Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Setting Priorities for Digital Library Research

Graham Jefcoate outlines the rationale of the British Library Research and Innovation Centre's Digital Library Research Programme.

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.

The Centre has already played a significant role in supporting pilot projects and other initiatives in the field. Among examples are 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 Networking, one of the key research centres in the field, is well known.

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 the present author 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) 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 the eLib programme.

The Call itself was announced in December 1996, placing particular emphasis on the needs of users (including information providers) and on cooperation 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:

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. Details of successful projects under the Call can be found at [1] The projects stimulated by the Call will be managed with existing RIC-funded projects as a coordinated 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.

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 session at the ELVIRA [2] conference referred to above: Setting priorities for digital library research. In this, I 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.

I introduced the discussion by mentioning the issues of access, impact and community described above, clearly emphasising issues of social impact and cultural change. Chris Rusbridge, the director of the eLib programme, felt we should rather concentrate 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 2020 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 competences (ensuring we have the skills we need in the global information society). Mel’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 cooperation.

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 me to provide us, in very broad outline, with an agenda for the next phase of digital library research. If it serves no other purpose I hope it will stimulate a continuing and widening debate.


[1] Successful calls under the project proposal,

[2] ELVIRA 4 Conference Web site,

Author details

Graham Jefcoate,
Research Analyst,
British Library Research and Innovation Centre
Email: Graham.Jefcoate@mail.bl.uk
Tel: 0171 412 7109