easily run into several thousand pounds of spending before any member of staff of the new DLC actually starts to write the first funding application or proposal.

The 'vision' of the centre

Before establishing a DLC, you essentially need some kind of vision, agenda, remit or plan. This is useful when dealing with sponsors, funders, incoming staff, PR-related issues and so forth; it is not enough to mumble "we do digital library stuff" and leave it at that.

The vision of a DLC is usually oriented around one or more of the following:

  1. some subject domain or spectrum. For example, a centre could offer a range of services including electronic journals, resource discovery access and internet training in a specific subject.
  2. some type of digital library service. For example, a centre could specialise in providing services, research and consultancy in various aspects of electronic journal creation, maintenance, access and charging.
  3. a geographic area. A centre could aim to become the main higher education institution based centre of digital library research activity within its particular region of the country.
  4. a particular funding source or 'seam'.
  5. some particular user domain. For example, a centre could research digital library issues applicable to teachers, lecturers, librarians, schoolchildren or some other type(s) of user.

The vision will be partially determined by the existing projects (and proposals for future projects currently submitted) which will form the new centre. In addition, the skill set and experience of staff who will work in the centre can be a significant factor in the scoping of the vision, as well as those digital library-related resources and services (usually within the host institution) on which the centre can rely. The vision (which needs to be updated as projects and services come and go) can be used to provide the basis of the centre mission statement and several other PR elements.

Funding the centre

Unless your centre has several projects that involve large amounts of digitisation work, or invests in some hugely expensive specialist piece of hardware, then the large majority of expenditure will be on staff wages.

Focusing on the 'vision' or the 'money'

The two extremes of funding a digital library centre seem to be:

  1. carefully evaluating the resource, skill and funding requirements necessary to fulfil a well-defined digital library centre vision, followed by locating and pursuing the appropriate funding sources.
  2. throwing together a speculative proposal for every call or tender that contains a phrase similar to 'digital libraries'.

Most centres fall somewhere between these two extremes; if you work in a senior position in a DLC, it is an interesting exercise to (honestly) see what proportion of proposals submitted in the last year more closely match either of the two extremes.

In an ideal world, a DLC would firmly adhere to the first extreme. However, the culture in which typical DLCs are embedded is based upon short-term contracts, where there is a constant quest to find funding to keep individual staff members 'on' for as long as possible. Therefore, unless your DLC has managed to develop a successful financial mechanism for retaining significant reserves, it may need to step outside of the 'vision' and acquire funding via whatever means in order to retain key staff. As one ex-director of a DLC replied:

"I felt like a hamster on a wheel; as soon as funding was secured to extend the contract of one member of staff, it was time to secure funding for another. And before long, I was back to the first member of staff. So, we would 'squeak' to various funders on a regular basis, and every now and then one of them would throw us a bit of cheese to give us the energy to carry on running a while longer. That's quite a cynical way of looking at it, isn't it? Four whole years of my life and it reads like the lyrics of a Radiohead song."

In addition to acquiring funding to retain key staff, there is also the burden of perpetually funding a continuous service. Whereas a research project usually has some finite end, digital library services carry on until they are either sold, bought out or taken over, or are integrated into some other service, or become financially unviable. In addition, services can become obsolete in terms of either the content or the supporting technology, though this should not happen in a DLC which sufficiently maintains and upgrades its services.

Even if a service is discontinued in some manner, there is often a need to make available some publicly-accessible archive of the content, which in itself raises issues of continuous maintenance and cost. This is not always considered by people who submit proposals to create digital library services.

The diversification of funding sources

One of the more interesting aspects of studying digital library developments in UK HE is that of seeing where the funding comes from. This is relatively easy, as most funders demand branding or mentions of themselves in the publicly-accessible deliverables of the project or service.

Looking at the completed projects and services of DLCs from the last decade, we see that the large majority were funded from three sources:

  1. the JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) [14] funded a large number of research-oriented projects, as well as a smaller number of more service-oriented developments. Many of these projects were funded under large programmes such as eLib [15] and JTAP [16], through which much of the funding was awarded to groups working in HE institutions.
  2. public organisations and bodies concerned with library and library-content development, such as the British Library.
  3. European funding programmes.

However, a cursory examination of recent and current projects and services in the more successful DLCs in the UK (in terms of personnel growth) indicates that funding now comes from a more diverse array of sources, many of which were not targeted explicitly at higher education institutions. For example, recently funded projects in DLCs include 'providing ICT services aimed at benefiting disadvantaged communities', 'providing training for staff in public libraries', and 'providing work packages for secondary school ages'. Non of these needed to be provided by HE institutions in particular and were not advertised as such, being open calls to any appropriate public or private organisation.

So, why are DLCs now locating funding from a wider range of sources? Some of the more sensible answers put to this question were:

  1. the change in focus of traditional sources of funding. A key example is the JISC; though the JISC still fund a number of exploratory and research-based projects, the focus of many calls has moved to developing and sustaining integrated services, through initiatives such as the Distributed National Electronic Resource [17].
  2. the increase in collaborative ICT and digital library funding for, and work with, Further Education. This is a drive encouraged by a number of organisations including the JISC. The FE sector brings with it a range of characteristics starkly different to those of HE; for example, the number of institutions involved, the subject domains and qualifications, the network configuration, and the skill-set of staff. These and other factors often present interesting challenges when HE and FE organisations work together on digital library and ICT initiatives.
  3. more commercial project sponsorship. Companies are realising that providing funding for projects involving computers, training, networks, digital information and education reflects positively on themselves. For example, the BT-sponsored 'Lifelong Learning Awards' [18] aims to "support lifelong learning projects which use ICT to promote access, innovation and teamwork".
  4. same cake, more slices. There are an increasing number of organisations - not all of them DLCs - applying for the same grants and pots of money: "...maybe it's just me getting older, but there seems to be many more people bidding for the same funding nowadays". Several funders now process proposals and responses to tender in a multi-stage manner; this is partially so all of the unsuccessful bidders do not have to submit a final, full (and time consuming) proposal, but also so that the funding organisation does not have to judge a large number of these full proposals in one go.

A holistic approach to funding

So, what are these diverse sources of funding that the more successful DLCs seem to be tapping into? The rest of this section lists eleven types of income; the more established DLCs use most, if not all of these in some form or other.

Source 1: conventional digital library project and service funders
There are a surprisingly large number of funding organisations [19] who either issue calls or tenders with a fixed deadline, or who take a 'submit whenever you want for consideration' approach. Though the competition for funding from many of these sources is quite steep, they are worth considering, especially if you can argue your case around relevant experience (through completed works or through staff). However, beware of creating your own tight deadlines on calls and tenders:

example: leaving it to the last meeting
A DLC became aware of a call with a closing date seven weeks distant. As this was more than a month away, the call was not deemed to be 'urgent' and did not make the AOB section of several strategy-related meetings. With three weeks to go, a meeting was called the following week for people interested in submitting a proposal to the call. At this meeting, all of the attendees stated that short term commitments ruled them out of writing part or all of the proposal. Eventually, the DLC director cancelled three external meetings, wrote a proposal overnight without the help of the more knowledgeable staff, and the proposal did not succeed.

Source 2: European funding
European funding proposals can result in substantial amounts of money, and lead to working relationships - and trips abroad - to interesting cities and countries. However, such proposals often require an preposterous amount of paperwork; it is common for a member of staff to spend the best part of a month, and often more, working solely on such a proposal.

Source 3: own institution
There may be sources of funding within your own institution, especially if the project or service either raises the profile of the institution, or has a real chance of attracting future income. The summative evaluation [20] of phase three of the eLib programme (findings, point 16), states "Some of the eLib phase 3 projects have become self sustaining with funding provided by the host institutions themselves".

Source 4: e-commerce: sell things on the net
While lagging behind the more commercial sectors, there is an increasing awareness, and use of, e-commerce systems in higher education [21] . This leads to two opportunities for DLCs; either to use e-commerce to sell whatever they can, or to build, advise on, research and maintain the digital library components of such commercial systems within their own institution.

Source 5: training
ICT and digital library-related training has been carried out within and by academic departments and projects for many years. Currently, public libraries and schools by the thousand are currently being connected to the Internet, resulting in a need for training. In addition, the recent emphasis on life-long learning, and the large increase in public PC ownership, should result in a substantial demand for good quality training in these areas for some time to come.

Source 6: consulting
If your DLC contains staff that specialise in a particular subject, technology, user type or sector, then there are possibilities for offering their services on a consultancy basis. Academic consulting has the advantage of often being short-term, and therefore a contract-filler (and staff retainer) between longer periods of project or service funding.

Source 7: commercial funding
Most universities actively forge links with commercial organisations, especially those based nearby. The resident 'business opportunities' unit should indicate which commercial organisations that the university are chummy with would be interested in funding digital library research or services.

Source 8: advertising and affiliate funding
This relatively controversial approach to fundraising is usually referred to in the context of placing advertisements and banners on web-based services and resources. A steadily growing number of UK higher education based services raise revenue in this manner. However, a recent JISC-commissioned report [22] on advertising on JANET highlights concerns at institutional and other levels regarding the implications of this approach, as well as the realistic amounts of revenue that could be generated.

Source 9: sponsorship
Sponsorship is a more acceptable form of visible commercial involvement, whereby an organisation does not necessarily plaster your web site with adverts in return for monies. Sponsorship can take many forms, such as sponsoring a piece of equipment, a session at an event, part of the salary of one member of staff, or print-based PR materials.

Source 10: hosting events
Workshops, seminars and conferences can generate profit, though generally not substantial amounts - especially when the final amount of staff resource used by an event is calculated. Unsurprisingly, the key factor in many profitable DLC organised events seems to be whether the host institution has appropriate facilities that can be hired at attractive rates. However, events hosted by a DLC can be a great showcase for the projects, services and products produced by that centre.

Source 11: the RAE (Research Assessment Exercise)
The RAE occurs every four years. Very generally speaking, departments submit details of research they have undertaken, from which a panel in the subject area decide on a research rating (from 1 to 5 and 5*). This rating determines the amount of core research funding that is awarded to the department. One of the main determining factors in the last few RAE exercises has been the amount of output published by researcher in peer-reviewed journals. Therefore, various DLCs that are part of, or affiliated to, information science departments have often entered those staff who have published several such papers into the RAE, so as to maintain or increase their RAE rating and secure more core research funding.

Staffing the centre

The required staff

As indicated throughout this article, a wide range of staff roles need to be filled in order to maintain a fully-functioning digital library centre. The core staff of a DLC may include:

…and, of course, staff to work on the individual projects and services.

It is important not to 'scrimp' on administration staff:

example: "The director is busy emptying the bins"
A DLC centre submitted a number of proposals for funding. Non of these included an element for administration staff; in addition, the centre had no dedicated staff due to budget cutbacks passed down from higher authority in the host institution. Most of the projects were funded, but immediately fell behind as the research staff, mostly unskilled in administration, had to carry out these tasks. The (highly paid) director of the centre spent an increasing amount of time dealing with tasks such as emptying bins and rectifying the lack of paper in the toilets, when ideally he should have been negotiating with potential funders of the centre. The situation was exacerbated by several research staff leaving, partially as they viewed doing administration tasks as a demotion.

Analysis of staff roles and numbers in UK DLCs indicate that, for every non-admin staff member, between 3.5 and 5.5 admin staff are required to fulfil core, project and financial administration roles in order for the centre to function at these levels.

Hiring staff

Most digital library projects and a large number of services within the UK HE sector directly employ a very small (4 or less) number of people. Therefore, just one member of staff can have a large positive or negative effect on the progress of a project/service. Hiring staff is therefore a risky business. These issues are not new; various projects in programmes such as eLib [15] suffered delays due to difficulty in obtaining, and retaining, staff with sufficient technical abilities. These and related issues will be analysed by 'The Human Element' [24], a study which aims '...to learn about the issues surrounding the recruitment, development and retention of project staff in UK HE libraries and archives, with special reference to RSLP and JISC projects.'

One ex-DLC co-director referred to staff hiring as:

"…Russian roulette with five bullets, and the funders insisting you pull the trigger because the clock is ticking on the project and you cannot afford a further delay in order to re-advertise if all of the candidates are disappointing. What else can you do?"

The digital library officer skill set

In August 2001, I asked a number of people who have been involved in selecting staff for DLCs to identify the most important criteria for a good member of staff working within and across a Digital Library Centre. The criteria mentioned by several different people were:

  1. a 'team player', at both (a) the level of the centre and (b) the level of the projects that they work on.
  2. does their job with the minimum of supervision, and with no disruption to their (project and centre) work colleagues.
  3. a networker.
  4. uses their skills to help other projects in the centre - even ones with which they have no connection - even if it does not benefit their own project.
  5. promotes the centre as part of his/her project.
  6. does not object to travel and overnight stays.
  7. good communicator.
  8. can produce good written and verbal English.
  9. produces what they are supposed to produce, and on time.
  10. identifies and 'grabs' opportunities for the centre as they arise.
  11. is genuinely productive - or as one reply stated, "…spends more time working than talking about working…".
  12. is correctly motivated i.e. is politically oriented to support their project and the centre, as opposed to solely advancing their own career and reputation.

It is interesting to note that most of the criteria are concerned with communication, both within the centre and beyond.

Burrowing deeper: identifying the correct staff

Several people suggested techniques that can be used to identify the correct staff with a greater degree of accuracy. These include:

Do not feel under pressure to take the 'best available' if none are suitable. This can be difficult, when dealing with a short-term project for a funder with whom you wish to forge a reputation for reliability. Have a back-up plan and schedule for quick re-advertisment of the post.

Keeping good staff

Good staff usually want to increase their experience and skill set, take on more senior roles in coordination and management, and see a subsequent increase in salary levels. Keeping good staff is vital, not only in terms of progressing the services and projects that they work on, but in terms of bringing in new funding - most conventional digital library funding calls demand the CVs of relevant staff. Techniques for keeping good staff include:

The relationship with the host institution

While most, or all, of the funding for projects and services in a DLC will come from outside the host institution, the relationship with that institution is often the most important one for the DLC to cultivate. Unless the DLC manages to acquire large amounts of excess revenue (this is unlikely), it will rely on the host institution for a diverse range of services and facilities, such as accommodation, financial system support, networking support, electricity, sanitation, interlibrary loans, and so forth. Or, as one ex-DLC director put it, "...all the things that you don't notice while you are working in a digital library centre, until they break, leak, explode, go missing or become unavailable without notice..."

Good relationships between the DLC and various units within the host institution are therefore essential. It is recommended that key DLC staff forge good working relationships with key staff in the following support units:

Publicising the DLC throughout the institution on a regular basis is a wise option, as:

  1. digital library work in various departments may come your way, if these departments are aware of you.
  2. other departments are dissuaded from setting up such a centre if the university already hosts one.


I wish to thank the various people throughout the UK (and a few in the US, Scandinavia and Australia) who took time out to respond to my email questions - especially as it was, as several pointed out, the summer holiday/recess period, which is the only time that some people have to get away from the issues raised in this article. Most people replied to what were often awkward or vague questions - thanks.

Thanks also to Phil Hunter (editor of Ariadne) for his patience while this article went through several manifestations, and to Simon English for checking the article to ensure that nothing libelous was left in.


  1. Borgman, C.L., What are Digital Libraries? Competing Visions, Information Processing and Management, 1999, 35, p227-243
  2. The Centre for Digital Library Research (CDLR), based at the University of Strathclyde, is at: http://cdlr.stath.ac.uk/
  3. The Centre for Research in Library and Information Management (CERLIM), based at Manchester Metropolitan University, is at: http://www.cerlim.ac.uk/
  4. The Centre for Information Research (CIRT), based at the University of Central England, is at: http://www.cie.uce.ac.uk/cirt/index.htm
  5. The Institute of Information and Learning Technology (ILRT), based at the University of Bristol, is at: http://www.ilrt.bris.ac.uk/
  6. The Library Information Technology Centre (LITC), based at South Bank University, is at: http://www.litc.sbu.ac.uk
  7. The UK Office for Library and Information Networking (UKOLN), based at the University of Bath, is at: http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/
  8. The Information Management Research Institute [IMRI], based at the University of Northumbria in Newcastle, is at: http://online.northumbria.ac.uk/faculties/art/information_studies/imri/
  9. Edinburgh Data and Information Access (EDINA) is at: http://edina.ed.ac.uk/index.shtml
  10. The Resource Discovery Network (RDN) is at: http://www.rdn.ac.uk/
  11. The Edinburgh Engineering Virtual Library (EEVL) is at: http://www.eevl.ac.uk/
  12. The OMNI gateway, part of the BIOME RDN hub, is at: http://www.omni.ac.uk/
  13. The Social Science Information Gateway (SOSIG) is at: http://www.sosig.ac.uk/
  14. The Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) is at: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/
  15. The eLib programme is at: http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/services/elib/
  16. The JTAP programme is at: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/jtap/
  17. The Distributed National Electronic Resource (DNER) is at: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/dner/
  18. The BT Lifelong Learning Awards site is at: http://www.groupbt.com/ict/bt_lifelong_learning_awards/index.html
  19. A list of funding sources for digital library projects and services is at: http://www.ceangal.com/basket/funders/
  20. ESYS plc, Summative Evaluation of Phase 3 of the Elib Initiative: Final Report, is at: http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/services/elib/papers/other/summative-phase-3/elib-eval-summary.pdf
  21. Aird, Andrew, E-commerce in Higher Education: can we afford to do nothing?, is at: http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue26/e-commerce/
  22. McDonald, D., Breslin, C., A Study into Advertising on JANET, is at: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/pub01/advertising.doc
  23. Pinfield, S., Moving forward: lessons from eLib phase 3, is at: http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/services/elib/papers/other/pinfield-elib/elibreport.html
  24. The DNER and the DNC: The Human Element is at: http://www.rslp.ac.uk/news/2001/human.htm

Author Details

 John Kirriemuir

Email: john@ceangal.com
Web site: http://www.ceangal.com/