Digital Libraries: Dream or Delusion?
Pioneers Meet To Assess Challenges
Will electronic technologies give students, teachers,
scholars, and the public easy access to an excitingly rich trove
of cultural treasure, making the Internet a tremendous stimulus
to scholarship, learning, and cultural creativity in our
Will "digital libraries" that develop within colleges and
universities help them attract more students, enrich curricula at
low cost, and get more payback out of investments in research
databases, computer-based learning materials, and other
information assets? Will higher-education institutions whose
libraries take advantage of digital technologies attract more
research grants, retain quality faculty, and increase academic
Or will the digital libraries now under development produce
only a confusing bog of electronic "stuff" that is hard to find,
hard to use, buried in restrictions, unreliable in content, and
useless to researchers baffled by bad choices of material for
expensive digitization investments?
These questions surfaced at a national, cutting-edge
conference, in Chicago, November 18 through 20, of leading
More than 100 experimenters in digital-collection creation
from 28 of the nation's leading libraries and related
institutions compared notes, reported progress, and assessed
obstacles in a "Forum on Digital Collections and Library Trends."
The forum was organized by the national Digital Library
Federation (DLF), operating under the organizational umbrella of
the Council on Library and Information Resources in Washington,
The DLF's work has been going forward since 1995. But
participants in this conference seemed to find themselves at a
particularly critical crossroad in determining how to deal with
obstacles to further progress.
Progress has reached the point that institutions and
individuals worldwide, rich or poor, clustered or remote, can
feasibly receive electronic access to an astonishing array of
material¾books, journals, records, and manuscripts;
artworks, photographs, films, and audiotapes; scientific reports
and vast accumulations of research data.
But this burgeoning legacy of human thought, historical
experience, artistic expression, and scientific achievement may
stay tucked away in library stacks, archival vaults, and museum
accumulations, known only to specialists who can afford to travel
and search physical repositories, unless ways are found to meet
electronic access challenges.
Session speakers stressed a continuing need for widely
acceptable standards and policies, trustworthy agreements, truly
collaborative partnerships, affordable technologies, and staff
expertise. And they emphasized that sustaining digital libraries
will require overcoming substantial uncertainties about long-term
preservation, institutional commitments, and financing.
"Nonetheless, we've evolved rapidly," DLF Director Daniel
Greenstein declared in the forum's wrap-up session. "The 25
institutional members of the DLF alone have produced more than
250 digitally reformatted collections, large and small, providing
much experience in developing such resources, and identifying
avenues for future progress."
Materials digitized or in the process range from the
multifaceted "American Memory" offerings of the Library of
Congress to collections focused on Southeastern native Americans,
California ethnic groups, nineteenth century novels, rare early
English books, recordings of musical performances, images of
artworks, papers of journalists, and holdings of archives, to
list but a sample. Information about DLF members' digital
collections is available through the DLF Web site at http://www.hti.umich.edu/cgi/d/dlfcoll/dlfcoll-idx.
Some projects intend to make special collections more
accessible to scholars. Others are designed to serve the needs of
classroom teachers, in primary and secondary schools as well as
colleges. Still others provide "libraries without walls" in
support of "distance learning," as educational course work
through computers rather than classrooms is called.
Also, some projects, instead of digitizing materials created
on paper, film, or tape, are preserving materials that were
created digitally, such as e-mail, Web sites, and data from
investigations in the sciences and social sciences. And a lot of
projects are experimenting with digital library techniques by
using the material they are digitizing as "test beds."
The many tests under way include collaborative work in an
"Open Archives Initiative," a major project to connect library
resources for the benefit of searchers. Libraries increasingly
provide online access not only to original materials but also to
descriptions of their collections as a whole. Because information
this specific does not readily surface through conventional Web
search services, researchers unaware of which repositories have
material on their subjects miss a lot of collections of potential
value. Also, fruitless searching can waste both the time of
scholars and the digitization investments of libraries.
The Open Archives Initiative has devised specifications for
setting up "metadata harvesting" services that can point
researchers to material of particular kinds they need. But as one
of the sponsors of this project observed at the conference,
"Specifying a protocol and building interactive systems are
The electronic, interactive systems to be built would enable
"data providers" (such as libraries) to respond to requests for
specified kinds of information about their collections from "data
services" (maintained by libraries among others), each
specializing in helping searchers find material in a particular
field of study, format, region, or whatever. Services already are
being planned or developed for "e-print" archives (containing
electronic versions of unpublished scholarly works), for video
clips, and for materials of all kinds for the study of American
history and society.
The DLF is encouraging libraries to participate as
collection-information providers, search-service developers, or
both. Conference participants announced that further refinement
of the Open Archives system specifications will wait for results
from developmental experiments.
Concern at the conference about helping searchers find and use
what digital librarians are going to the trouble of developing
coincided with concern about whether what is developed will be of
real use to searchers who do find it. Copyright and other
restrictions inhibit the digitization of many materials for
Internet access, a problem that came in for considerable
attention at the conference.
Additionally, participants acknowledged that materials
selected for digitization tend to reflect a library's strengths
or the interests of its staff and funders more than requests from
or needs of researchers. "What we do is what we get money for,"
one speaker said. "I knew where the good stuff was," said
another. A third, speaking of digitization-selection criteria,
spoke of "giving people something they'd not want to lose,"
regardless of use.
Alternatively, the conference heard about a "demand side"
digital library collection specifically for use by teachers whom
the developer involved centrally in selection decisions. And
another speaker studied how researchers actually work so that she
could develop more useful digital services for them. Scholars
value the ability of electronic technology to ease and speed
their work, she reported, but use it in their own ways to enhance
traditional work practices, which need to be considered in
digital library development.
This was the third forum held by the Digital Library
Federation to bring a variety of perspectives to bear on key
challenges that confront digital libraries. The forums, limited
to DLF members except by invitation, enable professionals to
share their experiences, learn from one another, review DLF
initiatives, and launch new ones. The first forum focused on
technological challenges to digital-library development; the
second dealt with organizational and financial challenges, and
the third concentrated on the development, maintenance, and use
of digital-library collections of high quality. The DLF plans a
fourth forum in May or June 2001 on challenges to encouraging and
supporting digital-library use.
By that time, according to an announcement in Chicago, a
collection for which researchers almost certainly will be
grateful should be complete: the Library of Congress, a DLF
member, is "collecting" twenty-five political Web sites to
document "the Web experience of Election 2000"!
* * *
Recipients are welcome to reproduce this in part or in
whole. For more information on the DLF Forum or digital library
development, please contact DLF Director Daniel Greenstein by
e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, by
phone at 202-939-4762, or by post at CLIR, Suite 500, 1755
Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC, 20036-2124.
comments or suggestions.
© 2000 Council on Library and Information