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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 time?

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 stature?

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 digital-library developers.

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, DC.

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 different."

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"!

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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 dgreenstein@clir.org, by phone at 202-939-4762, or by post at CLIR, Suite 500, 1755 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC, 20036-2124.

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