The Digital Library: Assessing the Past, Directing the Future

February 01, 2000 Daniel Greenstein, the new director of the Digital Library Federation (DLF), spoke at Columbia University on January 26. Columbia is a founding member of the DLF which was established in 1995 with a mission to bring together--from across the nation and beyond--libraries committed to making digitized materials accessible to students, scholars, and the wider public. Elaine Sloan, vice president for information services and University librarian, who introduced Greenstein, said, "We take pride in Columbia's digital library program, and have gained a great deal through our participation in the Digital Library Federation. We look forward to continuing our work on these exciting initiatives as the Federation enters a new phase under Dan's leadership."

The DLF is a member organization operating under the umbrella of the Council on Library and Information Resources. Greenstein, named director in September 1999, noted the shared interests of the diverse 28 member institutions who manage and operate digital libraries. "There has been an attempt among DLF members to proactively exercise some greater influence over the rapidly evolving information landscape, especially in regard to cost and digital content. Since its founding, member institutions have been able to enjoy the rewards of the DLF programs by sharing the risks involved in innovative research and development, and information services initiatives."

Greenstein went on to state that scholarly communities themselves are an important contributors to the future development of digital libraries and a source of potentially valuable content. "One of the future roles of the DLF is to support the development, management, dissemination and preservation of scholarly content, and to mobilize scholarly communities around these issues."

Columbia's own digital library program has grown considerably since the early 1990s, according to David Millman, technical director of the digital library program at Columbia. "The digital library at Columbia has evolved into a comprehensive systems infrastructure and set of support services that are created in many areas of the University, including the Libraries, academic departments and centers, Columbia University Press, and Academic Information Systems (AcIS). Columbia is involved in the development and operations of a number of digital library projects that reflect the real needs of the University's scholarly community."

Among these many projects, Columbia's digital library program, in alliance with the DLF, is providing leading-edge research and development in the following three areas: 1)  access management and control; 2) web protocols for naming (to provide users with a reliable citations framework); and 3) discipline specific initiatives.

In the area of access, Columbia continues to be a leader in developing a more general systems architecture that provides access rights to members of the University community, through the use of digital certificates, for services and digital content at other institutions. This research aims to simplify student, faculty and staff access to many remote resources through a single log-on, while simultaneously promoting better mobility, privacy, measurement and accuracy in licensing resources.

Columbia is also actively involved in developing web protocols for naming, in order to allow users to go directly from a citation in electronic form to the cited journal or journal article online. Today, users often wish to connect to a link by clicking on the citation and connecting to a document located on a Web page identified by a URL. Often, however, the identifier embedded in the citation may be old and out of date, or the cited object is available only through a service that the user may not be authorized to use. Research in this area seeks to provide documents with identifiers that remain constant, regardless of a collection's location, and citations that are available through services that users have access to.

Another pivotal area of development is in the interfaces that allow people to experience the digital library through the presentation of content and through tools for navigating and manipulating it. "Our strategy," according to Millman, "is to provide a framework in which content may be used in as many ways, by as many different interfaces as possible." Interfaces continue to be developed by project teams working with library collections, and, most recently, by the new EPIC (Electronic Publishing Initiative at Columbia), and the CCNMTL (Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning). The systems architecture is also explicitly designed to enable as many kinds of collaborations, including widely distributed ones. For example, the Digital Scriptorium project uses an interface at Berkeley to integrate their own as well as Columbia material.

Millman adds that, "related efforts in the DLF have increased the range and strength of our goals in these major research areas, thanks to the Federation's broad outreach efforts to digital-resources vendors and other content-providing institutions."

"Since its founding," Greenstein observed, "the DLF has succeeded in facilitating inclusive, interdisciplinary, and cross-sectoral discussion amongst its members to identify research and development priorities, and to build conduits between the DLF membership and wider communities. This has made it possible to minimize redundant efforts at member institutions, and for the DLF to play a leading role in defining a broader developmental agenda."

For Greenstein, one of the key questions that must be asked of the DLF, and its member organizations, is, "are we doing as much as we can to encourage innovation in learning, teaching and scholarship?" After meeting with all 28-member institutions this winter, Greenstein plans to distribute a review and assessment of past DLF initiatives and a working agenda for the future. "There needs to be a compelling vision for the DLF--we need to understand where we're heading and what that might entail. Ultimately, the DLF's role is to distill that vision to the broader community," Greenstein added.