Net failings that drive the desire to be digital

International Journal on Digital Libraries
October 10, 1997

This journal is an important sign of the growing use of the term "digital libraries", particularly in North America, to refer to an emerging cluster of research and implementation issues raised by the construction of large-scale, distributed, heterogeneous network information resources. So, although the term may be inclusive of current activity within the library community, it has a much wider scope: "library" is used as a generic term to refer to organised and routinely manageable information repositories. It also implies that there is a focus on content and users, and that such repositories are developed as parts of a larger fabric of information use rather than as individual solutions. This, in turn, suggests the development of mediating software which abstracts the mechanics of interaction with heterogeneous resources and systems support for various business models.

These trends can be seen as forming part of a natural progression. The Internet provides a pervasive, predictable transport. The Web provides a pervasive, predictable presentation and user access medium. However, poor support for organisation and management of network resources creates difficulties for information providers and frustration for information users. It is the need for such support that is driving the interest in digital libraries.

Digital libraries are about the construction and management of repositories of digital objects and the management of the flows between these repositories and between repositories and users. Repositories may be of data (for example, documents, geospatial data, images, software components, engineering models, and so on) or of metadata (data which assists in the discovery, selection and exploitation of such data). Flows are of repository content, and of the messages which support digital library operations (search and retrieve requests, authentication and authorisation data, billing and charging data, and so on). In this context, a diverse range of research and development issues are raised which include: architectures for content encoding at various levels; database management systems; protocol frameworks to manage flows (search and retrieve, directory services, delivery, agents, query routing and resource representation, and so on); identification and persistent naming; semantic interoperability across metadata models; summarisation and automatic classification techniques; the development of more mature technologies to support commercial activities; long-term preservation of information objects. This technical investigation is being carried out within an overall trend towards distributed object technologies. At the same time, there is growing interest in business and economic modelling for network information services, and investigation of how these services mesh with existing user preferences and behaviour.

Such scope inevitably points to cross-sectoral and cross-disciplinary attention. Among those with an interest are existing and emerging curatorial communities (libraries; archives; museums; managers of textual, geospatial, data and other archives); publishers and aggregators (research and commercial); research communities (computer science, information science, management, education); professional organisations (there are several initiatives which seek to provide integrative services within disciplines such as mathematics); and system and solution vendors. These are involved in research, standardisation, design and implementation issues. A sense of the scope of this endeavour can be found by examining the Digital Library Initiative projects funded in the United States ( national.htm). There is room for a "scholarly" journal, which is the niche that the International Journal on Digital Libraries seems to be aimed at. The journal has adopted an approach based on thematic issues. The first issue is "concerned with the database support that a digital library will need for interrogating and structuring a vast and complex array of widely different data sources". The second focuses on metadata, and we are told that there will be future issues on "digital libraries in medicine" and on "artificial intelligence in digital libraries". This quarterly, peer-reviewed journal is printed on A4 paper and presented in sober, academic style. There are six articles per issue and no reviews. It carries adverts for other Springer products. Subscribers are promised access to an electronic version on the Web. Issue one appears to have a computer science and research focus. There are articles based on applications of OQL- and SQL-based approaches, on structured maps, on BioKleisli (an approach to providing integrated access to heterogeneous resources associated with the Human Genome Project), and some other topics.

Issue two is more cross-disciplinary and has a stronger implementation emphasis. It has articles about metadata issues in two of the Digital Library Initiative projects mentioned above, on work on federating thesauri, and on some other specialist applications. It also has a review of the influential Dublin Core and Warwick Framework initiatives. This thematic approach, the use of individual issue editors, the preference for project-based articles over general review or synthetic contributions means that a cohesive view of "digital libraries" does not emerge clearly from these early issues. Indeed, the contributions in Issue one, especially, would be at home in a more mainstream computing journal. One would expect that the journal would carve out a clearer digital library agenda in time, one which does not see it just as a branch of computing. This in itself would be a useful service, and a genuinely cross-disciplinary venue for the publication of research results would be valuable.

The editors-in-chief and the five person advisory board are all based in the US. Of the 17 members of the editorial board, only four are based outside North America. As the design and development of networked information systems is an inherently international affair, and as we all increasingly live in a transnational digital space, one might have expected a more geographically dispersed editorial apparatus in light of the journal's title. Finally, although the production quality is adequate there are slips. In particular, the article on Dublin Core by Weibel and Lagoze, mentioned above, suffers from illegible illustrations and seems to have lost several references, which throws out the numbering sequence. In summary, interesting but not yet compelling.

Lorcan Dempsey is director of the UK Office for Library and Information Networking, University of Bath.

International Journal on Digital Libraries

Editor - Nabil R. Adam and Yelena Yesha
ISBN - ISSN 1432 5012
Publisher - Springer
Price - $260 (inc. p&p); elsewhere DM340 (exc. p&p)
Pages - 4 a year

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