:: 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 They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date.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 Grand Challenges


   Decades ago, our professional predecessors laid the foundation upon
   which so much of library technology rests. Through sheer hard work and
   determination, they created a metadata standard for the interchange of
   bibliographic data between computers called machine-readable cataloging

   Now we are at a similar professional crossroads, wherein the particular
   technologies, standards, and models we choose to adopt will shape
   digital libraries for decades to come. But today the stakes are even
   higher. While MARC solved one particular problem, with digital
   libraries, we are re-creating libraries from the bottom up, with
   literally no function unaffected. How digital items are selected,
   acquired, organized, accessed, and preserved is all different from our
   familiar methods. Thus, making the wrong decisions or selecting the
   wrong standards or technologies can have disastrous consequences. This
   column looks at some main challenges; future columns will address them
   in more detail.

   A popular vision of the digital library is that a library user at one
   location using one interface could seamlessly search the digital
   collections of hundreds of libraries. To make this vision a reality,
   the systems we build must be able to interoperate very effectively.
   This will require digital library systems nationwide and
   internationally to comply with certain key standards. In reality, we
   will probably see islands of noncompliance among regions of
   interoperability. Interoperability on a grand scale is the digital
   library Holy Grail; we are doomed forever to seek it without
   attainment. We have seen some initial successes in limited domains
   where draft standards are emerging.

   Standards help create interoperability among different systems and a
   smooth migration path among technologies. One of the most important
   areas for standards development in digital libraries is
   metadata--information about information or, as librarians know it,
   cataloging. Metadata is the information required to manage an item,
   organize it among other items, make it retrievable, and in some cases
   make it navigable.

   There are two basic reasons why we need metadata standards. First, we
   need metadata standards for situations in which we want to record much
   less metadata in a much simpler fashion than full MARC cataloging. For
   example, many digital library collections consist of thousands (and,
   soon, millions) of individual items (such as photographs), many of
   which it would be too labor-intensive to fully catalog. These items may
   need to be managed as a collection instead, which calls for a different
   style of metadata.

   Also, we need standards when we wish to record more metadata. While a
   book's catalog record includes the author, title, publisher, and some
   other key information, for the digital version, we also may need to
   record information about how it was created (e.g., scanning resolution,
   bit depth, file format) and also information that allows us to create
   navigation systems (e.g., which is the first page?).

   Rights management
   Librarians are quite familiar with rights management in the print
   world. We buy a book, and it's ours to lend as we choose. Photocopiers
   only gave us a brief pause, until we posted signs by our machines
   warning against copyright infraction. But in the digital environment we
   face some serious ambiguity that has yet to be decided by either
   statute or case law, although Congress is currently debating it (but
   then let the court battles begin!).

   What comprises "fair use" in a digital environment? You will likely get
   very different answers from a librarian and a publisher. Given such a
   confusing situation, most digital libraries avoid any copyrighted
   material. Luckily there is much material that falls into this category,
   largely manuscript and archival items.

   You will find no digital format among the currently accepted
   preservation formats. Computers haven't been around long enough to
   determine if any digital format can be preserved effectively. Rather,
   when we talk about digital preservation we typically talk about a
   strategy, the main parts of which--as outlined in the [128]Preserving
   Digital Information report--are storage, refreshment, and migration.
   Storage must be backed up with recovery systems should a disk drive
   crash or a natural disaster occur. As particular instances of storage
   media start to fail (e.g., a CD-ROM begins to delaminate), the
   information must be moved to a fresh copy of the same medium.

   Migration is the most difficult problem. As entire technologies die
   (remember 8-track tape?), the information must be rescued in an
   entirely different technology, which may require entirely new or
   rescued access software. Much work remains to determine rescue
   procedures, failure prevention, and organizational structures that can
   manage these responsibilities. Look to the Research Libraries Group,
   the Coalition for Networked Information, and other large consortial
   organizations for leadership on this issue. Only by banding together
   will we be able to make headway on this problem.

   We do not create digital libraries to save money. We create them to
   greatly expand access, increase usability and effectiveness, and
   establish entirely new ways for individuals to interact with
   information. Rather than being cheaper to create, maintain, and
   preserve than print collections, the evidence so far seems to indicate
   the opposite. Meanwhile, we are retaining and expanding our print
   collections. How can we create new models for sustaining an expanded
   operation within a budget climate of stable or shrinking resources? How
   can we recruit or retrain staff for digital libraries when the entire
   field is only a few years old?

   User interface design
   You know the problem. Library patrons line up behind a CD-ROM index to
   wait their turn while a better print index lies unused. University
   students consider it a point of pride when they complete their paper
   solely from web resources and thus avoid entering the library. One of
   our most important yet most difficult tasks in creating digital
   libraries will be to build structures that do not leave print resources
   behind. We must fight our patrons' tendency to believe that everything
   on the net is now (or will be) free.

   Also, we must design intuitive yet powerful interfaces to a wide
   variety of systems and resources. And the resources to be discovered
   will require user environments that support sophisticated operations
   such as selecting and charting statistics, or selecting and overlaying
   geographic information system coverages on a base map.

   Digital libraries are still possible without solutions to these grand
   challenges. But they will never achieve their potential if solutions
   aren't found. When our professional descendants look back, as we now
   look back at the creators of MARC, it is up to us to make sure they see
   that challenges were met with imagination, perseverance, and skill.

                                  LINK LIST


                                            Metadata Resources (from IFLA)

                                                    Copyright and Fair Use


          Preserving Digital Information: Final Report and Recommendations