Internet Technologies and Digital Libraries

What is a Digital Library?

In the opening of their book on digital library theory and practice, Xie and Matusiak (Xie & Matusiak, 2016, p. 1) share H.G. Wells’ quote, “The time is close at hand when any student, in any part of the world, will be able to sit with his projector in his own study at his or her own convenience to examine any book, any document, in an exact replica”. Of course in 1938, even the person who imagined an invasion from another planet, did not envision a day when almost every teenage and adult human being would possess a device capable of sending and receiving massive amounts of information in milliseconds to other devices around the globe. However Wells’ statement was prophetic. Today a digitized version of the book containing Wells’ quote is available through the Google Book Project and to students and faculty of institutions with a subscription to the HathiTrust Digital Library (Xie & Matusiak, 2016).

Definitions of the term “digital library” vary between those that place an emphasis on form, those emphasizing content, and others emphasizing function. The 1995 IITA Digital Libraries Workshop report defined digital libraries as “an organized collection of multimedia data with information management methods that represent the data as information and knowledge” (NSF/DARPA/NASA Digital Libraries Initiative: A Program Manager’s Perspective, n.d.).

In March 1997, the National Science Foundation expanded the definition by stating that a digital library “is not merely a digitized collection with information management tools but rather an environment to bring together collections, services, and people in support of the full life cycle of creation, dissemination, use, and preservation of data, information, and knowledge” (NSF/DARPA/NASA Digital Libraries Initiative: A Program Manager’s Perspective, n.d.)

In 2006, Seadle and Greifeneder challenged students attending their library science seminars to formulate their own definitions. To begin the discussions, Seadle (Seadle & Greifeneder, 2007) provided the students with a definition based on the criteria established by the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) National Leadership Grants Program. The IMLS defines a “digital library” as a resource that reconstructs the intellectual substance and services of a traditional library in digital form, provides digital contents (which are sometimes but not necessarily text-based), interconnections (which may be simple links or complex metadata or query-based relationships), and software (which may be simple pages in HTML or complex database management systems” (Seadle & Greifeneder, 2007). Based on the IMLS interpretation and their own insights and experiences, the students offered the following:

  1. A definition which emphasized content describing a digital library as based on documents in digital form that are handled like traditional library documents in standard processes (collecting, cataloging, and providing access) and that are made available online for users via catalog records;
  2. A definition which emphasized form and function, describing a digital library as an electronic product of software that contains both primary data and manually created or manually proofed metadata, and includes the three main functions of a traditional library (cataloging, long-term archiving, and access); and,
  3. A definition which emphasized function, describing a digital library as the electronic provision of digital documents in connection with online services, building on the tasks of a traditional library, which enables worldwide access to its collection via the internet. (Seadle & Greifeneder, 2007)

I propose a definition which incorporates concepts from the DELOS three-tiered framework (Setting the Foundations of Digital Libraries: The DELOS Manifesto, n.d.), the information ecology concept formulated by O’day (O’day, 2000, p. 37), and the Seadle seminar students.

A digital library along with a digital library system (DLS), a digital library management system, the library curators, and the library users create an information ecosystem in which the elements of content, form and function are interdependent. Adopting and adapting the terms used by O’day to describe ecosystem characteristics, I propose that “diversity” in a digital library can refer to the wide range of object formats and types (images, audio, video, text, databases and datasets, CAD files, websites, email, social media and custom-built software), the numerous ways the objects are used by library visitors, and the demographic diversity of users.

The term “keystone species” refers to both the librarians and members of the digital curation team responsible for the life cycle management of the objects as well as to the library users who will interact with the objects. Collections of objects can only be considered as repositories if they are not used.

As cited by O’day (2000, p. 37) “locality” refers to the local environment in which the objects are used. While a digital library may technically be available to anyone with internet access, it is generally designed for a specific audience and may have access limitations. As Liew (Li Liew, 2014, p. 4) states both library users and digital library curators are members of communities, and their tasks and activities are situated in overlapping social and cultural contexts which are often affected by social, cultural, political, economic, and technological factors.

“Co-evolution” refers to the correlation between entities in the information ecosystem. A change in any entity within an ecosystem directly or indirectly impacts all others. For example, you create a website for your digital library using non-responsive HTML Your website looks perfect on a laptop, but critical navigational features are not visible on a tablet or smartphone. As a result, your digital library may contain the information that the visitor is seeking but due to your web design, the user may not be able to access it. In this scenario the introduction of smartphone technology impacted the library’s information ecosystem, necessitating a change in the design of the web-based interface which allows users to interact with the library content.

Based upon these concepts, a digital library is an information ecosystem, which functions in conjunction with a technological architecture to acquire, process, organize, preserve, and archive digitized objects, and make those objects available, searchable and usable by a targeted community via the internet.

Pamela L. Kemp

May 01, 2020