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A working definition of digital library [1998]

For DLF partners effectively to "federate" digital libraries, they must share a comon understanding of what a digital library is. Here is their working definition

"Digital libraries are organizations that provide the resources, including the specialized staff, to select, structure, offer intellectual access to, interpret, distribute, preserve the integrity of, and ensure the persistence over time of collections of digital works so that they are readily and economically available for use by a defined community or set of communities."

Of course, the concept of digital library has multiple senses that one might invoke in various contexts. For example, the concept may refer simply to the notion of collection without reference to organization, intellectual accessibility or service attributes. This extended sense seems to be in play, for example, when we hear the World Wide Web described as a digital library. The concept might also refer to the organization underlying the collection, or even more specifically to the computer-based system in which the collection resides. The latter sense seems to be most operative in the NSF digital library initiative program. See, for example, C.L. Borgman, et al. Social Aspects of Digital Libraries. Digital libraries might also be distinguished from digital archives to emphasize the nature of the works collected or, as in Preserving Digital Information: Report of the Task Force on the Archiving of Digital Information, to stress the preservation function.

One could, of course, revise, refine, and otherwise improve this comprehensive definition. However, it is meant here mainly to suggest that there is a set of attributes that gives coherence to the concept of digital libraries. These attributes include functions of collection, organization, preservation, access and economy. A program for the development of "federated" digital libraries needs to be defined and measured in terms of the development of these attributes. However, the proposed definition also emphasizes that "digital libraries" need to be defined and measured in relation to the communities they serve. Thus, the DLF program aims to situate the development of digital libraries in a larger context of service. Given the complexity and costs of developing digital libraries, DLF efforts and investments need to be conscious of and strategically designed to address the larger institutional and social goals of its participants.

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