Book Review

D-Lib Magazine
June 1998

ISSN 1082-9873

Towards the Digital Library


"Once upon a time, the role of a library was easily defined. Its functions could be summed up in three words: acquisition, preservation, and access. For centuries, this meant getting hold of books, looking after books, and placing books in the hands of readers. At the end of the 20th century the three principal tasks of acquisition, preservation and access remain fundamentally unaltered: but their scope is expanding and methods of fulfilling them are multiplying."
From the Foreword by Sir Anthony Kenny
By Laurence Lannom, D-Lib Magazine


Towards the Digital Library
The Initiatives for Access Program

The British Library Board
Leona Carpenter, Simon Shaw, and Andrew Prescott, Editors
256 pages. London:
The British Library 1998 20 (post free in UK).

This high quality soft cover volume tells the story of the Initiatives for Access program, the British Library's foray into digital library territory. It does so through a collection of twenty individual reports on at least that number of individual projects, introductory as well as postscript material, a glossary, an extensive list of suggestions for further reading, a nice variety of crisp black and white images and eleven attractive color plates. The program was launched in 1994; the book covers work concluded a year or so before its 1998 publication. The program has been subsumed into the British Library's Digital Library Programme; newsletters covering Initiatives for Access are available at: http://www.bl.uk/diglib/access/.

Initiatives for Access, as reflected in the reports in this volume, has been aptly named, and was focused primarily on using new technologies to increase access to the rich collections of a great library. Much of this is conversion work -- but with the special requirements and rewards of digitizing source material such as the Beowulf manuscript or the crumbling birch bark scrolls of the oldest surviving text of Buddhist literature. The increased access comes in several varieties. For example, digital facsimiles of rare materials can be made available on the global Internet. But there is more here than just an increase in the number of people who can view an object. In the Electronic Beowulf project, for example, the technology is used to create a digital archive bringing together otherwise dispersed source material on the history of Beowulf, allowing users to compare the original with later transcripts, and so creating a digital whole greater than its analog parts.

The program is a self-described success, a judgment which appears justified. The diversity of projects guaranteed a wide variety of lessons learned, one of which, not surprisingly, is that there is no single path to success. The so-called "best" technical solution will vary with context and will probably change over time. And success was not limited to lessons learned, as some of the projects graduated to ongoing services or finished products of lasting value, e.g., an SGML-based survey of illuminated manuscripts.

Nonetheless, one is struck through much of the book by the contrast between the glory of the source material and the pedestrian details of the technology. Some of this is just unavoidable, as the specifics of the technical work, say the selection of the best 1995-vintage Macintosh to go with the best 1995-vintage scanner, age more quickly than books can be put into print. Beyond that, however, there is a sense that the curators of this wealth of material need to be more critical of the technology, a process that will likely evolve over time. This sense was solidified late in the volume in an article by Seales, Griffioen, and Prescott, the first two of whom are computer science professors at the University of Kentucky, one of the cooperating institutions in the program.

Humanities scholars have perhaps been overmodest in their expectations of technology. They have been happy to accept that the computer can or cannot help with a particular problem when they have tried a particular (usually proprietary) software package. The idea that computing can be stretched and extended so that it can assist in solving the most intractable problems of humanities research is an unfamiliar one to many scholars in the field (p. 191).

The book itself evolves from more concern with specific content to more concern with abstract processes as it moves through its three separately named and introduced divisions of Digital Imaging, Document Management and Descriptive Data, and Network Services. The quotation given above, for example, is from an interesting and sophisticated argument for image as the best choice for the future of digital text management. The final, highly recommended, piece by Lorcan Dempsey puts much of the rest of the book in perspective as recording the early steps in the evolution of the British Library from a manager of the primarily physical to a manager of combined physical and digital information spaces.

Copyright © 1998 Corporation for National Research Initiatives

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