Beyond the Beginning: The Global Digital Library

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Research Analyst, British Library’s Research and Innovation Centre


This paper addresses some of the current issues in digital library research we have identified in the British Library Research and Innovation Centre, and attempts to suggest priorities for the next phase. The rapid development of networked information delivered to users directly through their desktops clearly challenges the traditional rôle of libraries as a physical space and of librarians as information professionals. How can libraries meet the challenge by adding value to networked information? How can services adapt? What skills will information professionals and users need? What cultural shifts are necessary?


The British Library Research and Innovation Centre’s Digital Library Research Programme aims to help the library and information community formulate an appropriate and effective response to the challenge posed by the "digital library". It also seeks to address the issues raised by rapid technological change for library staff and users, and to assess its relevance for the information needs of the wider community. We believe that few greater challenges face libraries and information services today.

Digital Libraries

The "digital" or "electronic" library is a term now widely accepted as a description of the use of digital technologies by libraries to acquire, store, conserve and provide access to information. The British Library itself aims to establish digital information services based on the content of its collections, to develop the capabilities to work with these collections in new and exciting ways and to improve access to BL collections from all over the world. Our internal Digital Library Programme, now also based in the Research and Innovation Centre, has its origins in the British Library’s Strategic Objectives, For Scholarship, Research and Innovation, published in 1993, which recognised the increase in electronic publishing and the changing nature of scholarly communication. The Library’s Initiatives for Access programme was inaugurated in July 1993. The 20 projects investigated hardware and software platforms for the digitisation and subsequent networking of a range of Library materials. In addition to enhancing Library services and facilitating access, the programme aimed to establish standards for the storage, indexing, retrieval and transmission of data, and examine the copyright issues involved with digitisation of material and its provision over networks. In a parallel development, the Library has proposed the extension of legal deposit to non-print materials.

The Library believes that the digital library thus created will consist of a critical mass of digitally-held documents (words, still images, moving images, sound, and any combination of these) made available on demand, within an organised and ordered service framework, to a user anywhere in the world at any time. Priorities for this programme are set out in the paper by David Inglis in this report.

Library Research

Current digital library research, however, encompasses not only the creation of a digital store and services based upon it, but also seeks to address the whole impact of digital and networking technologies on libraries and the wider information field. The British Library Research and Innovation Centre supports a programme of external research projects which explore ways in which digital and networking technologies can support and enhance library and information services. This research is carried out by universities, libraries, institutions and individuals across the United Kingdom.

Current Projects

The Centre has already played a significant rôle in supporting pilot projects and other initiatives in the field. Recent examples include the ELINOR (Electronic Library Information Online Retrieval) project at De Montfort University’s International Institute for Electronic Library Research. Other projects have included studies on the use of online journals, retrospective catalogues in the non-academic sector, an automated reference service for health information, and an online thesis service. In addition, the Centre continues to support an important programme of initiatives in public library networking; EARL and Croydon Online are among the best known examples. Our support for UKOLN, the UK Office of Library and Information Networking, one of the key research centres in the field, is well known.

New Projects

To stimulate further imaginative and innovative research, the Centre began planning a Call for Proposals in the summer of 1996. The process was steered by a small, representative panel led by Graham Jefcoate as the Research Analyst responsible for the Digital Library Research programme. In preparing the Call, the Centre sought to consult widely within the research community. A "brainstorming" session in October 1996 brought together representatives of key organisations in the UK, including the Library and Information Commission (LIC), JISC and its Electronic Libraries Programme (eLib), UKOLN and the British Library’s own digital library projects. We intend to continue stimulating debate, a recent example being a panel session at the ELVIRA conference on Setting Priorities for Digital Library Research.

A major aim of the consultation process was to focus the call for proposals by soliciting projects that would complement those of other national programmes. The Centre needs to be able to target its limited resources in areas that would not necessarily be covered, for example, by eLib. The Call itself was announced in December 1996, placing particular emphasis on the needs of users (including information providers) and on co-operation across domains. It also stressed that proposals from the local authority sector and "cross-sectoral consortia" would be especially welcome.

The Call posed a number of key questions that applicants might wish to address:

This list was not intended to be restrictive or exhaustive and the Centre was (and indeed remains) happy to consider any proposal that will address the impact of digital and networking technology on libraries and information, particularly in the field of public libraries and community information.

Despite the limited time available (the Call closed on 31 January 1997), some 34 substantive proposals were received representing all library sectors and every part of the UK. The proposals were sifted by the panel and bids for consideration at the next stage were submitted to external referees. Once their comments had been received, and a final selection made, the Centre entered into formal negotiation with ten successful applicants. A list of these projects is available on the UKOLN Web server [38].

Research Strands

The projects stimulated by Call will be managed with existing RIC-funded projects as a co-ordinated programme. The resulting Digital Library Research Programme could be said have three broad thematic "strands":

These three "strands" (and others as appropriate) will be used for dissemination purposes over the next two years, especially as themes for presentations, conferences and publications. These three are not intended to be restrictive; rather they are chosen to form a convenient framework.

The projects grouped rather arbitrarily under the heading of "access" include one that is targeted at the further development of electronic library services for users who are blind or visually impaired. This will examine present provision and specialised services, examine issues such as standards and copyright, and assess the usability of current resources, before going on to research in depth the concept of a virtual library of accessible resources. These issues can no longer be regarded as marginal to the development of a digital library; indeed the recent Sixth World Wide Web Conference at Santa Clara in California was largely devoted to technologies that enable people with disabilities, and especially those with print disabilities, to participate in the use of networked resources. This is important not only for ethical or social reasons but also because the principles of "universal design" on which new information architectures for the Web will be based are relevant for all users. Good design for people with disabilities is good design for all.

Two further RIC-funded projects will address the needs of younger and older users. The first, called Stories from the Web is based at Birmingham Central Library’s Centre for the Child. It aims to stimulate the imagination of children and encourage them to share, explore, read and enjoy stones in a geographically distributed, collaborative network environment. The project will enable children in the 8-11 age group to interact with publishers and communicate with each other. The whole has the laudable aim of encouraging children to read more and to share their views on the books they read. The second is a study of the potential use of networked information by the elderly, examining for example the factors that might exclude them from the digital library and suggesting possible solutions.

A number of projects relate to the impact of the internet on people at work. They include studies of the use of networked information by journalists, by information specialists and practitioners in social work, and in business. Another project will examine the changing relationship between authors, readers and text in the electronic journal environment. Related to these issues, a further project will examine the abuse of the internet by extremist groups and make recommendations on this important topic.

The final thematic strand, which has the rather general heading "community", relates to open learning, resource sharing and community information. Projects will examines issues such as the use of open learning materials and the delivery of community information by public libraries. Further projects will examine how networking technologies can be harnessed to achieve practical co-operation between libraries in different sectors (for example, higher education, further education and public libraries).

The call process challenged the library and information community to propose itself the priorities that should be set in the next phase of digital library research. The resulting projects, however, need to be set in a wider context. The Centre aims to stimulate debate not only by calling for research proposals but also by organising international conferences and seminars that will address topics relevant to the development of the digital library. We are in a particularly fortunate position in this regard, maintaining as we do close links with both NORDNIFO, the Nordic Council for Scientific Information, and our European national library partners.


During 1997 the Centre will have organised two focused seminars. The first was held in London in March under the challenging title "The Workstation is the Library", a phrase borrowed (with attribution) from a Swedish University Library director. Many libraries are offering access in their reading rooms to a variety of electronic resources, including OPACS, CD-ROMS, specialised databases and the internet. One of the major problems involved in the implementation of this access has been the issue of the compatibility of hardware and software platforms. Each system requires a separate operating environment and therefore often in practice separate hardware.

Such duplication is clearly wasteful of space and resources as well as being confusing to the user. One solution to this problem is the development and implementation of a single interface to any given library’s networked resources providing users with seamless access to a range of systems and services, for example: online catalogues and databases; book ordering systems; local CD-ROM networks; locally digitised documents; the resources of the internet and so on. This type of interface is sometimes called the "scholar’s workstation" or "information workstation". By bringing together the full range of online resources accessible through a single interface, the scholar can use the workstation as a dynamic research tool while the library saves on space and the maintenance costs of a number of incompatible systems.

At the conference, prototype or pilot workstations were demonstrated and discussed by colleagues from the national libraries of France, Germany and the Netherlands and well as Yale University Library and a number of institutions in the UK. It became clear that the "Information workstation" concept, though still in its infancy, represents an application and extension of traditional library skills and practices, adding value to the enterprise of the digital library. The papers from this symposium will be published later this year in the Office for Humanities Communications series. The Centre hopes to encourage further research in this area and on the whole question of user interface design.

The advent of the information workstation requires us not only to redefine the library as a physical space but also to question the rôle of the information professional. If the workstation is becoming the library, then the librarian must go with it. A second international seminar, a joint RIC-NORDINFO event to be held in York in September, again in collaboration with UKOLN, will address some of these issues. "Training for Change" will address the range of challenges to library managers and professionals represented by the fast-evolving electronic library with the spread of digital and networking technologies. What skills will be needed in the new environment? What new patterns of working and service models will emerges? What cultural changes will staff need to assimilate? How will they affect the nature of our profession? The seminar will present current projects and initiatives, examine the skills required of the information workforce in the digital age, and assess the implications for training of new structures such as converged services. We aim to end the conference (the papers of which will again be published) by considering a draft "manifesto" – a checklist of measures that libraries might consider if they are to meet the challenge of change.


Finally, a note on the panel session during the May 1977 ELVIRA conference Setting Priorities for Digital Library Research. In this, the speaker described the process and outcome of the RIC call for proposals and challenged some of the leading players in the field each to name up to five priority areas for the next phase of digital library research. The discussion was introduced by mentioning the issues of access, impact and community described earlier. Chris Rusbridge, the director of the eLib programme, felt we should concentrate rather on technical issues, particularly those that might lead to sustainable solutions. Mel Collier, chair of the Research Sub-Committee at the Library and Information Commission, set out the LIC’s vision as outlined in its 20/20 document. The LIC hopes to create an "enabling environment" in which the vision might be realised. Three key elements of the vision are: connectivity (including universal access); content (a digital library based on the UK’s documented heritage), and competencies (ensuring we have the skills we need in the global information society). Professor Collier’s priorities are therefore: the creation of a national superhighway; establishing the UK as a global leader in the digital library developments; creating a national, distributed digital resources; breaking down cross-sectoral barriers to co-operation.

Ylva Lindolm-Romantschuk, the Secretary General of the Nordic Council for Scientific Information, provided an international viewpoint and a yet further perspective. She identified economic issues (business models for the electronic library); copyright; collaboration across sectors and domains; and interfaces (human-computer interaction) as her priority areas.

Despite some clear blue water between some of these lists of priorities, a great deal a agreement appears to exist among national and international agencies active in the field. Marilyn Deegan, summing up our deliberations from the chair, was able to synthesise them, identifying three main strands emerging from the discussion:

This seems to provide, in very broad outline, an agenda for the next phase of digital library research.

[37] This is an edited version of a paper by the speaker.

[38] See url

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