Beyond the Beginning: The Global Digital Library

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Director, Services and Archiving, Die Deutsche Bibliothek, Germany


This paper describes the plans of the Deutsche Bibliothek for general availability of digitised electronic documents. Technical and methodological issues are discussed and four key projects involving the library are described in detail. Future prospects are then assessed.


National libraries and other Legal Deposit libraries have to find solutions to the problems of archiving, accessibility and long-term security of their electronic publications as well as maintaining bibliographic control. It is of no real consequence whether the term "electronic document" implies a source which was electronically recorded in its original form or one which has been converted into electronic format (digitised). In general terms, a method must be found to ensure long-term availability, encompassing all forms of electronic documents.

A plethora of both national and international projects and studies have already addressed this topic. Naturally, the Deutsche Bibliothek has also concerned itself, mainly in connection with already existing electronic documents. In future, however, in addition to those existing electronic documents which are received by right of Legal Deposit, the process of electronic archiving at the Deutsche Bibliothek will in itself occasion the creation of new publications. User demand exists already and must be taken into account when planning strategies are concerned. This means that data will not only serve the purposes of archiving but will also be useful in reproduction — that is, in the new documentation service sector.


This demand requires that a few general questions be asked concerning anticipated methods:

This report concerns itself with those types of documents which first appeared in printed form. The transformation of a traditional document into an electronic document by means of digitising must always take account of storage and accessibility. Before material for digitising is selected, it must be determined what advantage the process will bring.

Digitising by scanning can mean a reduction of information. The high quality of an image must be assured. Various coding systems can be employed, chiefly ASCII, for the presentation of texts. However, the situation is in general unsatisfactory. The problem of character sets for the necessary transfer of applicable bibliographic data has been — and continues to be — underestimated.

The technical requirements for the availability of electronic documents have an impact on investment in equipment and training of personnel. Even though electronic access means greater efficiency and a wider geographic range, costs should not be underestimated. For this reason, the Deutsche Bibliothek is attempting to find competent partners for its efforts. In terms of the problems which might arise in the copyright area, it is also important to involve publishers in projects and planning at an early stage. It may well be that transformation into an electronic format will require the complete revision of existing rules. Until this problem is resolved, limitations in availability will occur.

In short the Deutsche Bibliothek, by archiving and making available those publications which in their original form were not in electronic format, is providing as much a building block in the future digital library as it would be by collecting and archiving only original electronic documents. It is seeking to test and prepare a technical infrastructure for the so-called information society by running a few projects with various forms of documents collected and stored in libraries until now only on paper.

Quite beyond the direct aspiration of securing long-term availability of electronic documents, their accessibility and ease of use can be improved substantially through the regulation of storage and access processes. When such possibilities offer such a substantial enrichment of content, they should be taken advantage of and seen as an integral part of the process.

In this way, digital as well as digitised material could be made not only more approachable for the end user, but could also create improved conditions of access. This applies equally to documents originally found in either conventional or machine-readable forms.


The following four projects are being carried out by the Deutsche Bibliothek in co-operation with other libraries, publishers and the DFG.

Project 1: a German Library

Since 1994, the Ministerial Conference of the seven leading industrial nations (G-7) has been concerned with the concept "the information society". At a conference in February 1995, it was agreed to support eleven model projects for the creation and expansion of an electronic network with which new technologies and programs might be concretely applied. One of these projects, called Bibliotheca Universalis, has as its goal public access to digital libraries, as well as library networking. Within the framework of the goals set by G-7, work began with the national libraries. At the beginning of the project, the number of recorded works will at first be limited, concentrating upon the most important cultural and scientific publications. No finance for this work I supplied by G-7: national finance is relied upon.

The Deutsche Bibliothek decided to offer works on its servers from a selection of approximately 1000 documents (books), representing a current core collection of German publications. These works were either scanned or were simply received from the publishers already in digital form. The foundation will be The Society for the Book bibliographies, compiled under the leadership of Professor Fabian and the Deutsche Bibliothek, with the title A German Library. This will represent German publications from every area of culture and science, the concept being based on a 1958 publication by the first Director General of the Deutsche Bibliothek, called The library of a well educated German [47].

With this bibliography, one of the most fundamental elements of an electronic collection has already been compiled, namely that of title description and the subsequent index listing. Step by step, accessibility may be broadened, for example to include subject indexing of the German National Bibliography and tables of contents, before the texts themselves are made retrievable and later combined, through links, with other documents (for example films clips and audio texts).

Before the project can start, however, agreement on the question of copyright must be reached with the publishers involved. The Deutsche Bibliothek has already been involved in preliminary discussions in order to establish criteria as quickly as possible. Agreements covering about 300 documents have already been reached with 30 publishers.

It is expected that the full bibliography will be known in September 1997, scanning will begin at the end of the year, the first documents will become available during 1998 and links will be established to coincide with the millennium exhibition in Hanover in 2000.

Project 2: Digital Exile Journals

The study group Sammlung Deutscher Drucke(the German Print Collection) has proposed taking part in a project by the German research society Die Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft called Shared Digital Research Libraries. The study group wishes to appear as a single applicant, which means that participant libraries are going to present a co-ordinated concept in terms of content, as well as technical and organisational aspects. Because it is intended that source material of an especially high level of interest for interdisciplinary research should be incorporated into the digital library, The Deutsche Bibliothek is planning to digitise its exile journals.

The exile press represents an extremely valuable source of knowledge for the research of German language exiles. Exile journals and newspapers reacted to the then current events in a most lively and sensitive way. More immediate and direct than most books in print, they portrayed the political and cultural activities of the exiles and the conditions under which they lived.

Very few of the journals found in individual libraries are complete. In fact, although the most important are on microfilm, this means that as a rule their use is confined to the library. Furthermore, most of the journals are in rather poor condition, so digitising also contributes to protecting the original copy. Among the potential users of the digitised exile journals will be contemporary historians, political scientists, literary critics, theatre and film critics, sociologists and historical scholars in every field, not to mention journalists and teachers.

The German Exile Archive of the Deutsche Bibliothek consists of 508 German and Austrian exile journals which would be suitable for digitising. Because it is not considered significant to offer only simple images, not all titles will be covered. A more profound indexing of the texts is hoped for. A selection must be made and converted step by step, a process expected to take some four years. An aid to indexing is available in the bibliography of author Lieselotte Maas’ Handbook of the German exile press 1933-1945 (Handbuchs der deutschen Exilpresse 1933-1945).

Project 3: Online Dissertation

The Scientific Societies Information and Communication Initiative has, as have some universities, approached the Deutsche Bibliothek with a request that the library review the possibility of archiving dissertations and university level theses in an electronic format either in addition to or instead of the usual paper editions.

Archiving of electronic publications is equivalent to the securing of accessibility. Long-term use of electronic documents can be warranted only for as long as the storage format allows access. Therefore, it makes sense to work directly with the producers of this information in order to work out uniform standards as early as possible. For this reason, the Deutsche Bibliothek is going to work together with the Commission of a society of experts to discuss the technical requirements, the choice of modus, the exact archive language and storage format. Currently, PDF, SGML and HTML are being tested.

Because little practical experience is available upon which it is possible to draw in order to determine how digital information of this type may best be secured for the future, an artificial test environment will in any case be set up for this four year project in which various storage processes or formats may be tested to determine their suitability. No doubt this will identify possibilities for further uses.

Project 4: Shared Information System For Legal Sources

The Deutsche Bibliothek, together with the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (Bavarian State Library) and with the support of the Deutsche Forschungsgesellschaft (German Research Society) intends, through a co-operative pilot program, to establish a digital process for indexing, archiving and allocation which would not only provide a practical test for the creation of a shared information system for legal sources, but would at the same time ensure the long-term availability of these electronic documents.

The Federal Law Gazette and the Bavarian Law and Order Gazette are intended to serve as representative elements in the design of the planned project. However, the subject of the project changed to fundamental legal publications which were important for the legal development after the second World War in Germany. The titles included: Official Gazette of the Control Council for Germany (1945), Military Government Gazette of the different areas of control, Official Gazette of the Allied Komandatura Berlin (1947-1950), Official Gazette of the Allied High Commission for Germany and others.

There exists an interest in improved and more direct access to these publications at home and abroad, perhaps over the Global Legal and Information Network (GLIN). There are a number of reasons for this:

Beyond this within the project, special emphasis is being placed on ensuring that the goals and know-how achieved may be reapplied to future projects with similar aims.


The projects described should lay the cornerstone for a national digital library. A contract with publishers has now been signed which provides access to electronic publications in the library, but not extended access. The national digital library, like a traditional library, will consist of collections and a readiness to serve, either centrally in the Deutsche Bibliothek, through the new multimedia reading room in its newly opened building in Frankfurt or, later, across the entire country, linked by a network. This will require libraries to develop new, co-operative cataloguing processes with a digital database to promote greater accessibility.

In summary, only in co-operation with other research facilities and libraries will it be possible and affordable to achieve this national task. Having a digital collection available on an electronic network means an enormous expansion of the services which libraries can offer. The Deutsche Bibliothek, like other libraries, has always seen itself as the steward of its collections. Beginning with the Deutsche Bucherei - Leipzig, it has offered bibliographic information to its users for nearly one hundred years. Now an new era is beginning, in which it will be possible to make the entire collection accessible everywhere. However, this development comes at some cost. It is clear that libraries, including the Deutsche Bibliothek cannot pay for these tasks from their existing budgets. Patronage associations and assistance foundations are called upon to make appropriate funding available so that information may remain affordable.

[46] This account was drafted for this report by The Marc Fresko Consultancy. It is based on a paper supplied by the speaker.

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