Digital Libraries and the Problem of Purpose



D-Lib Magazine
January 2000

Volume 6 Number 1

ISSN 1082-9873

Digital Libraries and the Problem of Purpose

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Spacer David M. Levy
Xerox Palo Alto Reseach Center
[email protected]

This article is based on a keynote address given at the ACM Digital Libraries '99 conference, held in Berkeley, CA, in August 1999. As of February 2000, David Levy will no longer be affiliated with Xerox PARC; he will be reachable at [email protected].

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Introduction: The Problem of Purpose

"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?" Alice asks the Cheshire Cat who is perched on the bough of a tree. "That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," is the cat�s saucy reply.

Which way ought we to go in digital library research and development? This too depends on where we want to get to. But in this case who is we? Where are we trying to get to? And how have we come to decide that this where (whatever it is) is where we ought to be? These are the millennial, the big picture, questions I want to pose to the digital library community as the calendar turns. My hope, as the title of these remarks suggests, is to introduce and reflect on the "problem of purpose" in digital libraries. The term is due to Patrick Williams, who in The American Public Library and the Problem of Purpose [10], documents the various attempts of American public libraries over the past nearly one hundred fifty years to identify and solidify their purpose -- to figure out where they were trying to get to. I�ll start by reviewing the problem of purpose in American public libraries and American academic/research libraries before turning to digital libraries.

Public Libraries and the Problem of Purpose

The first American public library, in Boston, was inaugurated in 1854 with a strong statement of purpose: "Why should not this prosperous and liberal city extend some reasonable amount of aid to the foundation and support of a noble public library, to which the young people of both sexes, when they leave the schools, can resort for those works which pertain to general culture, or which are needful for research into any branch of knowledge? . . . We consider that a large public library is of the utmost importance as the means of completing our system of public education. . ." Other public libraries were soon created in this image; by 1875 nearly two hundred public libraries had been established, and even more were being planned. Their mission was clear: to serve as a new kind of educational institution, an adjunct to the public school, which would provide citizens with ongoing opportunities to learn after they had completed their formal schooling.

There was just one problem with this noble purpose: patrons of the libraries seemed more interested in reading popular literature (mainly fiction) than the "serious" works (history, biography, science) which educators of the time thought would lead to moral and intellectual growth. Librarians comforted themselves by inventing a "taste-elevation theory." Even if patrons came to the library in search of fiction, they would eventually move on to works of greater merit.

But by the 1890s, the taste-elevation theory had been largely abandoned. People still wanted popular fiction, and there was no evidence that they were cultivating a taste for more cultured works. As the taste-elevation theory lost adherents, the debate grew about what to do: exclude inferior fiction? accept entertainment as having social value? permit whatever the public wanted? It came to be accepted that public libraries should supply readers with what they wanted, entertainment mostly. But this meant that the original stated purpose of the public library, to be an educational institution on a par with the public schools, to provide "self-culture through books," would have to be abandoned.

This was only the first in a series of discouragements as public libraries invented or discovered new purposes only to abandon them once they were found to be wrong or inadequate. Around the turn of the century, a time of rapidly changing social conditions, librarians reenvisoned themselves as "missionaries of literature," teaching the American way of life. Enlivened by "the library spirit," a faith in the transformative potential of reading, librarians set forth to "evangelize, reform, and save." The outbreak of World War I put an end to this vision. "Librarians cannot prevent the breakdown of civilization," one prominent librarian said in 1913.

Other missions followed, some of them seeming like vaguely recycled versions of previous attempts: the public library as an all-purpose information center, as a community center, as a center for adult education, as the guardian of free speech -- all with limited success. It wasn�t until the 1980s, Williams claims, that public libraries finally began to come to terms with their more limited but realistic purpose: to be suppliers of books to the middle class and a symbol of culture in the community.1 Williams� book was published in 1988, however, too early to see that the Internet would once again challenge the public library�s sense of purpose, and to see libraries trying to fashion themselves into portals onto the information superhighway.

Academic/Research Libraries and the Problem of Purpose

For much of their history, by contrast, academic and research libraries have lived with a happier and more successful sense of purpose. The modern academic library, like the public library, was a product of the nineteenth century. But unlike the public library, it was lucky enough to inherit a purpose from the larger institution within which it was created. As Stanley Chodorow and Peter Lyman explain [4], the modern university defined itself as "an instrument for social progress," and scholarship as "the production of specialized publication." With this understanding, the university took upon itself an obligation "to collect and organize the information that its faculty and students needed for their work." A division of responsibility was worked out between faculty, academic presses, and academic libraries. The faculty would be the producers and, along with students, the consumers of scholarly information. The academic presses would produce physical volumes -- books and journals -- while assuring the quality of the intellectual content. Academic libraries would take responsibility for purchasing, organizing, preserving, and providing access to scholarly information.

This worked reasonably well until, in the last decade or two, the cost of journal subscriptions offered by commercial publishers began to spiral out of control. In the face of rising prices, academic libraries began to prune their subscriptions, and in response to lost subscriptions, journal publishers raised their subscription prices even higher. At the same time, higher journal prices left libraries with less money to spend on monographs, so these collections began to suffer as well. The result was a crisis of purpose which still hasn�t been resolved: How can academic and research libraries continue to fulfill their original purpose -- to collect, organize and provide access to scholarly information -- when they can�t afford to acquire it?

All this took place before the Internet exploded onto the scene. But now, in an increasingly wired world, it is possible that universities may be able to take back control of scholarly information. By working with scholarly societies to create their own online journals they may be able to cut commercial publishers out of the loop. While this holds out some hope for resolving the crisis in scholarly publishing, it doesn�t necessarily help libraries, who also risk being cut out of the loop. Even worse, digital developments may challenge academic libraries even more fundamentally. What happens to the very idea of the university in an age in which distance learning is not only conceivable but seemingly practical? And what role is there, if any, for academic libraries when so much information is becoming available on the Web?

Digital Libraries and the Problem of Purpose

As many observers have pointed out, the term "digital library" means different things to different people.2 For librarians, the word "library" conjures up an institution which manages one or more collections. For computer scientists, the institutional aspect plays a minor role, if any. Instead, this group is more likely to focus on the collections themselves -- digital collections -- and on the enabling technologies through which these collections are built and searched.

Do digital libraries now, or will they eventually, suffer a problem of purpose? It might seem hard to imagine such a possibility, especially at a time of such enormous expansion and optimism in the digital realm. But I want to suggest that the problem of purpose deserves our further attention, and that attending to it can actually help chart an expanded and more focussed research agenda for digital libraries.

At first, it might seem that purpose is simply irrelevant to digital libraries. Especially if we think of them as enabling technologies with which to create and manage collections of digital materials, then digital libraries would seem to be purpose-neutral. But this simply shifts the problem of purpose from the technologies, per se, to the collections and the institutions which manage them. We�re still left needing to say something about the purpose(s) of these institutions and their collections. And if we should choose to argue that digital libraries can be all things to all people, we ought at least to pay attention to public libraries, which tried that route and failed.

Purpose, however, clearly is relevant to digital libraries, in whatever way we conceive of them. Indeed, I would argue that researchers and funders currently have a shared purpose, a mission, which stretches from research and development through to the greater good of humankind, and provides psychic energy and justification for the current research agenda. This mission, which might be called "the digital library faith," is an almost evangelical belief that digital materials are right and good. I think it goes something like this:

  1. Why are we doing digital library research and development? To put digital materials online so they can be found and used.
  2. And why are we doing this? To make these materials more broadly, quickly and efficiently accessible.
  3. Why? Because information is good, so more information is better.
  4. Why? For the sake of democracy, education, the advancement of science and technology.
  5. Why? For the sake of the "good life": freedom, health, ethical conduct, wisdom, well-being.

It would seem hard to argue with a statement of purpose as well-intentioned and self-evidently good as this. It has the aura of Mom and apple pie, truth and justice and the American Way. Still, I think it has its difficulties, and deserves to be debated and fine-tuned. Here are three directions for further exploration.

First, although it is implicit in my formulation of the digital library faith, many members of the community believe that we are headed for, and should be headed for, an all-digital world. One has only to look at the current research agenda in the large to see a near total emphasis on managing all-digital collections. But "all-digital, all the time" is an article of faith.3 It may ultimately come to pass, but like the various apocalyptic prophesies which run wild at a time like ours, it simply isn�t supported by the current facts. Ethnographic studies of actual workplaces reveal the diverse mix of materials, digital and otherwise, commonly in use and offer no suggestion that this diversity is diminishing.4 By hewing to an agenda enlivened by this faith, I believe we are missing some important research opportunities, such as integrating heterogeneous (digital and non-digital) collections and providing tools to organize and search them.

Second, our almost religious belief in the power of information deserves to be examined. Is more information always better? Surely not. Just look at the growing concern over invasion of privacy as online services are collecting more and more information about consumers.5 Or the glut of junk mail and now spam. In such cases fixes can be envisioned, part technological, part social and political.6 But other criticisms of our current information focus may not be so easily addressed. Albert Borgmann, for example, a philosopher of technology, has been arguing that a steady diet of high tech information resources, of travels in cyberspace, risks distorting our relationship to reality, depriving us of other, much needed sources of wisdom (our bodies, our relationship to the earth, silence). "Information," he claims in his latest book, Holding On to Reality [3], "is about to overflow and suffocate reality." Surely, if more information isn�t always better, then the link between information and the good life deserves closer attention.

My third point has less to do with the particulars of the digital library faith than with the communities which have been shaping it. In her cultural and architectural history, Free to All: Carnegie Libraries and American Culture, 1890-1920 [7], Abigail Van Slyck argues that each public library funded through Andrew Carnegie�s philanthropy was the product of interactions among multiple, local constituencies. "Carnegie libraries," she says, "stood on contested ground. Despite their strong family resemblance, they were not the unselfconscious expression of a unified American spirit. Instead, they were always cultural artifacts whose meanings varied with the intentions and experiences of a diverse group of users." Librarians, architects, the members of the town council (who were men), and the women of the community all brought different perspectives to bear. Under such circumstances of conflicting perspectives and objectives, even Carnegie�s money wasn�t powerful enough to determine how each library would be realized. Slyck's somewhat surprising conclusion is that "ultimately, Carnegie�s importance lay in initiating substantive discussion about the role that culture should play in modern America."

The current digital library agenda has largely been set by the computer science community, and clearly bears the imprint of this community�s interests and vision. But there are other constituencies whose voices need to be heard. We have an opportunity, as yet unrealized, to debate our purposes with a broader spectrum of the population whose lives will be affected by the work we do. Social scientists, for example, have much to say about the relationship between technological development and the societal benefits which might accrue from it.7 To date, however, the social science work within digital library R&D has largely been defined as, and confined to, evaluating prototypes developed by computer scientists.

Then too, stronger participation from the traditional library community seems essential. And had it been available earlier, such participation might have helped us avoid the most glaring omission of the first decade of digital library research and development: the lack of attention to preservation. It is only in the last few years that the enormity of the preservation problem has begun to become generally known, and research which might help resolve it is still very much in its infancy. For roughly a decade we have been rushing to put materials online with no thought to (and no idea of how to) preserve them. One consequence is that, almost certainly, there will be a hole in history: the early history of the Web will have been missed. Surely, this must count as an illustration of how narrowness of vision can take its toll, and how more explicit attention to societal purposes can help expand and tune a research agenda.

Libraries, digital or otherwise, carry a strong symbolic charge. On the face of it, they are just one element in the larger circuit through which information travels from production to ultimate consumption. In this respect, they are on a par with the other elements in the circuit: authors, publishers, distributors, and communities of users. But libraries have come to symbolize, and to exemplify the values we impute to, the entire circuit. What we say about digital libraries and how we understand them embodies and signals our attitude toward the place of information in our culture. To this extent, it is potentially of great consequence not only how we construct digital libraries but how we talk about them, and who we include in the conversation.

"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?" Alice asks the Cheshire Cat. "That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," the Cat replies. "I don�t much care where --" Alice says. "Then it doesn�t matter which way you go," the Cat replies. "-- so long as I get somewhere," Alice adds. "Oh, you�re sure to do that," says the Cat, "if you only walk long enough." Here is where the parallel between Alice in Wonderland and digital libraries ends. For those of us involved in digital library research and development care very much about where we�re trying to get to. Whether, or however, we articulate it, most of us are greatly concerned with the societal consequences of the work we do. It is my belief that more explicit attention to this direction -- and a broader, more inclusive debate about it -- will lead to a stronger and more focused research agenda.


[Note 1] "As long as public libraries regard circulation counts as the primary indicator of their value to the community," says Elinor Jo Rodger, President of the Urban Libraries Council, "the reality is that we are serving a �reading for pleasure and information� middle class." (Private communication, January 3, 2000.)

[Note 2] Borgman [2] surveys the various, sometimes conflicting, meanings of the term "digital library."

[Note 3] Abbott [1] observes that as microfilm was introduced (it was developed in 1928), "It became common to assert that libraries would soon be replaced by personal collections of microforms."

[Note 4] See, for example, Trigg [9] and Henderson [5].

[Note 5] "Since the merger [of Doubleclick and Abacus Direct] was announced in June," the New York Times reports [8], "Internet advertising companies have forged ahead with efforts to identify people on Web sites, find out more about their offline lives, and show them ads that match their information. Privacy advocates denounce the practice, saying that it gives companies too much information about individuals."

[Note 6] Witness�s decision to stop shipping Mein Kampf to German purchasers as an attempt to place limits on information delivery.

[Note 7] Rob Kling, for example, in an earlier article in D-Lib Magazine [6] defines social informatics as "the interdisciplinary study of the design, uses and consequences of information technologies that takes into account their interaction with institutional and cultural contexts." As an example of the kinds of analyses social informatics tries to provide, he offers this telling example: "Today some analysts (and many pundits) frame claims about information technology in social life in deterministic ways, with claims such as, "The Web means that the public will get better information than ever before." That framing is one that people who study social informatics would be skeptical of. We ask: "When will the Web enable the public to locate 'better information'? Under what conditions? Who? For what?" Are people seeking information to help them make a better choice of doctors, and then placing more trust in that doctor? Or are people seeking alternatives to doctor-mediated medical care -- whether information about health, herbal medicine or post-operative care? Those contingency questions don�t lend themselves to lively sound bites. But they do yield a very nuanced professional understanding. This kind of contextual inquiry illustrates the ways that social informatics researchers frame questions to develop an analytical understanding of information technologies in social life."


[1] Abbott, A., The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor. 1988, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[2] Borgman, C.L., What are Digital Libraries? Competing Visions. Information Processing and Management, 1999. 35: p. 227-243.

[3] Borgmann, A., Holding On to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium. 1999, Chicago: University of Chicago.

[4] Chodorow, S. and P. Lyman, The Responsibilities of Universities in the New Information Environment, in The Mirage of Continuity: Reconfiguring Academic Information Resources for the 21st Century, B.L. Hawkins and P. Battin, Editors. 1998, Council on Library and Information Resources and Association of American Universities: Washington, D.C. p. 61-78.

[5] Henderson, K., On Line and On Paper: Visual Representations, Visual Culture, and Computer Graphics in Design Engineering. 1999, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[6] Kling, R., What is Social Informatics and Why Does it Matter?, in D-Lib Magazine. Vol. 5, Number 1, January 1999. Available at <>

[7] Slyck, A.A.V., Free to All: Carnegie Libraries and American Culture, 1890-1920. 1995, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[8] Tedeschi, B., A Merger Sets Off an Information Rush, in The New York Times. January 3, 2000: New York. p. C3.

[9] Trigg, R., J. Blomberg, and L. Suchman, Moving Document Collections Online: The evolution of a shared repository., in Proceedings of the European Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (ECSCW '99). 1999: Copenhagen, DK.

[10] Williams, P., The American Public Library and the Problem of Purpose. 1988, New York: Greenwood Press.

Copyright � 2000 David M. Levy

(On May 10, 2000, a correction was made to the URL for the Kling article.)

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DOI: 10.1045/january2000-levy