Lately, I have been giving a lot of thought to digital libraries and their place in a world increasingly reliant on internet searches to perform research tasks. (Much of this thought, I will admit, is due to the fact that I am currently taking a course in digital libraries!)
Although I am quite attached to physical materials in libraries, I also recognize the growing favoritism shown to digital research by library patrons, and am thus becoming much more accepting of digital collections. As a lawyer, I cannot help but draw parallels to LexisNexis and Westlaw when considering the utility of digital libraries.
A classmate posed the question whether digital libraries were even relevant in a world so reliant on internet search engines, and, while at first I hesitated, given some thought I firmly believe that digital libraries present much more than current internet search capabilities have to offer.
Thinking of the wealth of resources provided in the results of a Lexis or Westlaw search, I marvel to imagine what a similarly-designed digital library search result could offer. If I look up a topic in a case law search, I not only bring up a digitally-enhanced report of the case, but also links to relevant digest and encyclopedia entries, law review articles, and even a history of the case. Adding to that the major revisions Lexis and Westlaw are making to their databases in response to user feedback (i.e. Westlaw Next and the upcoming Lexis equivalent), searches in these databases are looking increasingly like search results you would expect in a library’s online catalog, with one central search interface and results organized by resource type. What if a search in a subject-specific digital library could do the same? The mind reels!
Now of course, there are obvious flaws in my example. For instance, reported cases are government documents and thus often fall in the public domain, the other legal resources linked in Lexis and Westlaw are usually owned or licensed by Lexis and Westlaw, and both of these are particularly wealthy commercial databases with plenty of resources and personnel to pull off such a rich system; so it’s not quite the same situation as encountered by a typical digital library.
In essence, LexisNexis and Westlaw are two commercial, digital libraries of legal resources. If non-commercial digital libraries could follow their examples, and I imagine many do, or soon will, then I believe that users will see what a different, and richer, experience the use of such a database can be, compared with a simple (or even advanced!) internet search. I believe digital libraries are hardly irrelevant in the face of search engine dependency; instead, I see them as a natural evolution of library services.