Features – The Virtual Library – Past, Present & Future

Holly M. Riccio is the Librarian/Marketing Research Specialist at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP in San Francisco, CA. She received her Masters of Information and Library Studies from The University of Michigan in 1994 and has worked at the New York County Lawyers’ Association library in New York City, as well as law firms in both New York City and San Francisco. She is currently serving as a Council Member for the TRIPLL (Teaching Research in Private Law Libraries) 2002 conference.


When I first began researching the topic of the virtual library, I went to Google and did a search on just that, “virtual library.” After sifting through the numerous hits for actual virtual libraries, most of which were created and maintained by academic institutions, governments and nonprofit organizations, I stumbled upon a discussion from the Archive of the Law-Lib Electronic Discussion List that was exactly what I had been hoping to find. The opinions and ideas that were expressed in these posts were very true and relevant to what I was researching. There were comments about the issue of price versus immediate access, the problems caused by contract and licensing variations amongst vendors, and the issue of whether or not to charge clients for virtual library resources. A quote from one person’s post seemed to sum it all up – “We, as librarians, are going to have to live in both [the print and the digital world] for some time.” 1

After I had read this discussion thread and gotten lots of ideas about virtual libraries and had an idea of what the issues were to consider when creating a virtual library, and was really excited about the topic, I finally looked at the dates of all of the postings. They were all made in February of 1993.

I was crushed. I thought I would have to start all over again, but the more I thought about it, the opinions and frustrations that librarians expressed about virtual libraries back in 1993 are still with us today. As much as technology has moved forward, sometimes at what seems like lightening speed, the things that librarians deal with in terms of virtual libraries are very much the same.


What is a virtual library? The term has been defined by many different people in many different ways. It is a library in which the holdings are found in electronic stacks. It is a library that exists, without any regard to a physical space or location. It is a technological way to bring together the resources of various libraries and information services, both internal and external, all in one place, so users can find what they need quickly and easily.

Sounds great, right? Well, the virtual library also has its drawbacks and limitations. Michael Schuyler makes this point very clearly with his definition of the virtual library. He likens the virtual library to a popsicle, stating that “…[i]f the electricity goes off, the cold goes away – and so does the popsicle, leaving a soggy smear on the shelf where something substantial once resided. The virtual library suffers the same vulnerability and the same precarious existence.” 2

However, when they work, virtual libraries can be very useful and very diverse in what they contain. The options for what they can include are virtually endless, and become more and more boundless as technology advances. Some of the content of a virtual library may include, but certainly is not limited to, CD-ROM, Internet subscriptions, lists of annotated web links, internal work products (such as brief banks), proprietary databases (such as LexisNexis or Westlaw) and even web spiders or push technology that deliver targeted research to the user.


As you can probably already tell, there are many advantages to going virtual. Some of the advantages include the following:

  • It saves and/or reduces the physical space taken up by library materials.
  • It often adds enhanced searching capabilities in a digital format.
  • The library materials are available at the user’s desktop, regardless of where the user is physically located.
  • It allows for the inclusion of materials only available on the Internet or in digital format.
  • It provides the user with the capability to download and manipulate text.
  • It often allows for multiple, concurrent users.
  • It eliminates the problem of a book being missing or off the shelf.
  • It is less labor intensive.

I must digress here and say that the last advantage is sometimes not true. Although a virtual library does not require as much time from the library filers and shelvers, it takes a lot more time from a librarian, and/or possibly someone in the IT department, to learn how to install, maintain and use the product.


As much as I hated to do it, I did come up with more disadvantages than advantages to the virtual library. But, I think with advances in technology, publishers are working at trying to erase the disadvantages and, as time goes on, this list will shrink. But, for now, the disadvantages include the following:

  • Every product has its own distinct user interface.
  • Users need to remember different passwords for different products.
  • The scope of coverage and available archives is often limited.
  • There are often difficulties with downloading or printing.
  • Often there is no cost savings, especially when both the virtual and print products are maintained.
  • Everything is NOT available in digital format.
  • There are restrictions, which vary from vendor to vendor, on how the product can be used.
  • The virtual library relies on power and computer networks in order to be available for use.
  • Users can’t spread everything out in front of them and use it all at once.
  • Users are most comfortable using books.

The last point is a very interesting one, I think. It used to be that users had a comfort level with books, and I think that is changing as more and more young associates come into law firms, having gone to school using computers for research more than books. However, what still holds true is that, with a book, or set of books, there is a quantifiable beginning and end, which is not as clear with digital products and gets even more blurred when users move out onto the Internet. This is the place where librarians are most useful, assisting users at figuring out when to stop and how to separate the good from the bad.


The stages of development that are involved in creating a virtual library, or converting portions of a traditional print library into a virtual library, can be broken down into seven areas:

  • The Decision-Making Process
  • New Training and Skills for Library Staff
  • Installation and Testing
  • Creating a Structure for Organizing and Accessing Materials
  • Marketing and Promoting Materials
  • Training Users
  • Evaluation and Reevaluation

The last three are actually a continuous loop. With new users constantly coming and going, and changes and upgrades being made to the products, marketing, training and evaluating is an ongoing process.

Decision-Making Process

The first stage – the decision-making process – is not the same for everyone. There are three distinct decision-making processes that exist for three distinct groups:

  • Users/Attorneys
  • Management
  • Librarians

Users come at the decision-making process with questions such as:

  • Can I use it like I used to use the books?
  • Can I use it like I use online databases?
  • Do I need to remember a password?
  • Can I download and print things easily?
  • What is the cost, if any, to the client?
  • Will the library still retain the product in print?

Management, on the other hand, sees things quite differently, probably asking questions like:

  • How much library space will this allow us to eliminate?
  • How much will it cost, compared to the books?
  • Can’t we just replace all the books with what’s on the Internet?

These are the questions that get posed to the librarian and ones that librarians are probably used to hearing and answering. This is our role, to educate management and users about what the virtual library means for them. This is much different from what it is for us. For us, it is a stream of e-mails or phone calls to vendor support, contract negotiations and technical problems.

The first question to ask is about the scope and quality of the content. Does the product fit within the library’s existing collection development policy? Is the product providing more (or, in some cases, less) than its print counterpart? What kind of archives are available? Once the scope has been determined, then what about the content? How often is the information updated? Is the content maintained by the vendor or another third party? Finally, a question that I think has been asked but, so far, not many vendors are answering, is what about usage statistics – can you provide detailed usage statistics for evaluation purposes?

Next is the issue of ease of use. What kind of help or documentation does the vendor provide for the product? Do they provide printed manuals, online tutorials or toll-free support lines? Are there passwords for users to know? Are there different passwords for each user, or just one for everyone? Does the product allow for end-user customization? What kind of searching capabilities does the product have? Can searches be modified, saved and rerun? Can the information be browsed as well as searched? Can users print and download documents easily? Can copies be made and disseminated? If so, are there limitations on how they can be disseminated? Can a copy be printed out and saved in the library’s archives?

Then last, but certainly not least, is cost. But the question isn’t just “How much does it cost?” That question is comprised of many other more specific questions that are all related to the actual overall cost of the product. Does the vendor have a minimum number of users you need to have in order to subscribe? What is the cost for adding users? Can you add single users, or do you have to add users in predetermined increments? Will this require any additional computer hardware or software upgrades? Does the library staff need training to learn new skills? Is there a cancellation clause and, if so, what are the specific terms and conditions of the clause? Do other things come bundled with this product? If so, can they be removed to reduce the price? Is there a price break available if the library continues to maintain the product in print as well? (Or, if you want to get rid of the print, the question becomes “Can we cancel the print and not affect the price of the digital product?”) Finally, ask what sort of compensation can be provided if the services become unavailable due to a problem on the vendor’s side, and try to negotiate for either a refund, a reduction in the price or an extension of the contract.

The Future

So, what does the future hold? What will the law library of the future look like? Or will it even exist at all? The simple answer is yes, it will exist. It will most likely still be similar to what it is today – a carefully thought out mix of electronic and paper resources. Over time, products will find their own niche, or more precisely, librarians will figure out what products are better in print and what products are better electronically, striking the appropriate balance between the two. So, the future doesn’t look too much different from the present. And, surely, we are not moving any closer to the”paperless society” that everyone was talking about. In fact, I think we’re moving farther in the opposite direction every day.

What will the role of the librarian be in all of this? Will librarians even exist at all? The simple answer, again, is yes, definitely. Librarians will continue to be able to do and provide more for users than ever before with the advantages provided by virtual libraries. We will continue to work towards providing users with seamless, organized access to virtual library resources. Perhaps we will even start to push the envelope and become innovators in the use of nontraditional training and reference services. Who knows? As long as librarians continue to share with one another, both informally and on Internet discussion lists, and at conferences, the opportunities and possibilities are ours for the taking.

1. Archive of the Law-Lib Electronic Discussion, February, 1993, http://lawlibrary.ucdavis.edu/LAWLIB/feb93/0061.html

2. Schuyler, Michael. “The Virtual Popsicle: Online Libraries, Like Popsicles, are Vulnerable to Power Failure,” 18 Computers in Libraries 28 (February 1998).

Posted in: Features, Virtual Library