Accessing academic books, journals, databases and other documents online has been an option for several years, but it became a necessity during the pandemic. Institutional libraries had to step up by providing wider online access to their collections to ensure that students and researchers could continue their work during closures and lockdowns.

From the early 1990s when legal deposit libraries like the British Library and institutional ones like the Mercury Electronic Library at Carnegie Mellon University started to digitise their archives and collections, academic libraries have been building their online catalogues to provide resources, support, information and guidance beyond the university campus to encompass their growing distance-learning communities.

Besides scholarly books and journals, digital libraries offer audios, graphs, images, texts and videos. Institutional repositories also store all kinds of materials provided by colleges and departments, including annual reports, conference papers, proceedings, research reports, simulations and white papers.

Increasingly, virtual libraries are becoming digital learning spaces, engaging students across the world. Students and academics are seeking current and fast-changing information that has an impact not only on research but also on teaching and public engagement, so crucial when many projects depend on public funding.

Virtual libraries: examples across the world

Cambridge University Library in the UK has been providing a blend of online and zero-contact services, to cater for students and academics during the pandemic. The availability of online resources has been increased to minimise physical visits and accommodate the needs of those who cannot be in Cambridge. A dedicated digital library offers research material, collections and documents from international collaborations, such as the Darwin Manuscript Project, which is based at the American Museum of Natural History.

In the US, Yale University Library has developed an integrated search platform for its digital collections, which include manuscripts, maps, periodicals, photographs, archival materials, political and medical papers, rare books and manuscripts. Access to Yale’s e-resources (e-journals, e-books, data sets, databases, etc.) is provided to students and academics affiliated with the university.

The Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC) is an international open-access digital library and community for resources from and about the Caribbean, comprising over 60 partners in the United States, the Caribbean, Canada, Central/South America and Europe. Its partners contribute content and expertise, and the library also supports collaborative projects and funding initiatives. Types of collections comprise: newspapers, archives of Caribbean leaders and governments, official documents, documentation and numeric data for ecosystems, scientific scholarship, historic and contemporary maps, oral and popular histories, travel accounts, literature and poetry, musical expressions and artifacts.

The ICE Virtual Library claims to be the most comprehensive online civil engineering resource in the world. Users can explore archives back to 1836, including scholarly books, journals and information for researchers and practitioners worldwide in the fields of civil and environmental engineering, and materials science. It is part of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), a professional membership body and registered charity that was established in 1818. Its journals, archives and books are a reputed reference point for industry and academia. 

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