Challenges of the Digital Library

By Joan K. Lippincott

Sequence: Volume 32, Number 3

Release Date: May/June 1997

For many, the term digital library conjures up an image of a sprawling
universe of information available through the Internet and accessible via
home or office workstations, fulfilling the promise to provide information
at any time, to any place, and for any user.

Many consider the World Wide Web to be "the" digital library. This vast
information conglomeration is too volatile to be called a storehouse,
however; but thinking of digital libraries merely as vast repositories of
materials is also too limited. To be genuinely useful, a digital library
must have a number of characteristics, enumerated below, in addition to
being a collection of digitized materials.

COHERENCE - Digital libraries should have a coherent, organizing principle,
sorting materials by topic or by type of material, for instance. Subject
experts in each area can assemble the collections, which will then be
combined to form large digital libraries maintained by institutions for
their clientele and the global Internet community. Ideally, different
institutions will take responsibility for building digital collections of
various types and then share those collections with others, thus optimizing
the advantages of the distributed nature of the Internet.

ECONOMIC INFRASTRUCTURE - Although currently, many Internet sites are open,
free of charge, an increasing number of sites are limiting access to
subscribers or to those who pay a fee. Some digital library projects that
have been developed in academic institutions now are searching for
continued funding and are considering licensing arrangements or user fees.
Electronic commerce in the digital environment is still in the early stages
of development.

SEARCHABILITY - The ability to find and use materials on the Internet is a
major challenge for most users. While rudimentary tools are available, they
often yield disappointing results. Many researchers and companies are
working on accessibility issues from several vantage points. Developing
more sophisticated search engines is one approach; another is developing
filtering devices based on individual profiles and "knowbots" that search
the Internet on the user's behalf. In addition, researchers and
practitioners are looking at the information that needs to be imbedded or
attached to networked information in order for the search systems to be
most effective. If a document or Web site has information about itself
built into it in a standard format (metadata), that will allow the search
engines to retrieve information more efficiently.

PRESERVATION - By definition, libraries collect information for both
current and future needs of users. However, there are few systematic
efforts in place to ensure continued access to the digital collections on
the Internet. Information on the Internet is, in many cases, ephemeral and
presents considerable challenges for archiving. Preservation must also
ensure that information resources remain intact; unauthorized tampering
with the content of electronic resources could have grave implications for
its continued value. Security technologists will aid in preservation by
preventing corruption or destruction of information resources and ensuring
their authenticity.

SERVICE - Many Internet users operate in a self-service mode, but not
necessarily out of choice. Few digital libraries have built services into
their offerings of collections. Users of a data set from the Bureau of the
Census might need assistance with interpretation or manipulation of the
information or a user might need assistance with the best way to use
existing Internet search engines. Digital libraries can build in services
where users can ask questions (see the Internet Public Library at, use frames to provide guidance and
instruction, and can develop FAQ (frequently asked questions) files to
assist users.

OPPORTUNITIES - Digital libraries offer new opportunities to enhance the
value of collections to users. The Library of Congress's National Digital
Library Program's "American Memory" project includes a "Learning Page" that
helps K-12 teachers and students to use materials related to the topics of
their collection (see The digital library,
GALEN II, being developed at the University of California, San Francisco,
plans to provide its users with the tools they need to create, disseminate,
and organize information as well as just find it (see Digital libraries are offering a wealth of
information to a large community of users and will become an increasingly
valuable part of the Internet as they are developed in a coherent and
imaginative way.

Joan K. Lippincott is interim executive director of the Coalition for
Networked Information. [email protected]

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