Beyond the Beginning: The Global Digital Library

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Coalition for Networked Information, United States of America


This paper addresses the rôles of librarian and information technologist, how they relate, whether they are converging or diverging; and sets of factors which affect the success of any effort to join the two together in partnership.


The following observations are on the subject of the information professions, especially the professions of librarian and information technologist.

First, there forces of convergence, bringing librarians and technologists closer together or blurring the distinctions between them; and at the same time there are contrary forces of divergence and increasing specialisation in these professions.

Second, there is a "general case" to be made in favour of convergence, related to the common goal of delivering information in a human context.

Third, there is a "special case" for convergence, related to the activities of librarians and technologists in the area of networked information resources.

Fourth, partnership and collaboration represent a form of relation between librarians and technologists that capitalises on their similarities while respecting taking advantage of their differences.

Finally, there are some specific areas of collaboration and partnership where librarians and technologists might make joint contributions to advancing the goals of a Global Digital Library.


A conference in the US in the early 1980s addressed this issue of "emerging commonalities" in the information professions. One observation from that meeting was of contrary trends toward divergence, proliferation and diversification of information-related occupations on the one hand; and toward convergence – conceptually, technologically, and organisationally – on the other hand. These trends are even more pronounced today, almost 15 years later. Digital libraries and networked information provide a great area of shared interest for librarians and technologists. And these same innovations have also led to increasing specialisation in both professions.

On the convergence side, the internet and networked information resources present an interesting case for how an area of shared interest is addressed. The options include:

Similarly, these Information Professions (librarians and technologists) have a variety of styles in which they might interact

... or, partnership and collaboration.

Convergence is not just a matter of organisational change. It includes a form of parallel evolution of the two organisations which brings activities and cultures together.


There is a general case or conceptual case for expecting a convergence of the information professions. Librarians and technologists, especially those technologists who design and deploy information systems, have similar interests with respect to the three primary components – information, users, services – that are common to libraries, digital libraries and, more generally, information systems.


More than a conceptual convergence of interest (i.e. a similar focus on information, users and services), the internet and networked information resources represent a specific case for convergence of interest for librarians and technologists. They present an immediate opportunity to work together on issues of practical interest to both professions, toward what may be the first manifestations of the global digital library.

The way in which librarians and technologists address these issues will influence future advances towards a global digital library. Some areas in which the two professions work together are:


Librarians and technologists have a shared stake in the future of digital libraries and networked information resources. The potential of these new services creates an expectation among users and senior administrators in both libraries and computing centres, creating a mutual goal to deliver on these expectations.

The most fruitful model will be to see partnership as a work-style, working toward satisfying these expectations by building on goals that the library and computing centre hold in common, and taking advantage of the distinctive competencies of each. A key aspect must be that successful partnership is based on the complementary strengths of the two partners, not on a sharing of their weaknesses and not on a blurring of differences. The point of the partnership is to create some new value in the institution or enterprise by using one another to amplify the abilities of each partner.

The factors which act to create and sustain such a partnership have been summarised by John Henderson [27] as:

Mutual Benefit

This is the essential reason for the partnership. A partnership can achieve things which its partners cannot do alone. This can lead to innovation, as the expertise of the two professions is combined, and financial savings based on efficiencies. The benefits to each partner must be articulated explicitly.


Commitment relies on the seeking of shared goals which are common to both partners. There is a place for incentive systems which are designed to reinforce the common goals. It can also be a good idea to develop jointly a contract, intended to state formally how the partners will work together. A contract often serves as much as a symbol of co-operation as a reference document.


It is a fact that good partnerships are often built by people who are predisposed to build good partnerships. A successful partnership is based on a willingness to trust each other.

Trust in turn is based on an explicit track record of performance and personal contacts with partners. Consequently, the way in which you interact today creates the predisposition for partnership tomorrow.

Shared Knowledge

Partners can work together better if they each know what the other does. Additionally, the act of building shared knowledge can improve predisposition.

Mutual Dependency on Distinctive Competency

Good partnerships bring together people who make unique and distinctive contributions, and who are willing to rely on someone else’s skill or knowledge for mutual success.

Organisational Linkage

Organisation is often a "hot spot" in library/IT relations. The focus need not be on a formal hierarchy, instead it is on:


In closing, there are some areas where librarians and technologists could particularly benefit from innovative collaboration. The following is a personal list of priorities of what’s first and what’s next in our joint efforts:

Usability and User-Centred Design

Recalling the model information Ù services Ù user, many design efforts begin with the information (the content and its characteristics) or with the services (how we organise ourselves or what our technology does). There is value in taking the user (i.e. the user’s information behaviour and information needs) as starting point in design.

Standards and Interoperability

This relates to earlier comments about classification and description, though the subject is broader. It is important that we develop standards for discovery and retrieval, for classification and description, for evaluating quality, managing terms and conditions of use etc.


The rôle of intermediaries needs consideration. Consider digital libraries and the delivery of networked information resources as an integrated system of technology and human behaviour: a social and technical system. The issue is to provide a counterbalance to dis-intermediation, that is, to find ways to design human involvement back into "the system" (using the term system in its broadest sense).


Finally, it is clear that collaboration is an important enabler; it represents the method by which we will achieve innovation.

[26] This account was prepared for this report by The Marc Fresko Consultancy. It is based on the speaker's lecture notes and slides, augmented by notes taken during the presentation.

[27] Plugging into Strategic Partnership: The Critical IS Connection, Sloan Management Review , Spring 1990, pp 7-18.

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