Magazine article Computers in Libraries

The Evolving Digital Library

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

The Evolving Digital Library

Article excerpt

When I sat down to write this--my first "Building Digital Libraries" column for CIL--I tried to think back on my experiences in building and using digital resources over the past 10 years. These will most likely sound familiar to anyone using or working in a library during the same time period. But thinking back, I realize that in that time, I've learned a lot about building digital libraries from the ground up.

Digital Chaos of the Past

Ten years ago, using the digital library meant gaining online access to a library's public access catalog, using a few resources digitally on CD-ROM, and searching via direct dial-up the records of databases that use difficult command line languages (like DIALOG and MEDLINE). At the time, there was no universal interface or client to provide a familiar front end to the user. For each different system, users needed to know its proprietary command language, its options for access (remember BRS Afterdark?), and the organization of its ASCII-based menuing system.

A few years later, some of these systems were accessible using the Internet, but still the user needed to know which of the Internet technologies to use: WAIS, ftp, Telnet, gopher, etc. The barrier to entry was still very high and the learning curve very difficult. As sophisticated as we thought our digital libraries were at the time, they required users to have full knowledge of Internet tools and detailed understanding of proprietary tools. You really had to use these systems daily to learn their intricacies, which is why at the time librarians did most of the database searching for patrons. The digital library was accessible, but usually through knowledgeable people like us who knew the fine peculiarities of each system.

The digital library was forever changed with the widespread adoption of the World Wide Web. Web browsers provided the universal interface we'd been looking for, and they did it almost overnight. The potential of our own digital libraries suddenly seemed unlimited--but was it really?

The Impact of the Web

Few industries have escaped the Web's impact on business. This is especially true for industries that deliver information. The expectations are now far greater than ever before for what libraries can offer to their patrons in digital format and electronic access.

Certainly the Web provides the universal interface and tools (e.g., a browser) to use these digital resources. But our challenge is to integrate our patrons' needs with multiple digital resources, and to describe those resources in a way that integrates our digital and print collections in a seamless and user-friendly environment. It is a feat that continually redefines itself, since the underlying technologies that grow our digital libraries are constantly changing and evolving.

It is this challenge that draws many of us to the profession of information management--the task of constantly balancing our collections between user needs, available technology, available resources (print vs. digital), and costs. This also means that our role becomes "teacher," not "gatekeeper," to ensure that our patrons can access the resources of the library easily and consistently.

This is why I studied library science and became involved in Web development and management. Writing this column is a logical extension of the concerns I face in my work, and these concerns should be familiar to anyone involved in developing and managing a digital library. That said, let me introduce myself and the column, and give you a hint of how I'll use this space over the next few months.

A Compelling Field

Eight years ago, when I worked for the National Agriculture Library (NAL), searching the library's public access catalog, AGRICOLA, and maintaining two electronic bulletin boards (BBS) were considered to be on the cutting edge of digital library technology. Internet veterans (those with less than a year's experience at that time) were debating the pros and cons of developing gopher vs. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.