Digital Libraries, Content, and Structure

Digital libraries are a major element in the formation of the Internet. For those of you whom don’t remember, originally the Internet just had these index pages full of links, with little rhyme or reason to them – this was before the days of Google and the web-crawling spiders, the Open Archives Initiative, and the .com boom. It was a rough era back in 1995.

Taken in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in April ...

Image via Wikipedia

Anyways, I digress. Digital libraries and repositories exist in a vaccuum of sorts – they aren’t considered actual libraries, but are desired as fonts of knowledge. For instance, most digital libraries are attached to actual institutions like universities or government organizations. Yet, in my thinking there must be a place for independent digital libraries, curated by librarians as a ‘Free Digital Library‘, much in the spirit of Benjamin Franklin’s ventures of founding the great ideas such as the University of Pennsylvania and the libraries of Philadelphia.

I am curious about how many of these places actually exist, and how their collections are managed. One issue that I have encountered is collection development – finding free resources is critical for a starting collection. As a librarian, I am aware of fair use and copyright, and really understand and appreciate the work that it takes to create a written text. Anyone whom has tried writing knows that it isn’t easy, and proper attribution is critical – as is earning income (if that is a goal).

Overall, the cost of developing a good library system has dropped dramatically due to systems such as Greenstone and Fedora Repository. These are highly based on the traditional library template. At the same time, I see a digital library based on Drupal or Joomla! to be more innovative and bear bigger fruit, as the CMS systems can incorporate a wider variety of media, allow video playback, and create a more immersive library experience. Importantly, the major CMS systems also adapt to mobile easily, which reduces the overhead of mobile site development to a fraction of what it could be.

I doubt I am the first to take this approach to library development, but think that it can be a great tool for information freedom and the dissemination of knowledge. Typically, libraries have a focus or act as a type of special collection. The primary portion of the work is in collection development, which is why I mentioned it earlier – there is a broad difference between ordering books online and finding relevant sources online, contacting their creator, and attaining permission to include them in the library. This is a whole different strata of work, more like a curator of a museum. It requires approaching organizations and institutions, rather than just a sweeping Amazon purchase – so far, it hasn’t needed content negotiations. I will know the day of official recognition has come when someone offers to sponsor a digital library in return for naming rights…

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