Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Book Review: Digital Libraries - Principles and Practice in a Global Environment

Chris Awre welcomes a useful overview of the global digital library scene that will help both those coming new to this area and those wishing to broaden their appreciation of what is involved in developing a digital library.

In seeking to widen my understanding of digital library developments, this book appeared on the face of it to offer a useful and broad overview of developments in this field. The authors are at pains to indicate what the book is not: it is not a 'detailed technical treatise on digital library design and implementation'; it is not 'a book on information seeking'; it has 'no pretensions as a technical manual'; and it is not 'focused upon designing and developing digital libraries'. For detailed knowledge of digital libraries and all their many different aspects other sources are to be recommended.

And they are, by the authors, as part of, not a detailed book, but a clear description and overview of all the many different facets of a digital library. Each chapter succinctly covers its aims and the book overall spells out the many considerations that need to be taken into account when planning a digital library. For the most part the book is well referenced, so that readers wishing to delve more deeply are able to. It is a book that can be read through and also used as a reference tool in its own right, dipping in where necessary to pick out a useful nugget of information. The authors have incorporated a large number of checklists from other authors, for example the six aspects of interoperability from Paul Miller's article in Ariadne Issue 24 [1], and bringing these together is valuable in its own right.

The book contains a large number of screenshots from relevant Web sites to highlight many of the principles and practice being described. This doesn't always work as the design-rich screens lose much in translation to black and white images. It is acknowledged by the authors that these Web sites will change, and may well have done so by the time of publication, but that the principles underlying them will stick around for longer. Only time will be able to pass judgement on this, though there are already one or two areas where developments seem to have moved ahead.

For example, an unstated assumption is that the digital library is a 'thing', an entity in its own right that can be created and managed in a distinct fashion with its own requirements and characteristics. Looking at the evidence of digital library developments from around the world, and the global perspective is one of this book's biggest assets, this has clearly been the case in many of the developments undertaken. But this more often than not places the digital library in isolation from other systems. Current digital library and other systems research are looking more at the provision of services within a broader service-oriented architectural approach that has the digital library as part of a wider network of systems and services that are working together. Confining thoughts of a digital library to a single entity in its own right limits its potential for delivering the riches such a library can offer.

Chapter 1 puts the digital library in context, placing it against traditional library development. It notes that technology within libraries is not a new phenomenon by any means, quoting Vannevar Bush's concept of the Memex machine to capture all one's stores of information [2]. It is interesting to note that many early digital library developments had no involvement from libraries, being situated almost entirely in the world of computer science. The ensuing use of these technical developments, though, has seen libraries making information available on a truly global basis using the Internet that might otherwise have been hidden away for only those able to travel and visit the library in question. The boundaries of the digital library are addressed and, if truth be told, somewhat skipped round, the authors confining themselves to reviewing definitions from others rather than braving their own.

The following chapters address the different aspects that are involved in the development of a digital library. Chapter 2 covers users - it is good to see them right up at the front - and addresses key barriers in their use of digital libraries; not just accessibility but also technology and language barriers, depending on where in the world you are accessing a digital library. The use of the Internet as the delivery mechanism for many digital libraries raises the issue of where the distinction is between the two, and whether, for the user, this actually matters. It is frustrating that many of the sources quoted appear to express the opinions of the researchers rather than the users themselves; more direct evidence from users would provide a stronger case for how a digital library is developed.

This and following chapters take a review-type approach, each section making its case through the use of referencing other sources, and this works well in raising a wide number of issues in limited space. Chapter 3 considers the range of digital information sources, Chapter 4 looks at standards and interoperability, Chapter 5 reviews some of the systems that can be used in building a digital library. The downside of this approach is that much is simply skipped over and even though there are references to take you further, a little more depth and consideration would have been helpful. Indeed it would have been valuable to hear the authors' views more, rather than just their take on what others have said.

Chapters 6, 7 and 8, on interface design, searching and browsing, and practical issues, work better and feel like they are more of the meat of a digital library, where the previous chapters had provided more a snapshot of the current situation only. Occasionally, again, individual points are made simply by reference to a single example, but the examples themselves are usually worthwhile and bear further consideration in their own right. Thinking globally again, and 'global' here is used in terms of audience as much as geographically, there are good sections on interface design and children and those with a visual impairment and the effect of languages and cultural differences on the interface. Much attention is given to searching multilingual collections and searching visual and sound sources in addition to more generic thoughts on searching and browsing. And a wide range of non-technical practical issues are addressed, if at times somewhat patchily.

The final chapter is a series of case studies that highlight further many of the principles and practice described in earlier chapters. These are fascinating in their own right and highlight the truly global nature of digital libraries. I am not sure they fully manage to capture what has gone before, though much can be learnt from them and the priorities they set.

I have learnt much from this book and there is also much I will need to follow up on in order to reap the greatest benefit. But at least I know where to follow up now more than I did before. Students of library and information science will find this book useful and in their stated aim the authors have succeeded. It will be interesting to see whether revised editions are produced to update this snapshot of principles and practice - and to see if the principles laid down so far still stand.


  1. Miller, P. (2000) Interoperability: What is it and why should I want it? Ariadne, issue 24. Available at http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue24/interoperability/
  2. Bush, V. (1945) As we may think. Atlantic Monthly, 176(1), 101-108. Available at http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/prem/194507/bush/

Author Details

Chris Awre
Integration Architect
e-Services Integration Group
University of Hull

Email: c.awre@hull.ac.uk

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