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 They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date.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

Accessing Electronic Theses: Progress


   Somehow the art of Salvador Dali seems to be an appropriate
   accompaniment to an eclectic group of people interested in electronic
   theses and dissertations (ETDs). Overlooking Tampa Bay, an
   international group of librarians, computer scientists, university
   administrators, and graduate students are sipping wine and munching
   hors d'oeuvres at the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, FL, at
   the reception of the Third International Symposium on Electronic Theses
   and Dissertations (TISETD).

   The art is surreal, but the participants are in earnest. Some attendees
   -- such as those in the Networked Library of Theses and Dissertations,
   or NDLTD -- have been working in this field for a decade or more, while
   others are here only because a university dean or provost told them to
   come. But they all share an interest in accepting and providing access
   to theses and dissertations submitted electronically.

   There are several ways by which universities provide access to their
   ETDs, as well as various permutations and combinations of these
   methods. How this will shake out, unfortunately, remains an open

   UMI, XML, and other formats
   The easiest way for a library to make its theses and dissertations
   available online is to let a commercial company do it, UMI Dissertation
   Services (part of Bell and Howell Information and Learning) can provide
   copies of over one million theses and dissertations, with more than
   100,000 available online as Adobe Acrobat files.

   After the ETD has been accepted, it is simply forwarded to UMI, which
   then creates an Adobe Acrobat version of the file and provides access
   free to the originating university. Other users must pay a fee -- from
   $21.50 to download a version to $46 for a hardcover paper copy. The
   benefit of this strategy is that it requires little or no
   infrastructure development or support on your part. However, the
   responsibility for providing access and long-term preservation for the
   material resides with a commercial company that may not last forever.

   While UMI may epitomize the easy way out, conference speakers seemed to
   be unanimous in their depiction of XML as the "right way" to do ETDs.
   The problem is that implementing an XML workflow for ETDs is unlikely
   to be either easy or clear at this time. Right now various universities
   are using nearly half a dozen different structural descriptions
   (document type definitions, or DTDs) for ETDs. Thus, it is unlikely
   that various ETD projects will be able to interoperate very well
   without first converting their ETDs to a common DTD.

   Yet another strategy is to accept ETDs in other formats, such as
   Microsoft Word and/or Adobe Acrobat. This will be much easier than
   requiring XML markup for the material, but it also means a less assured
   migration path as MS Word and/or Adobe Acrobat change or are replaced
   by other, competing applications.

   Key players home and away
   The home of the ETD effort is Virginia Tech University, and the person
   at the center is Edward Fox, a professor in the Department of Computer
   Science. He began the NDLTD, and Virginia Tech now has over 2000 of its
   students' ETDs online.

   Another leader is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT),
   which has put more than 4000 dissertations online. MIT has taken a very
   pragmatic approach. Since it was already duplicating dissertations to
   sell to those requesting them, MIT decided simply to digitize them,
   based on demand, for online access as part of the process. Now about 50
   percent of the dissertations requested have already been digitized.

   Outside the United States, the Australian Digital Theses Project is
   very ambitious, with a beginning set of seven Australian universities
   involved in a pilot project to include eventually all 40 Australian
   universities once they have fully developed and tested the
   infrastructure. They are using a modified version of the submission
   software developed at Virginia Tech.

   Several people from the Humboldt University of Berlin were present and
   discussed their project to mark up ETDs in XML. As they noted, one key
   issue is the diversity of DTDs being used by various projects to mark
   up what are essentially the same kinds of documents. To address this
   problem, they are sponsoring a meeting in May to try to bring together
   the competing DTDs into one standardized DTD. By having ETDs marked up
   with the same structural tags, the user will be able to search more
   easily for and use ETDs from around the world. Since the underlying
   structure of the documents will be the same, search and display systems
   will be able to provide access to ETDs more easily from a variety of

   Finding ETDs
   There are now two main methods for locating ETDs. The primary method is
   to use UMI's ProQuest Digital Dissertations site, which allows searches
   by a number of fields (keyword, author, title, school, subject). You
   can also browse by broad subjects, but in most cases there are too many
   results to make browsing very productive (for example, there are no
   narrower subject categories to select within "language and
   literature"). Once a subject category has been selected, however,
   additional search terms can be added to further narrow the set.
   ProQuest provides a 24-page "preview" of the ETD for free as individual
   page images.

   To find ETDs that are part of the NDLTD, you either must go to each
   institution's web site individually or try out the experimental
   "federated" search, which was not working as of this writing. Clearly
   the NDLTD has some distance to go to compete with UMI in both ease of
   searching or sheer numbers of ETDs. But, at least you don't have to pay
   for them if you access them through an NDLTD site.

   Speeding ahead?
   Standing on the pier in St. Petersburg, I can't help thinking about
   Dali's dripping clock. To my untrained eye, he seems to be saying that
   time is elastic, which somehow seems all the more appropriate regarding
   ETDs. People like Fox have been laboring for years, even a decade, and
   yet the number of ETDs available online through NDLTD institutions
   remains somewhat unimpressive.

   There are clearly issues that need to be addressed if ETDs are to
   become a major source of free content for digital libraries. But it's
   also clear that there will be many more people working to solve those
   issues, since this conference drew several times the number of
   attendees as either of the previous two meetings.

   Time may have been moving slowly in the ETD universe before, but now it
   appears that things are speeding up. Keep watching, and not just the

                                  LINK LIST

                                                 Australian Digital Theses
                         Humboldt University Ditigal Dissertations Project
                                                    NDLTD Federated Search
                                            ProQuest Digital Dissertations
                                                      Salvador Dali Museum
                                                  Third Intl. Symposium on
                                       Electronic Theses and Dissertations

                                                 UMI Dissertation Services