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 They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date.
The Digital Library Federation
It was the beginning of February 2000, and although Daniel Greenstein had been traveling for weeks, he was only halfway through his itinerary. As the new (as of 12/1/99) executive director of the Digital Library Federation (DLF), Greenstein was on a whistle-stop tour of all of the federation's 23 organizational members, from one U.S. coast to the other. One would expect someone with such an arduous travel schedule to be tired, but he exhibited no such symptoms as he animatedly discussed the DLF and how it may be able to help its members solve digital library problems. His British accent hearkens back to his recent position as director of the Arts and Humanities Data Service in the UK, where he demonstrated a clear grasp of pressing digital library issues and the ability and energy to do something about them. For example, the AHDS publication that he coauthored, "Managing Digital Collections: AHDS Policies, Standards and Practices," exhibits a well-developed sense of what it means to create and manage digital collections over time. In undertaking this whirlwind tour of the United States, Greenstein had also demonstrated that he understands the essential purpose of the DLF -- to serve its membership by helping to solve pressing digital library problems. In his presentation to members he has identified four key objectives: * Identify tomorrow's opportunities today. * Leverage shared investment in research and development on the leading edge. * Disseminate information, raise awareness about, and propagate use of policies, standards, practices, and tools that will govern the American national digital library. * Incubate innovative information services. One purpose of his tour was to confirm those key objectives with the membership. Also, he was gathering input regarding which program areas the DLF should be active in, how well communication occurs between the DLF and its members, and whether it is organized appropriately to achieve its aims. Among the DLF membership are 23 "partners," which are mostly large research libraries such as Harvard and University of California at Berkeley, as well as organizations like the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) and governmental entities like the Library of Congress. Participating institutions each contribute $19,000 annually toward the operating costs and $25,000 over five years to a capital fund. Each participating organization has a seat -- usually filled by its executive officer -- on the steering committee. In addition, the DLF includes "allies" such as OCLC and the Coalition for Networked Information that sit on the steering committee but lack a vote (and don't pay dues). Membership dues help support the two full-time paid staff members (including Greenstein). CLIR provides a home (both digital and actual) for the federation. A brief history The DLF was formed as the National Digital Library Federation on May 1, 1995 by a group of 16 large research libraries, organizations, and government agencies. The stated purpose was to "bring together -- from across the nation and beyond -- digitized materials that will be made accessible to students, scholars, and citizens everywhere and that document the building and dynamics of America's heritage and cultures." Recently "National" was dropped from the title, but the DLF remains U.S.-centric in membership and focus. The NDLF Planning Task Force Final Report in June 1996 advised the creation of an organizational infrastructure and described several areas of activity. The areas defined as being the "business" of the federation at that point included discovery and retrieval, intellectual property rights and economic models, and archiving of digital information. In 1999 the DLF launched a publication series, with two titles now published in print and on the web. Present initiatives The DLF is now brokering an expanded list of areas of interest classified under the headings of discipline-based activities, access management, digital archiving, discovery and retrieval (metadata), digital imaging, and digital library architecture. A couple of key projects under these categories are the Making of America II project and the Digital Certificate Prototype. The Making of America II project aims to develop a method and syntax for encoding complex digital objects in a standard way, so that objects from different repositories can be used transparently by the same access tool or method. For example, if two different libraries digitize a diary in their collections, it should be possible for the same access method to retrieve and display the individual page images and transcriptions from those diaries as if they were in the same collection. To do this, there must be encoding standards that can "encapsulate" the various pieces of a digital object in an intelligent (and open) way. Five DLF library members are collaborating on this project. The Digital Certificate Prototype aims to develop and test a protocol that enables a commercial resource provider to verify that a user is a legitimate patron of a library that has licensed the resource. Such a protocol is required, for example, to enable library patrons to access licensed library databases from home without the problems associated with other kinds of authentication (e.g., IP filtering, proxies). Key DLF participants in this effort include the California Digital Library, Columbia University, JSTOR, and OCLC. Future directions Despite some success in certain specific areas, the DLF has not been known for sweeping and decisive action. As is the case with many large membership organizations, the process of reaching consensus before taking action can hinder progress. The DLF has been chartered for nearly five years, with little of demonstrable significance achieved. The interests of the various players are often too divergent -- ranging from private universities to public ones to public libraries -- to lead to any clear, unanimous mandate, and the institutional culture of some of the participating institutions can further hamper collaboration. But it appears that Greenstein has a plan. Rather than trying to achieve an unattainable consensus, he may use the DLF to identify key challenges, bring together the members that wish to address those challenges, and help develop collaborative solutions. In working this way, no consensus is required, and only those organizations that wish to work on a problem need to be involved. All indications are that this go-getter from across the pond is just what the DLF needs. LINK LIST Arts and Humanities Data Service http://www.ahds.ac.uk/ The Council on Library and Information Resources http://www.clir.org/ Digital Certificate Prototype http://clir.org/diglib/ dcoverview.htm Digital Library Federation http://www.clir.org/diglib/ DLF Publications http://www.clir.org/diglib/ dlfpub.htm Making of America II http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/moa2/ Managing Digital Collections: AHDS Policies, Standards and Practices http://ahds.ac.uk/public/ srg.html The NCSTRL Approach to NDLF Planning Task Force Final Report http://www.ifla.org/documents/ libraries/net/plntfrep.html