Web Magazine for Information Professionals

The Horse That Isn't There: 1997 US Digital Libraries Initiative Meeting

Chris Rusbridge reports from the June 1997 US Digital Libraries initiative (DLi) meeting in Pittsburgh.

“ASQ-not!” seemed to be a catch phrase at the US Digital Libraries initiative (DLi) meeting in Pittsburgh in July. The phrase roughly expands to “do not automate the status quo” and in part might be seen as an excuse for these heavily computer science-oriented projects to ignore the pressures of the real world that librarians face every day. The 6 Digital Libraries initiative projects [1] are very technical indeed; the general approach seems to be to treat the Digital Library as something entirely separate from the real library of books and journals.

George Furnas of Michigan gave an interesting talk entitled ‘Beyond the Digital Library’ which amplified on this theme.

George used the familiar parallel of the “horse-less carriage”. This name might imply that all we have done is to remove the horse; thinking in these terms does not anticipate the consequent growth of the rubber and oil industries, of assembly line factories, of the growth of suburbia and eventually the rise of McDonald’s. If we think ‘digital libraries’, is our imagination similarly constrained?

George went on to examine some of the obvious differences between traditional and digital libraries, although he showed that many of these differences were shades of grey. So, differences like static versus dynamic, are largely true, although one can find examples in traditional libraries of dynamic documents (in a way) in newspapers etc. He looked at a number of other differences which are “big, crisp chunks with clear boundaries” (articles and books), while digital library documents are multi-size, fractal, and ill-defined. In some sense, this is also true of traditional libraries, but the practicalities meant we did not deal comfortably with these issues. Now we have digital documents which are collections of objects, and digital objects which are collections of documents, and mixtures of both - and we need to deal equally with them all.

George’s point was not to criticise the traditional library (nor, I think, to criticise the 6 DLi projects!) but to try by looking at these areas of difference, to find fruitful areas to ‘push against’, especially in planning the next version of the DLi programme.

I don’t think he meant to imply “it’s OK to carry on ignoring librarians - they just want us to automate the status quo”. But his remarks seemed to endorse that view.

As a representative of the eLib Programme which is much more library and much less computer science, I found this challenging.

A question which occurred to me (too late to ask George Furnas, of course), is whether the early use of the term “horse-less carriage” affected the rise of McDonald’s in any way? I suspect not. The term was a useful transitional aid, a mental crutch abandoned when it was no longer needed. The technology did what it did, regardless of the name. Technology liberates and also confines us in ways we are unlikely to understand at the time. This is as true for digital libraries as for horse-less carriages.

It seems to me we can learn as much in different ways by small changes applied in realistic practice as by big changes applied in limited test beds. Some of the biggest disasters of computing have arisen from attempts to be too radical, while many have profited from incrementally improving the status quo. The fact that there have been some spectacular successes at re-inventing the business does not make this the only proper approach; in fact it is seriously high risk, and needs careful analysis.

I feel the DLi could benefit right now from trying to re-invent some of its radical approaches into a service context - a library - just as eLib could benefit (particularly in the forthcoming hybrid library programme area) from a range of approaches going beyond careful incrementalism.

George Furnas ended his talk with the challenge that we should “get out from behind the horse that isn’t there”. But perhaps we should forget the horse - and worry about the McDonald’s in our digital library future!


[1] The six Digital Libraries Initiatives (DLi),


Author Details

Chris Rusbridge,
Director, Electronic Libraries Programme (eLib),
Email: cudbm@csv.warwick.ac.uk
Tel: 01203 524979