D-Lib Magazine
April 2000

Volume 6 Number 4

ISSN 1082-9873
Digital Libraries

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"...a cumulative and cumulating narrative about the diverse and interrelated piece-parts of digital libraries, including the human players in this technology arena."

By Wendy P. Lougee

Wendy Lougee is Associate Director for Digital Library Initiatives at the University of Michigan, University Library.

(The author of the book being reviewed, Dr. William Y. Arms, is also the Editor in Chief of D-Lib Magazine.)

Digital Libraries
William Y. Arms, 344 pages, includes a glossary and index.
MIT Press, ISBN: 0262011808
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge, MA: 2000, $45.00.

The term digital library has become a bit like the word kleenex -- i.e., used generically to describe a variety of products and projects. Author William Arms’ ambitious overview, Digital Libraries, seeks to give definition and boundary to this complex, multi-disciplinary, and dynamic arena. Rather than focus on digital library technologies, computer scientist Arms has drawn his boundaries broadly and has chosen to cover issues from the perspective of all the relevant stakeholders -- i.e., librarians, technologists, publishers, and users.

The intended audience within these stakeholders will be disappointed if seeking a reference manual or guidance on building a digital library. Rather, Arms has provided a cumulative and cumulating narrative about the diverse and interrelated piece-parts of digital libraries, including the human players in this technology arena.

Arms brings a particular perspective, born of his own experiences (cited frequently throughout) as well as his often "informed observer/participant" status in many of the seminal events in the short history of digital library development. In many respects, the work serves as a record of milestones in this history, retrospectively drawing the associative links and lineage between developments in Internet technologies, the establishment of standards, information retrieval conventions, rights management, and so on. The overview is punctuated with focused "panels" (case study features that elaborate on projects, concepts, and tools) that provide necessary grounding of the otherwise summarizing text with concrete examples of the themes presented.

The book’s attention is divided between an exploration of the human/organizational dimensions of digital libraries and the technology components. The former often focuses on explaining the differing cultural lenses through which the library and computer science communities view digital libraries and on highlighting the many tensions that arise in trying to meld library service interests and values with new technologies and emerging Internet conventions. Tensions exist, for example, around privacy and user data, fair use and publisher licenses, open access and security. Economic and legal trends comprise an important thread throughout the work, often bridging and contextualizing the organizational and technology issues.

The technology-focused segments serve as a useful primer, starting slowly with definitions, concepts, and tools, then building larger constructs out of these components. For example, coverage of access management and security draws together an understanding of legal and policy matters, digital object attributes, user roles, and operations. Similarly, Arms peels away the layers of system architecture, metadata, and functional design that contribute to interface functionality and library usability. The focused panels are particularly successful in giving shape to tools and concepts -- e.g., Handles and Digital Object Identifiers, the Resource Description Framework, or object models.

Throughout, the author also highlights projects of note (though by no means a comprehensive inventory of major digital library operations). A much more limited selection is offered of digital library research activity. Abstract-level coverage is provided for several of the NSF/NASA/DARPA digital library research projects and there is occasional reference to other computer-science research. A description of research initiatives in the critical social science dimensions of digital libraries is noticeably thin. The work’s utility is also diminished by the absence of any citations, whether to works in traditional publishing venues or those available through less formal communication channels. Granted the field is dynamic and in a relative infancy stage, but as a cumulative record of the emergent field, documentation is critical. In his defense, Arms notes that many of his source materials do not exist in conventional formats and that in the field of digital libraries, "the Internet already is the library."

In the Preface Arms states, "This book is my attempt to survey the entire field of digital libraries. Computers and networks are of fundamental importance, but they are only the technology. The real story of digital libraries is the interplay of people, organizations, and technology. How are libraries and publishers using this new technology? How are individuals bypassing traditional organizations and building their own libraries? Where is all this leading? The answer to the last question is simple. Nobody knows." Given the landscape that the work traverses, it is not surprising that little depth can be directed toward these questions. While Arms is explicitly short on prediction, his chronicle of digital library intellectual developments and technology innovations is thoughtful, readable, and more coherent in coverage and structure than the few other books of its type.

In a recent panel on the future of libraries (EDUCAUSE Review, Jan./Feb. 2000), Cliff Lynch suggests a need to turn attention to defining library activities in "relationship to their transforming context -- the information revolution in teaching, learning, and research." Arms’ survey may cover the waterfront, but still leaves the reader thirsty for some nod to this aspect of the interplay between people, organizations, and technology. Perhaps the transforming context of digital libraries is a theme ripe for future exploration within this MIT Press series on Digital Libraries and Electronic Publishing, which Arms also edits.

Copyright (c) 2000 Wendy P. Lougee

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DOI: 10.1045/april2000-bookreview