Beyond the Beginning: The Global Digital Library

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Project Officer, DG XIII/E-4 (Electronic Publishing and Libraries), European Commission, Luxembourg


The European Commission has launched two technology-based, applied research programmes for libraries under the Third and Fourth Framework Programmes for RTD. These actions were preceded by a range of preparatory activities dating back to 1986. A considerable body of results and experiences is beginning to emerge, based on the 70-plus collaborative international projects that have been funded to date. From start-up actions that were aimed at mobilising libraries and creating an environment for European co-operation, there has been a move towards the development of demonstrators that test networked, cross-border services between libraries. These new services increasingly involve alliances with publishers and other cultural organisations. The emerging results of projects are set in the strategic context for EU actions.


This paper gives an overview of the European Commission’s actions and initiatives for libraries in the field of applied technology and tries to identify what contributions they are making toward positioning European libraries to play an effective rôle in the global environment. It concentrates on the activities of DG XIII/E, the Directorate for information industry and market and language processing, particularly those of the electronic publishing and libraries unit. There are other Directorates General in the Commission which also have interests in and responsibilities for libraries; or for issues and developments of interest to libraries. A "Green Paper" on Libraries in the information Society is in draft and will seek to pull together the various initiatives underway. The initiatives described here are therefore not exhaustive. They do, however, represent the main focus for library action at European level. The paper will also consider the achievements and likely future initiatives of the European Commission in relation to issues that are likely to be important for European libraries in the environment of increasing globalisation.


Beyond the Beginning is an apposite label for the status of these actions which now have a history of over 10 years, starting at a time when the words "digital library" were rarely heard and where the concept of a single "European library" — far less a global one, was more often judged hallucinatory than visionary.


Thus far, two programmes have been defined in two different workplans involving five Calls for Proposals. In all 75 projects have already been launched (including precursor and feasibility projects) with a further 20 or so likely to be negotiated in the second half of this year as a result of the latest Call which closed in April 1997. In addition, there have been a wide range of technical and state-of-the-art studies, and a number of platforms or Special Interest Groups launched to ensure cohesion between libraries at European level.

International scope

Geographic scope and coverage has also increased, with the expansion of the EU and increasing research agreements with third countries. Projects must be international — that is have partners in a minimum of two Member States and must involve at least one library in a serious, committed rôle. In practice, most projects have had consortia of four or five partners from three or four countries for smaller projects and 8-12 partners from six countries or more for larger ones. Recently, a number of activities related to the countries of Central & Eastern Europe (mainly the pre-accession countries) have been launched, culminating in a special effort to encourage their participation in the programme, either as partners in new projects or in awareness and transfer actions.

The programmes also cover all types of library. Although academic libraries have been main players to date, there is increasing involvement of public libraries. The nature of projects in the programme is applied research, not operational.

Financial impact

The Commission has invested some 60 Million ECU (60 MECU) in the programmes to date, a sum which represents mainly the added costs of international co-operation. Overall, the investment impact is estimated to be in the order of 180 - 200 MECU.


The Commission’s strategy can be summarised very simply in three key concepts:

These create a continuum across both programmes to date and a link into future planning for the next five years.


The objectives of the first programme were to catalyse and start a process of change among libraries in Europe and to foster a climate of co-operation. It should be remembered that the European library environment in 1990 was very diverse and suffered from discrepancies in service provision, penetration of technology between countries and types of library. The market place for systems and tools was fragmented and practical experiences of international co-operation and resource sharing were very limited.

Four key areas were targeted:

Consolidation and integration

This largely defines the stage at which the programme is now. The focus has been on the following key areas.

Firstly, enabling libraries to open up access to resources, handle electronic documents and to create appropriate management environments for electronic library services. Within the present workplan, Action Line A (networked oriented internal library systems) had three task areas:

To date, projects in this area have concentrated mainly on the creation of local document stores, either from bought-in or scanned materials; and testing the technologies for storage and access. The next group of projects will also be working on test-beds of access to manuscript and rare book materials, as well as on technical issues arising from the handling and establishment of long-term electronic publication stores.

Significant groundwork, particularly towards developing effective collaborative approaches, has already been done through the work of the forum of national libraries (CoBRA+) and its Task Groups and through a major study on deposit collections of electronic publications. Such work, however, also depends critically on relations and alliances with publishers. The work being encouraged builds upon the pilot systems and tools that resulted from the Third Framework Programme.

Secondly, targeting the development of distributed library services. The vision here is that of multiple libraries presenting themselves as one library to the user, who will access the services either through a library or through a third-party or neutral entry point. The services in question need not be wholly electronic; delivery of print-based materials, for example through ILL, is also important. An open definition of the term distributed libraries has been adopted – they can be based on subject, on geographic and linguistic proximity, or on existing co-operative arrangements.

Important issues include:

Once again, a number of projects are developing services and test-beds. There is already have one large scale project, UNIVERSE, which will provide a distributed union catalogue as locator for document delivery services. Over the next two or three years, projects providing test-beds in four or five different subject areas will be funded, testing access via OPACs to library resources, to electronic publications held in the library and to internet resources. These should provide experience: in handling multilingual access; in metadata requirements from different sources and for different types of material; in managing the distributed environment; and in creating links with publishers to test different models for licensing and charging agreements.


This third strategic strand will look at libraries in the context of the global environment and actions that support and encourage their rôle as mediators of access to information on the Net. One of the driving factors is the increasing demand of users for quality information. This is the new element in the current programme which — allied with distributed library services — will create a platform for global access to resources.

Action Line C encouraged projects to develop services where libraries added value to network information resources (either at the access stage, or through re-packaging and customising). Most of the projects fall into this category. Also emerging are a number of projects which integrate access to library and other resources, leading to services based on access to different types of data and object. The extension is not just to information on the Web but also toward the development of cross-domain services between libraries and other curatorial organisations, such as archives and museums. A number of partnerships exist in this area, some from early projects such as ELISE, VAN EYCK and some from those submitted at the last Call for Proposals.


Technical results

Supporting actions

Therefore, many ingredients needed to develop digital library services in Europe are present. There is respect for cultural diversity and richness of the different Member States at the same time as allowance for them to contribute to and to exploit the globalisation of information and knowledge. It remains to be seen what level of success is attained. The results of individual projects are good and there have been notable successes, especially with public domain software such as that from Europagate and UseMARCON, which is being integrated into numerous other projects. However, real success depends on greater visibility and on timely take-up and use of a substantial proportion of the results. That is more difficult to achieve and represents a problem with which both the Commission and the projects are engaged.


Planning is now underway for the immediate future and for the next 5 years. The European Commission is currently in the planning stages for the Fifth Framework Programme research & development which will run from 1998 to 2002. The Commission’s proposal has been published and is being discussed now by the European Parliament under the co-decision procedures. The framework programme has been simplified down to a smaller number of programme lines; and a commitment exists to maintaining greater transparency and flexibility across these lines.

The areas previously covered by the ICT (ESPRIT) programme, by ACTS (the advanced telecommunications programme) and Telematics will now be treated together as a single Information Society Technologies Programme, with the goal of creating the user-friendly information society. Within this, four key actions are identified:

A major shift in context is involved. Libraries, along with museums and archives, find their main focus in the multimedia content area which, in addition to culture, includes activities in the fields of interactive publishing, lifelong learning, language technologies, and information access. The multimedia cultural content actions are still at the planning stage. However, there are a number of key challenges facing all players in this area.

First is the need to strengthen and to extend alliances in the value chain with content creators and with learning providers. The second challenge is to make content accessible, involving technical, organisational and societal issues which must be addressed. On the technical side, lie all the issues associated with providing access to and maintaining mixed-media, mixed-object and large scale repositories, including the functionalities and services needed. New organisational and service frameworks will be needed between libraries and other institutions. At the same time, steps are needed to ensure that there is equity of access to information, to culture, and to knowledge and learning and to obtain recognition that libraries can play a key rôle in this.

The third issue concerns maintaining the availability of content, raising a range of questions about digital repositories (responsibility, organisation etc.) and the preservation of digital materials.

Within this new focus, content clearly drives technologies. The programme has sought to avoid being led by technology-push: it has and always had a strong user and library service orientation. However, in its early work it did look at the technical means, at the networks and at the tools/systems that needed to be in place before libraries could change and new services could be delivered. If the ongoing and planned projects deliver what is expected, the prospects for moving forward to address the issues of a global information society should be favourable.

[35] This account was drafted for this report by The Marc Fresko Consultancy. It is based on notes taken during the presentation, slides and notes used by the speaker.

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