Academic journal article Library Philosophy and Practice

Building a Digital Library: With Comments on Cooperative Grant Projects and the Goals of a Digital Library

Academic journal article Library Philosophy and Practice

Building a Digital Library: With Comments on Cooperative Grant Projects and the Goals of a Digital Library

Article excerpt


From 1998-2000 Montana State University (MSU) received from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), an agency of the U.S. government, a $138,000 National Leadership grant to build an image database of Native American peoples that would be searchable on the web. Also included in the funding were monies for user education through the annual meeting of tribal college librarians held every year at MSU. An initial partnership was developed between three institutions--the three campuses of MSU, the Museum of the Rockies, and Little Big Horn College. Currently the database has over 1,500 images and can be found at

IMLS annually funds digital projects in several categories to various types and sizes of libraries and museums. Awards and guidelines are listed at IMLS is currently the largest federal funding agency granting monies for digital projects.

The Montana IMLS project can be seen as a model program of cooperation. Smaller campuses and museums usually do not have available the resources to create a functional digital library. Perhaps the biggest hurdle is the financing. The bulk of the project's grant monies purchased hardware and software. Without sharing, the individual institutions could not purchase a high-end scanner, expensive software such as that produced by the Oracle Corporation, or a Sun server.

What Is a Digital Library?

The question of what really constitutes a digital library is beginning to be addressed by some authors. In his research on document imaging and digital libraries, (1) Levy writes that digital documents will be characterized by their materiality, boundaries, permanence, and variability. Furthermore, he asserts that these properties will be socially or politically determined by the interaction of the documents and people. What will make up a digital library will be the combination of a collection of documents and individuals' work. He notes that there is a complex set of relationships between documents, individual people, and the technology itself. How this complex relationship is developed and maintained will be a key factor in any of the distinct document's use.

It is useful to reflect on the components of a digital library. It is not merely a collection of text documents or images or video clips, any more than a physical collection of books and photographs could be called a true "library." A library has a focus and within its focus it should be rather extensive. Furthermore, the individual items should be searchable, so they could be retrieved by an outside person. Thus, for example, a large group of photographs of my European vacation that I have posted on the Internet could not be called a true digital library. Those photographs have no focus, their meaning for an outside researcher is unclear, and they are not indexed or searchable individually.

What would make it a digital library? Levy's key items of documents, people, and technology provide an excellent framework. The first item, the documents themselves, is perhaps the least interesting part of a digital library! It is important to have the documents, of course, and any type can be included in a digital library. My hypothetical digital library might lack interest if it had text documents only, with no photographs of my trip. On the other hand, a digital library with only textual documents, and none of the bells and whistles of video clips and photographs, could be a very important one. After all, we all still search databases for the information contained in text files.

But it is the second item, people, which really pulls together a digital library. It must have a focus, and who can give documents focus other than an individual familiar with the items? Selection of documents for a digital library is as key to a project as a collection development policy for creating a "paper" physical library. …

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