:: 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 They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date.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 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
   [125]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 [126]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, [127]Lycos,
   [128]WebCrawler, and [129]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

                                          Librarians Index to the Internet