Beyond the Beginning: The Global Digital Library

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Programme Director, Electronic Libraries Programme, United Kingdom


The first two phases of the UK Electronic Libraries Programme (eLib) are summarised and compared with the Digital Libraries Initiative (DLI) in the USA. Proposals for the third phase of eLib are currently being evaluated, including those for hybrid library projects to integrate electronic library technology into the traditional library.


Figure 1 shows some major points of comparison between the eLib programme in the UK and the DLI in the USA, observed by the author of this paper, following a recent visit to the USA. The level of funding for the two programmes was similar (eLib £15 million; DLI $24 million).



existing higher education money

new money

more, smaller projects (60)

fewer, larger projects (6)

library, publisher, user orientation

computer science orientation – exact library application not always clear

belief in libraries

doubt about libraries

approach geared to incremental change

"ASQ-not" — approach not intended to automate the status quo

utilisation of off-the-shelf technologies (e.g. OCR, IR, DBS)

"Blue sky" research on ICR, IR, repositories

concerned with image access, metadata

concerned with image/video understanding

minor geospatial interest

major geospatial interest

Figure 1: eLib and DLI key features

The future development of the DLI is now being debated. Among the issues being considered are where the focus should be – on the system, the collection or the user; whether a greater diversity of sizes and types of projects should be funded; whether projects should be directed more toward the real world. It appears possible that there will be more funding participants in any future programme.


Electronic publishing

Work in the area of electronic publishing has led to an enormous amount of practical learning about how to make content accessible and available. As a result, a significant bank of scholarly resources would in time become available. In general, the outcome is pleasing, although this was not an excuse for resting on laurels.

Other results include process improvements in areas such as clearances, on-demand publishing and electronic journals; developments in non-traditional areas such as pre-prints and the growth of collaborative work with publishers and with the British Library. However, a crisis is occurring in academic publishing: the amount of information being created by academics is increasing while markets are shrinking, leading to a price spiral in journals and a reduction in publishing opportunities in monographs.

The most painful lessons are been learned in the area of copyright and licensing. A "nightmare scenario" would involve the existence of millions of digital objects with different licensing conditions associated. There is a need to move toward uniformity, but the legislators are not necessarily on the side of such a movement.

It may well be that, on an individual university basis, it will not be possible to run on-demand publishing operations: the costs and time involved in copyright clearance, licensing and digitisation are likely to be too great. This may presage a move toward a national resource bank of pre-cleared pre-digitised material.

Resources access

Practical experience has been gained with document delivery systems and there is movement toward the creation of a decentralised version of the document delivery system in the UK. This is one of the few areas where eLib has supported the creation of large software systems, although it is as yet unclear how this will turn out. In general, the software has not yet been delivered.

Successful models for subject gateway services covering half a dozen subjects have been developed and have begun to address users’ needs to discover quality resources. The problem is how now to turn this into a gateway service spanning the whole spectrum of subject disciplines, whilst remaining affordable. In contrast, DLI is grappling with the potential of concept retrieval. This might conceivably produce an effective system which would obviate the need for subject services, although it could also conceivably contribute adversely to the explosion of information delivered to the user’s desk.

Other results

Some strides have been made on cultural and organisational issues. Although standards have not been developed within eLib, their use has been explored. A significant range of studies has also been commissioned or is in progress, including:

Among the topics covered by general studies to date are:

Evaluation studies include:

Preservation studies include:

More studies of all three kinds are to follow. In the preservation area these will include:


The next phase of eLib will seek to build on the successes of the first phases. The resource base for Phase 3 will make this difficult. The programme currently spends about £5 million a year: the new level of funding will allow only about 20% of that amount of expenditure.

Potential building blocks include developing phase 1 and 2 projects through:

Three new key areas have been selected for initial support under eLib phase 3:

Hybrid libraries

This initiative aims to address the situation which is occurring in many libraries now, namely the existence of information and learning resources in a variety of formats, with a further variety of incompatible interfaces through which users must find information. eLib will try to deploy new technologies, reinvent some ad hoc services and generally rethink the model of a library to fit a world in which there exists a multiplicity of media and technologies, and where students are distributed widely. This theme clearly struck a chord in the recent call, garnering 25 proposals with funding over-subscribed by a factor of 10. It is expected that a decision will be taken in September to support around 5 projects, following shortlisting.


The purpose of clumps is large scale bibliographic resource discovery. The technology for resource discovery currently does not scale on national basis in the UK. However, it is felt that it may do so on a subject or regional basis. Clumps group these bibliographic resources together, in effect creating virtual union catalogues. Deploying Z39.50 and other standards, eLib will aim to get some clump-based services operational over the next few years and in the process to learn about Z39.50 implementation issues. We expect to support around four projects: one subject-based and three regional.

A further issue relates to the possibility of building discovery systems that search across institutional domains (involving libraries, museums galleries etc.). However only two proposals for such cross-domain clumps were received and neither is likely to be fundable with the resources available. Perhaps this area is not yet mature enough to develop.

Digital Preservation

The need to preserve information which exists in digital form must not be ignored, despite the fact that proposals for the legal deposit of non-print materials are unlikely to be enacted in the present Parliament. A large body of scholarly information is migrating into the electronic domain and too little is being done. eLib seeks to gain some practical experience of what may be possible in areas such as guidelines and standards; legal issues; library issues; and persistent naming. The call for proposals in this area closed on 28 August 1997. It is likely that only one project will be funded.

Content development

The Committee for Electronic Information is now responsible for the main programme in this area, as well as the eLib programme. Work will proceed in areas such as collections policy; upgrading access to datasets through the creation of new datasets; full text, images and video; and digitisation activity.


eLib is not the only programme of relevance to the digital library. Others include:

Interprogramme harmonisation

There have been discussions with the European Commission and DLI about the prospects for synchronisation and harmonisation of activity and avoidance of duplicated activity, but such processes are never straightforward. Similar problems exist in terms of dissemination and exploitation and this could enable concerted activity between programmes. In general, it is eLib’s policy to try to move away from sectoral fragmentation.


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

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