:: Digital Libraries Columns


Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant

Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date. :: Digital Libraries Columns

The Digital Library Divide


   All digital library projects are not created equal. Some projects
   attract millions of dollars of research funding, while others create
   useful collections without a dime of outside support. Some projects
   serve only for research purposes, while others produce specific online
   collections or services. Knowing the difference should help you to
   determine which projects may help you today and which may help you

   Research projects
   Digital library research projects are usually conducted by university
   faculty--generally in computer science. The aim is to expand our
   collective knowledge. A research project can be termed successful even
   if the only outcome is a description of the research results (and a
   call for further research). Some research projects may also have goals
   that approach those of production projects (to create a useful
   collection or service), but they need not do so--which is often the

   Most projects in the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Digital
   Libraries Initiative Phase One fall into this category. After more than
   $24 million in federal funding was spent over four years (1994-98),
   there was very little available that could be considered a library
   collection or service.

   Whether any of the technologies explored in these projects will ever
   result in real production digital library services is anyone's guess.
   But at least with the second phase of the Digital Libraries Initiative
   beginning in 1998, the NSF and the other funding agencies (which
   include the Library of Congress [LC]) supported production projects as
   well as research.

   Also, ostensible digital library projects may not even have much to do
   with libraries as they are today, or as we might envision them in the
   near future. For example, see the research by the University of
   California, Berkeley, Computer Science department that went into
   "Blobworld," retrieving images by querying shapes and colors. I find it
   difficult to imagine a circumstance in which such an interface would be
   useful in a typical library setting. If you don't believe me, go there
   and try it out for yourself.
   Production projects

   Production digital library projects aim at meeting actual user needs
   today with existing technologies--and should be more helpful to peer
   libraries. For example, the Colorado Digitization Project has specific
   production goals for digitizing content and making it available to the
   citizens of Colorado and beyond. Other clear examples of production
   digital library projects include the LC's American Memory Project and
   the New York Public Library Digital Library Collection, among many

   Although these types of projects do not tend to be truly cutting edge,
   they often must set up new methods and procedures, from which other
   libraries can learn. LC has been particularly good at sharing its
   methods with others. (See the Building Digital Collections site.)
   Librarians vs. computer scientists

   There is a professional aspect to the digital library divide as well.
   Librarians as a whole will tend to find production projects more
   instructive for everyday library needs--at least in the short
   term--than research projects. The relatively small number of library
   schools in the United States means that the profession lacks a solid
   core of library-focused research efforts in digital libraries. Since
   much of the digital library research dollars are awarded to computer
   scientists, computer scientists set the research agenda. Generally,
   they lack the in-depth knowledge of library and user needs that
   librarians possess.

   Since this situation is unlikely to change dramatically, librarians
   should team up with computer scientists on research projects whenever
   possible. Funding sources for production-oriented digital library
   projects are also available.
   Bridges across the divide

   Thankfully, the divide is not without bridges. The following are
   examples of projects that bring together librarians and computer
   scientists to create functioning services that also push the knowledge
   envelope. These projects demonstrate that research and production can
   go hand in hand, and when they do, they can be both groundbreaking and

   One of the first digital library projects that actually created a
   production digital library collection was the Networked Computer
   Science Technical Reports Library (NCSTRL, pronounced "ancestral").
   NCSTRL is a worldwide network of computer science technical report
   repositories. All collections are searchable from any one repository,
   although when a particular paper is selected, it is retrieved from the
   remote location. As a production service, this project has library
   participation on a number of levels. A Stanford librarian helped create
   a record format for the bibliographic information and several libraries
   (UC-Berkeley, for one) are now supporting the NCSTRL project on their

   The Open Archives initiative (OAI) (see "Open Archives: A Key
   Convergence," LJ 2/15/00) has had library participation from the
   outset, as it promises to provide a key piece of interoperability
   infrastructure. To some degree, it builds on the NCSTRL work in this
   area. Key library organizations involved in this effort include the
   Digital Library Federation and the Association of Research Libraries.

   Since the purpose of the Dublin Core metadata initiative is to create a
   low-barrier syntax for encoding metadata about digital objects, it
   should come as no surprise that the library community led the way (via
   OCLC staff). But the effort now includes a number of computer science
   professionals and organizations worldwide, as well as participants from
   other disciplines. This emerging metadata standard is being used today
   to describe a wide variety of electronic resources in a number of
   different technical environments.
   Building more bridges

   The digital library divide is real, and it can present a barrier to
   communication and cooperation. But overcoming this barrier is important
   to both librarians and computer scientists. Librarians can learn much
   about new possibilities from current computer science research.
   Computer scientists can understand better what people want and how they
   expect to be able to use it.

   Working to bridge the digital library divide is not just for large
   research libraries. Some projects, like OAI, have fairly low barriers
   to participation. Free software such as the University of Southampton
   eprints package can give any library an Open Archives-compliant e-print
   repository if it has a staff member with a modicum of technical skill.
   We all must work to expand our horizons about what is possible and good
   for our users.




Building Digital Collections


Collaboration Through the Colorado Digitization Project


Dublin Core


eprints Software


NSF Digital Libraries Initiative Phase I


NSF Digital Libraries Initiative Phase II




NYPL Digital Library Collection


Open Archives Initiative