Controlled digital lending: Past successes can guide our future

When the COVID-19 pandemic created barriers to traditional information access, library workers reacted immediately to help make up the difference. I don’t think I’ve talked to a single person whose library didn’t put forward major, sometimes dramatic efforts to ramp up “anytime, anywhere” access to resources. And that includes forays into controlled digital lending (CDL).

CDL is a process by which libraries digitize physical materials they already own and then loan specific numbers of the digital version for a limited time. This can obviously be an important resource sharing option. But it does present a number of questions and challenges, including some ongoing legal debates.

The evolution of digital sharing

At the center of CDL are requirements for digitization. Even the most forward-thinking libraries need new tools, processes, and workflows to begin digitizing the massive quantity of volumes needed. To be successful, it has to be a collective effort with strategies and applications that are open for all, while allowing for individual institutions and content providers to focus on today’s needs.

For many years, libraries have shared digitized journal articles and e-book chapters on the WorldShare ILL network. This is a well-honed and efficient process, with 80 percent of the digital documents delivered in 15 hours or less. And OCLC’s Express program is both the fastest and largest electronic delivery service in the world, with more than 1,000 libraries working together to deliver articles in 10 hours on average.

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Digital resource sharing has been incredibly valuable to both libraries and researchers. Libraries can scrutinize what content they need to own or license and what content they can request on demand. Researchers and library users get easy access to the largest group of resource sharing libraries in the world through the WorldShare ILL network. Other products, such as Tipasa and ILLiad, have added features to improve the workflows for digital document creation, delivery, and sharing.

Our approach: listen and iterate

Part of our mission is to help unlock the world’s library collections by providing resource sharing tools at a global scale. But it takes time and input to develop strategies that are open and flexible enough to support thousands of very diverse libraries. We’re uniquely positioned to partner with both libraries and other stakeholders. As we move forward, we’re listening carefully to understand all these different needs.

Controlled digital lending presents many new challenges to libraries and library service providers. Key questions we face include:

  • What are the legal issues involved and how do they differ by country?
  • How to manage digitization of large physical collections?
  • How do we know if a work has already been digitized?
  • How to manage an own-to-loaned ratio for CDL?
  • How do we think about true network-level interlibrary sharing in a CDL world?
  • What inventory management tools are necessary to track digitized materials, what’s available to whom, and current loan statuses?

We have many years of experience working on services that incorporate electronic resource sharing. Not just collaborating with individual libraries, but working with consortia, doing new research, following the global conversation, and evaluating resources that we can bring to an effective approach. From this deliberate and cooperative effort, we’re proceeding down development paths that we believe will best serve individual libraries as well as the collective collection.

Tracking our progress

As digital repositories grow, libraries will need to know what has been digitized. Searching your local digital repository should be integrated into the interlibrary loan management system to automate user access. WorldShare ILL, Tipasa, and ILLiad were designed to support this type of integration to connect library users with owned and licensed content. But what about aggregating digital holdings nationally and internationally?

WorldCat can provide a backbone for recording digital representations of physical works, ultimately driving network-level CDL. WorldCat represents library holdings but also serves to record additional detail like shared print commitments. This is an activity that went through a similar evolution and is now much more widespread since we aggregate library commitments at no additional charge for OCLC cataloging customers. And there’s no reason that title-level or item-level metadata couldn’t be created to similarly indicate digital surrogates of physical works. With that data in place, libraries could leverage a much wider network to manage own-to-loaned ratios for granting access to digital surrogates.

It’s also important to note that our platforms are vendor-neutral. That means they support integration of our data and technology into others’ services. So, libraries can offer more resource sharing options within existing workflows.

Two parallel paths

When building digital collections, two symbiotic paths have emerged.

  1. Librarian-curated selection: Profiles for digitization that focus on unique holdings, fragile items, and other local criteria
  2. Patron-driven selection: Just-in-time digitization to meet the needs of individual users

While libraries work on local priorities, we’re developing document delivery workflows that allow library users to request digital fulfillment of a print item and provide a staff workflow for digitizing, sequestering the print, and supporting the loan cycle. This combination of curated and demand-driven digitization meets user needs and strategic priorities.

My advice for right now is … don’t wait!

  • Take stock of current digital assets that can be shared, and those that can’t, and why.
  • Track requests and the reasons they can or can’t be filled and how your current processes work.
  • Interview faculty, students, and others about their needs. Ask about researchers’ needs and interest in controlled digital access to physical works.
  • Talk to colleagues at OCLC and other libraries about how to move forward both locally and in partnership with others.

Challenges will continue. But like other resource sharing successes we’ve had, I also expect the participants to grow, the necessary requirements to come down, and more clarity to form around the evolution of our collective approach.

Want to learn more about CDL? Watch a recent presentation featuring Dave Hansen and Kyle K. Courtney—both lawyers, librarians, and authors of the original CDL white paper—from this year’s OCLC Resource Sharing Conference.