Issues in sustainability
First Monday

Issues in sustainability: Creating value for online users by Abby Smith

Issues in sustainability: Creating value for online users by Abby Smith
Based on a talk given at the 2003 IMLS Web-Wise Conference, this paper addresses two issues related to the long-term sustainability of collections that museums, libraries, and other heritage institutions put online. The first is that of building collections and services that are core to the mission of the institution and that are likely to win support among its users. The second is the planning process of building those collections and services. In the latter case, Smith describes an IMLS-funded project that the Council on Library and Information Resources has undertaken to assess the business planning processes used by museums and libraries and offer models to follow.


Not everything is worth preserving
Create an enterprise worth sustaining
Planning for successful online enterprises





The early years of digitization in libraries and museums called upon experts from many domains within single institutions, as well as across institutions, to think deeply about how to build online collections worthy of dissemination and continued access. This thinking has been accompanied by equally careful thought, if considerably more anxiety, about how to preserve those collections, bit by bit and object by object. We have finally, and most unhappily, arrived at the point of digital library and museum development when we must confront the hardest part of sustainability — how to pay for it all.

There are others who can better address the economic aspects of sustaining digital collections, as well as those who can advise about how to develop appropriate business models for building and sustaining online collections. I will address instead a few fundamental, but deeply challenging, general questions that should be kept in mind when planning a collection-based site and evaluating its value to users.



Not everything is worth preserving

First, a stipulation about building a sustainable online cultural resource: Not everything is worth preserving. Nor should it be. Many projects that libraries and museums undertake, especially at this early stage of digital development, result in putting some collections online, but that is seldom the ultimate goal. Rather, many of the projects that win competitive grants, such as those funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), are designed to prove a concept, experiment with various approaches, develop staff expertise, and create knowledge. There is something unfortunate in the widespread assumption that a project is successful only to the extent that it meets its proximate goals of creating content or metadata. I would argue for more projects that attempt to prove a model or methodology and genuinely risk failure. Failure is a very important event in the creation of knowledge.

In the case of projects that attempt something significantly new or bold and thus could fail, the requirement for "succeeding" should be to document what went right and wrong, and to report out to the community about results, so that the knowledge gained from a "successful failure" could be leveraged by others, rather than repeated. As a taxpayer, I even believe that some portion of federally funded projects should require such risk-taking and such reporting out.

Such requirements would foster a change in the naturally conservative cultures of libraries and museums, which are appropriately conservative, given their mission of stewardship. Nonetheless, and like it or not, these institutions find themselves caught in the front lines of the technological revolution that is sweeping across the information industries. Although libraries and museums may be rear-guard compared to high-tech companies, in comparison with their primary base, the education and cultural sectors, they are in the forefront of technology adoption.



Create an enterprise worth sustaining

Rather than focusing on building collections that merit long-term access at someone's expense, a cultural heritage institution should focus on creating an (online) enterprise that is worth sustaining. I use the term "enterprise" advisedly, in lieu of business, to draw one's attention away from the funding issue and redirect it towards the importance of creating value for users. This means in part that libraries and museums should identify what people want, not just what they have to offer them. Ask not what wonderful things you can do for others, ask what others want from you. In other words, institutions should plan to make an enterprise user-focused, not collection-focused.

That said, it is not possible at this juncture to know what kinds of content and services will have value over time. We have little understanding of the online environment at present and no understanding of how it and its users might evolve over time. Hence the need for projects that take calculated risks and try something new. But it is still legitimate to question the wisdom of some collecting institutions that rush to put up collections that have worked well in a physical environment without consciously re-examining assumptions about exhibit and access. It is also legitimate to question the value of putting up collections that that have been wildly underused in the physical environment ("Oh, if only this were online, people would use it ... ."), unless the reasons for lack of use relate directly to the physical fragility of the source. Drawings, pastels, manuscripts, and other works on paper are splendid examples of what is especially well represented online yet too often languishes in storage, inaccessible to the curious.

Digital enterprises succeed to the extent that they build on projects that can be fully integrated into the mission and business of the library and museum. Some of the best early projects constitute the thin edge of the digital wedge, a project that allows staff and patrons to get a taste of what can be done with collections online, as well as what the cost will be, both in dollars and cents, and in terms of what value can be created with what resources, internal or external. With a successful project, pretty soon a series of other questions pop up after the decision to keep it going is made: How do we recover costs? Who pays for it? Who uses it?

I would add a set of other questions that must be addressed by libraries, museums, and society at large at some point in the not-too-distant future: Why are online libraries free — just because physical libraries are free, that is, the patron does not pay for access at the point of access? Then what about museums, that usually are not free? Should we charge online museum-goers upon entry to the content on the site? I am not advocating one course or another, merely pointing out that transferring real-world practices into virtual practices without critically examining why certain practices have arisen does not help develop the best access policies for the online environment.

And then there is the very real barrier of copyright, the (theoretically) limited monopoly on property rights granted to creators or owners to provide incentives for further creativity. With the limitations to that monopoly receding ever further into the future, there are very real constraints to what libraries and museums can offer at little or no cost. How, by definition, can a collection confined to public domain materials be a true reflection of the depth and breadth of collections our libraries and museums hold? I do not recommend that enterprises think too long about these issues, for fear of paralysis. But the larger cultural heritage community needs to confront these core issues — cost recovery and rights — before too long.

Institutions should also think deeply about what incentives they offer people to support a given digital enterprise. Why should people care if it disappears tomorrow? What about its goods and services — collections and digital library services — is important to them, and what would they would miss if they were gone? Sustainability often hinges on the ability to make people see their interests in the survival of that enterprise because it does something core for the user that nothing else does.

In some cases that uniquely valuable offering will be the collections. But as digital libraries and museums take shape on the distant horizon, we see a blurring of collections and services, they almost become indistinguishable. It is the ways in which we let our users interact with the collections that make the content valuable in the long run. To use a popular example, it is not the information Google offers — that information is there for all the world to collect and manipulate, in theory. It is the functionality, the quality of interaction with quality collections, that has made Google so valuable that it has become a verb. Institutions should focus on what value the enterprise is creating, and what about the enterprise merits "verbification."

Another lesson that Google teaches (though Google is certainly not alone in this virtue) is that successful enterprises stay close to their users. They may be able to create wonderful services that are visionary and far ahead of anyone else's, including their competitors. But if they are too far ahead, they risk being too far ahead of their users as well. There is something winning about Goggle's ability to appear familiar every time you log on. Yet lurking somewhere on the home page is an invitation to try something new — entirely optional, of course, but available for those who are ready for more.



Planning for successful online enterprises

With generous funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) is developing a resource for libraries and museums that are planning to build an online enterprise. CLIR has commissioned Nancy Allen and Liz Bishoff to develop a business planning resource guide, based on a careful analysis of ongoing digital enterprises. These two experts have developed a case study approach that looks at the development of sustainable online business models based at single institutions, developed through partnerships, and those undertaken by consortia.

The questions they are asking of these institutions address:

Market analysis:

  • Planning and changes in plan
  • Communication
  • Market research
  • Who is the audience?
  • Who is the competition?

Organizational impact:

  • How is this structured within your organization and what impact is it having the organization?
  • Outsourcing
  • Project management
  • Project staffing
  • Training and development impacts
  • Equipment and facilities impact

Finances and technology support:

  • Pricing
  • Budgeting and funding
  • Technology and standards


  • What did you do right?
  • What would you like to do over again?
  • Any advice for the field?

CLIR will make their report available this summer, both online and in print.




The ultimate question that every institution needs to answer, of course, is what greater good are they creating, for whom, and how do they make that potential user aware of that good. Perhaps no other institution in the education and culture sector has demonstrated greater success at creating value and making its primary constituencies aware of that than Harvard University. Judging by their global reputation for excellence and their ability to take that to the bank, witnessed by the phenomenal growth in gifts received and endowment size, Harvard seems to have something to teach us all.

But in at least one instance, the lesson is to be learned lies in what not to do, and that is in the area of creating value through collaboration. Although Harvard appears to outsiders to be a single institution, in fact the university comprises a series of largely autonomous schools that do not develop joint efforts easily, not even for infrastructure purposes. At a time when most cultural institutions are coming to the belief that they cannot enter the digital realm except through collaborations such as AMICO and the Digital Library Federation, Harvard continues to adhere to its operating principle of "every tub on its own bottom." Perhaps they can make that work. But what I will call the Harvard Model is starting to fray the loyal fabric of their alumni relations.

Reports in the press from February tell of a group of influential alumni and funders who have pointed out that the university could save up to 25 percent of its annual billion-dollar budget for goods and services if all the schools banded together and sought competitive bids for such things as travel costs, custodial services, and procurement of supplies — things that presumably do not compromise intellectual freedom. When the university president took action by asking for voluntary collaboration, the response was minimal. That is, they affected savings of $26 million out of an estimated potential of $225 million. Not good enough, those with fiduciary responsibility retorted, collaboration is not an option, not with such a great corporate asset at stake. After all, they exclaimed, it hurts precisely those the university is charged to protect and nurture — students — and abuses the trust of those upon whom they rely — alumni (Basinger, 2003). $225 million may seem chump change to a university with an endowment in the billions, but such behavior makes it very challenging for the current president, himself a prize-winning economist and former secretary of the U.S. Treasury, to ask an alumnus for a donation of $150 million to create a new technology institute.

The lesson, then, is that not even Harvard can afford the Harvard Model. The great corporate asset that Harvard puts at risk is not money: It is the loyalty, trust, and affection of its graduates. If the cultural sector expects the support of the public — and it has every right to — it must be sure to nurture the support and trust of the public it serves by developing new models for delivering the "goods and services" in museums and libraries to users. It is what they expect from us, and they deserve no less. End of article


About the Author

Abby Smith is Director of Programs at the Council on Library and Information Resources, where her work focuses on the development and preservation of research collections in all formats and genres. She is author or co-author of New-Model Scholarship: How Will It Survive? (2003); The Evidence in Hand: Report of the Task Force on the Artifact in Library Collections (2001); Strategies for Building Digitized Collections (2001); Building and Sustaining Digital Collections: Models for Libraries and Museums (2001); Collections, Content, and the Web (2000); and forthcoming contributions to Blackwell's Guide to Digital Humanities and Library Trends.



Julia Basinger, 2003. "Alumni Urge Harvard to Cut Expenses Through Competitive Bidding and More Unity Among Schools," Chronicle of Higher Education: Daily News, at, accessed 26 February 2003

Editorial history

Paper received 7 April 2003; accepted 12 April 2003.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2003, First Monday

Copyright ©2003, Abby Smith

Issues in sustainability: Creating value for online users by Abby Smith
First Monday, volume 8, number 5 (May 2003),

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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