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 They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date.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 Banal Barriers
My last column identified a number of "grand challenges" that face digital library developers if we are to build effective digital libraries. But as many a monarch has discovered, the fate of empires all too frequently turns instead on the commonplace difficulty. Digital library development is no different. Moreover, as a new and different activity within an often staid and stable institution, it is even more vulnerable to internal politics, individual failings, and inevitable snafus. The list below may serve as a starting point for avoiding little problems that can lead to big consequences. Illusions of inadequacy Ask people to name a single digital library project, and they will likely name one of the six projects of the NSF/DARPA/NASA Digital Libraries Initiative. These well-funded projects are indeed performing some interesting research. But the attention they draw can lead less-well-funded organizations and individuals to conclude that this activity is outside their grasp. There are, however, projects that can be done with very little funding. Many useful digital library projects are being created by reassigning existing staff and budget, or taking advantage of grant opportunities large and small. For example, Canada's University of New Brunswick is a medium-sized institution of about 13,000 students. At the library's web site, you will find an Electronic Text Centre that hosts a number of projects -- like the Maliseet-Passamaquoddy Dictionary -- that would be the envy of much larger libraries. Another quite different example is the Librarian's Index to the Internet. It began as one public librarian's set of bookmarks and the desire to provide a selected, organized guide to Internet resources. Now it comprises more than 3000 annotated and categorized links maintained by a team of public librarians using web forms to create and update records. If you believe your organization cannot participate because of a lack of expertise, you should know that those people currently building digital libraries are largely making it up as they go along. We're all learning here. If you want to get up to speed fast, do some background reading and arrange to visit some sites that are doing the kind of project that you are planning. Organizational obstacles Organizations are often not structured to encourage and facilitate change. And bureaucratic organizations are downright adversarial to it. How do you free staff to take on a digital library project? To whom will they report? Is there an existing organizational body that can logically oversee this work and make policy decisions regarding it? Will a new organizational body need to be created, and, if so, who should be the members? All institutions have a history, and too often that history makes certain changes difficult or impossible. The people who have the most aptitude for the project may be otherwise engaged or may have a history of animosity. Problems such as these must be met with sensitivity, imagination, and patience. Lack of commitment One of the greatest dangers to digital library projects is the tendency to overhype and undersupport them. No one seems to have any problem envisioning a utopian future in which our users easily browse through massive collections of digital objects. But most everyone seems to have difficulty making the tough choices--like deciding what won't get done--that are required to make this vision a reality. If an organization wants to create a digital library, someone or some group of individuals must be given the time and support to do it. If the organization is unwilling to make such a commitment, then fine. But don't promise what you can't deliver. Lack of vision Librarians have been trained, both in school and in work, to build and manage libraries and library services in particular ways. To help ourselves break out of that mold, we need to talk with experts in other professions, read nonlibrary journals, and query users. We need to think imaginatively, by first throwing out our common assumptions and frames of reference and then brainstorming possible solutions. Only then should we eliminate possibilities by acknowledging our limits in funds and resources. The perfection prison Librarians are fond of disparaging the Internet as a jumbled mess of useful information buried in a sea of trivia. We talk smugly about how our skills and knowledge are needed to help make sense of it. We propose solutions that are too often overly complex or -- based on past practices -- will fail as they grow in the vast Internet environment. Meanwhile, computer scientists and graduate students created the only widely recognized solutions to the problem (for example, Lycos, WebCrawler, and Yahoo!). We need to break out of the prison we erected for ourselves that dictates our solutions must be professionally perfect. "Good enough" is often the right solution. But by discounting such solutions in favor of perfection, we too often leave ourselves out in the cold, whining to ourselves that people should be paying attention to us. LINK LIST University of New BrunswickElectronic Text Centre http://www.lib.unb.ca/Texts/ Librarians Index to the Internet http://lii.org/