Digital Libraries '99

Article excerpt

ACM's conference this year showed that the technology and ideas are maturing

People are not just talking about digital libraries any more--they are building them. That much was evident at the fourth Digital Libraries conference, held in Berkeley, California, August 11-14, and sponsored by the Association for Computing Machinery. Unlike the first Digital Libraries conference in 1995, this one was a new mixture of the original dreamers with applications developers, policymakers, and librarians eager for practical technologies to solve real problems. Also unlike earlier conferences, we now have enough experience to pinpoint issues and challenges. We can tell others a few things about what to do when building a digital library--and even more things about what not to do.

As with any emerging field, a certain amount of time at DL '99 was taken up with self-examination. Attendees wondered how to define the subject and where to draw the boundaries. Whom should it embrace, and what are its goals? In fact, we are seeing the same head scratching in practically any group related to information retrieval this year. Confused librarians, computer scientists, social scientists, psychologists, and graphic designers find that other professions are discovering the same things but are describing them in different languages. Sometimes they are insulted at perceived encroachments: After all, what is this new thing called metadata except cataloging and classification? Why is a thesaurus suddenly an "ontology"? The cross-fertilization is uncomfortable but fruitful. With so much to understand, the more perspectives the better.

Issues for Discussion

So what is a digital library? The term is used for everything from online catalog access to a physical collection to inventive combinations of online materials, collaborative work applications, and interfaces created to fit into an organization's workflow. In one sense, a digital library should be very familiar to readers of information Today. It still requires acquiring, organizing, storing, and making information accessible. However, my own very strong bias is toward the inventive end of the spectrum.

It seems to me that a digital library is not just an electronic surrogate for a physical library. It must take into account the differences that working in a digital medium implies. For instance, in cyberspace we cannot flip through materials, nor do we have a strong sense of location. On the other hand, access to remote materials is as easy as if they were in the same room. All the text is searchable, and we can combine and use the contents in new ways. Collections can be enormous, and the materials are never checked out. The materials can be shared with dozens or hundreds or thousands of people. They invite joint creative work. They can be woven into the workday effortlessly. Whatever structure a digital library has, it should exploit these features rather than try to be a traditional library.

Nevertheless, fulfilling this dream of instant access and joint use is easier said than done. Above all, we are faced with the human issues: How do people find and use information? How do they interact with computers? Can we design search systems and interfaces that make sense? Do people who are not information- or computer-literate have adequate access to the information they need, or are they being left behind? What are the hurdles they face?

Ann Bishop of the University of Illinois compared two projects that supplied computer access to information--one for college students and the other for low-income families. In both, she found what she called "insurmountable molehills," such as not having appropriate bus schedules to deliver participants to classes on time, or not having the right power cord for a modem. Both the students and the neighborhood participants she studied didn't know how to ask or whom to ask. Having the right content, and having it apparent, are also of paramount importance. …