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 They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date.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

Digital Potential and Pitfalls


   With the recent influx of millions of dollars in grant funds and a
   fast-growing awareness of the potential of digital technologies to
   transform access to information, digital library hype has outrun
   reality. Scenarios of digital library futures sometimes imply that
   nirvana will have been reached by the early 21st century, wherein the
   whole of recorded knowledge (or at least enough for most people) will
   be no further away than the nearest Internet-connected computer.
   Therefore I feel compelled to break my rule against predicting the
   future (an exercise best left to fools and geniuses) and assert:
     * only a very small fraction of the millions of print items currently
       held by the world's libraries will ever be in digital form;
     * digital library collections and services enhance traditional
       libraries, they don't replace them; and,
     * the need for services provided by real libraries and those who
       staff them will grow, not disappear.

   Yes, we still need real libraries and skilled people to staff them. But
   what those staff will be doing will be different, sometimes very
   different, from what they do today. This is not a prediction but a
   certainty. How many reference librarians can completely ignore online
   databases, CD-ROM databases, and the web and still do their job? Not
   many can, or should. But think back 20 years. Most reference librarians
   performed their jobs just fine without the very things that are now
   essential to adequate service. The game has changed.

   How the game is changing is at the core of this column. Those who build
   digital libraries are helping to change the rules and by so doing forge
   a framework that will take libraries well into the next century.
   However, among the techniques, technologies, and draft standards that
   will serve as the foundation for these new libraries are research
   projects that will go nowhere, technologies that will never be adopted,
   and new paradigms that are a dime short. I will try to steer you
   through the mess and highlight what should be on your horizon: projects
   and people to watch, technologies to learn about, and how to keep

   Defining the digital library

   There are almost as many definitions of "digital library" as there are
   projects using the term, but the Association of Research Libraries
   (ARL), in its "Definitions and Purposes of a Digital Library," has
   defined a digital library as having these qualities:
     * The digital library is not a single entity;
     * The digital library requires technology to link the resources of
     * The linkages between the many digital libraries and information
       services are transparent to the end user;
     * Universal access to digital libraries and information services is a
     * Digital library collections are not limited to document surrogates:
       they extend to digital artifacts that cannot be represented or
       distributed in printed formats.

   ARL's broad definition of a digital library leaves a great deal of room
   for diversity, which is reflected in projects by the Library of
   Congress, the University of Virginia, the Fine Arts Museums of San
   Francisco, and many others that will be profiled in future columns. For
   now, the six projects funded with multimillion dollar grants from
   NSF/DARPA/NASA can illustrate this diversity.

   Carnegie Mellon is focusing on creating a multimedia library consisting
   of video, audio, images, and text. Its research involves speech
   recognition, image understanding, and natural language support. In one
   of its projects, a spoken query can result in the playback of an
   appropriate portion of a news broadcast. The project does not yet have
   anything online for public viewing.

   The University of Illinois project is attempting to bring together
   disparate sources of scientific information and improve search results
   for federated (joined) databases. Its prototype system, Desktop Link to
   Virtual Engineering Resources (or "DeLiver"), includes a number of
   engineering journals in full text. Anyone can search it, but to see the
   articles you must be an authorized user. About 40 percent of the
   articles are in Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML), which
   requires the use of a free program for viewing (available only for MS
   Windows). The remainder of the articles are Adobe Acrobat format,
   viewable on any platform with the appropriate free viewer.

   Stanford is tackling the issue of interoperability, or how disparate
   databases can be treated as one by the user. A number of separate
   projects have been started to treat different aspects of the problem.
   Unfortunately, there is not yet much to see, just technical papers not
   for the faint of heart.

   The University of Michigan aims to create intelligent agents to aid in
   locating information. Its prototype explores the subject domain of
   earth and space sciences. The project's prototype interface, "Artemis,"
   is written in Java. Another component of Michigan's work is a "Teaching
   and Learning" project that "provides guidelines and design standards
   for teaching and learning materials to support science inquiry through
   online resources."

   The Alexandria Digital Library at UC-Santa Barbara is trying to create
   an interface to distributed collections of spatially referenced
   information (that is, anything that can be associated with a particular
   region of the earth). Examples include aerial photographs, seismic
   data, and remotely sensed digital imagery. They could be used for
   environmental monitoring and development planning. Presently one must
   be authorized to gain access to the prototype interface, which is being
   written in Java.

   The public gets digital

   Out of all the projects, UC-Berkeley's clearly has the most actual
   content available to the public. The project uses environmental
   information for subject content and thus includes environmental impact
   reports, a California dams database, a California flowers database, and
   a variety of other resources. In all there are presently over 55,000
   images (but access to half of these, stock photos from Corel, requires
   a password), nearly 2000 documents, and almost 100,000 database
   records. The project uses Java quite a bit, and my advice is to avoid
   the Java applets until some serious performance issues are addressed.
   Should you investigate the site, first save your work in any other open
   applications. It is a "hard hat" area that can crash your computer.

   Don't let these warnings keep you away from UC--Berkeley's site, or
   elsewhere in the digital world. Stick your neck out. Take the plunge.
   Leave your comfort zone and expand your horizons. Digital libraries are
   here to stay, and there has never been a better time to learn about
   what they will mean for you, your library, and your users.


   National Science Foundation Projects:

   Carnegie Mellon University
   Informedia Digital Video Library

   Stanford University
   Interoperation Mechanisms Among Heterogeneous Services

   Environmental Planning and Geographic Information Systems

   UC-Santa Barbara
   Spatially referenced map information

   University of Illinois
   Federating repositories of scientific literature

   University of Michigan
   Intelligent agents for information location

   "Building Large-Scale Digital Libraries," Computer, May 1996

   "The DLI Testbeds: Today and Tomorrow,": D-Lib Magazine, July/August

   NSF/DARPA/NASA Digital Libraries Initiative Projects

   Digital Libraries Initiative Coordination page

   Digital Libraries Initiative Publications

   ARL Digital Library Definition