Orientation: The world of digital libraries

Example One: Supporting Human Development

Kataayi is a grassroots cooperative organization based in the village of Kakunyu in rural Uganda. In recent years its enterprising members have built ferro-cement rainwater catchment tanks, utilized renewable energy technologies such as solar, wind, and biogas, and established a local industry making clay roofing tiles—among many other projects. But amid such human resourcefulness, information resources are scarce. The nearest public phone, fax, library, newspapers, and periodicals are found in the district town, Masaka, 20 km distant over rough roads. Masaka boasts no e-mail or Internet access. The difficulty of getting there effectively discourages local inhabitants from taking advantage of the information and communication technologies that we take for granted in developed countries.

The Kataayi community believe that an information and communication center will have a major development impact in their area. They laid the groundwork by acquiring a computer and solar power generation equipment. They established an e-mail connection via cellular phone and set up a computer training program. They constructed a brick building to house the center (Figure 1.1). And they gathered several topics. But they need more information resources—lots more. They were looking for topics covering such topics as practical technology, fair-trade marketing, agriculture, environmental conservation, spirituality, and social justice issues.

Then they discovered digital libraries. The Humanity Development Library is a compendium of some 1,200 authoritative topics and periodicals on just such topics, produced by many disparate organizations—UN agencies and other international organizations. In print, these topics would weigh 340 kg, cost $20,000, and occupy a small library bookstack. Instead, the collection takes the form of a digital library and is distributed on a single CD-ROM throughout the developing world at essentially no cost. Related digital library collections cover topics including disaster relief, agriculture, the environment, medicine and health, food and nutrition; more are coming. These digital libraries will increase Kataayi’s information resources immeasurably, at a minuscule fraction of the cost of paper books.

 Kataayi's information and communication center

Figure 1.1: Kataayi’s information and communication center

Example Two: pushing on the Frontiers of Science

Leave this local community and enter a very different one that operates internationally and on a far larger scale. For over a decade, physicists have been using automated archives to disseminate the results of their research. The first archive, in high-energy physics, began in the early 1990s. It targeted a tiny group of fewer than 200 physicists working on a particular set of research problems, who wanted to communicate their progress. Within months the clientele had grown fivefold. Numerous other physics databases sprang into existence. Within a few years these archives served tens of thousands of researchers; by the year 2000 they processed 150,000 requests per day and the number of papers passed the half-million mark in 2008.

The physics archival digital libraries are entirely automated. To submit a research paper, contributors fill out title, author, and abstract on an electronic form and transmit the full text of the paper. Upon receipt, which is instantaneous, the paper immediately and automatically becomes part of the archive, permanently accessible to others. The contributions are not reviewed or moderated in any way, except for a quick scan to ensure that they are relevant to the discipline. The chaff is simply ignored by the community. The upshot is that research results are communicated on a dramatically accelerated timescale, and the expense and waste of hard-copy distribution is eliminated.

For some areas of physics, online archives have already become the dominant means of communicating research progress. Many people believe that the scheme has effectively replaced commercial publication as a way of conveying both topical and archival research information. Why don’t researchers in every discipline follow suit? Soon, perhaps, they will. Proponents of these online archives forecast the imminent demise of commercially published research journals and believe that communicating research results using "chemicals adsorbed onto sliced processed dead trees" will rapidly become a quaint anachronism. On the other hand, many disagree: they argue that peer review is still highly valued in most scientific disciplines, and that even in the small, specialized communities where they are used, online archives augment rather than replace peer-reviewed journals.

Example Three: Preserving a Traditional Culture

The physics archive is centered at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Only 58 km away as the crow flies, but light-years distant in other respects, is the Zia Pueblo, home of one of a score of Native American tribes in New Mexico (Figure 1.2). By 1900 the population had fallen to less than 100, and the tribe was expected to die out during the 20th century. With the return of some land, and medicine and education provided by U.S. government programs, fortunes have improved and the people now number 600. But today the Zia Pueblo face a major problem: the loss of their language and traditional culture. Young people are not learning the Zia Pueblo traditions or Keresan, its language. This is a common complaint in traditional societies, overexposed as we all are to the deafening voice of popular commercial culture blaring everywhere from television, radio, and advertising billboards.

To preserve the Zia language and traditions, a digital library has been proposed. It will include an oral history compilation, with interviews of tribal elders conducted in their native language. It will include an anthology of traditional songs, with audio recordings, musical scores transcribed from them, and lyrics translated by a native speaker. It will include video recordings of tribal members performing Pueblo dances and ceremonies, along with a synopsis describing each ceremony and a transcription and translation of the recorded audio.

the Zia pueblo village

Figure 1.2: the Zia pueblo village

Example Four: exploring popular Music

Turn from this small, esoteric group in New Mexico to the wide-ranging, disorganized, eclectic panoply of music that is played in the Western world today. In all human societies, music is an expression of popular culture. Different generations identify strongly with different musical styles and artists. People’s taste in music reflects their personality and sense of identity: teenagers, in particular, regard their musical preferences as being strongly bound up with who they are. Music is a medium that is both popular and international. Pop music culture transcends social boundaries, be they national borders or socioeconomic groupings. Yet music also exhibits strong cultural diversity: folk music is specific to a particular country or region, and different styles characterize local ethnic groupings.

Imagine a digital music library that reflects popular taste, a library that people from all walks of life will want to use. From an immense music collection you can retrieve tunes in many ways: by humming a theme, by recalling words from the title or lyrics, by giving the composer’s name, or you can specify any combination of these. Flexible browsing facilities allow you to meander through the collection, listening to tunes rendered by a synthesizer, or indeed to live recordings. Almost any song you can think of is there, often in dozens of different versions.

Experimental versions of such libraries already exist. A huge volume of musical material is already on the Web in the form of MIDI files, the musical representation used by synthesizers. It is easy to locate and download hundreds of thousands of files covering a wide range of styles, from classical symphonies to current pop songs, from jazz classics to ethnic folk songs. In a very real sense, these reflect popular taste, comprising whatever people have decided to spend their time entering. You will find a score of versions of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine and Bach’s Air on a G-string. All this music can be indexed by automatically identifying melodic themes and extracting text containing the title, artist, composer, and lyrics. Contentious copyright issues can be avoided by leaving all source material on its home site: what the library provides is not a repository but a catalog and means of access. And the Web is a prolific source of other musical resources, from record stores to guitar tablatures for popular tunes. Having found a tune, you can listen to samples of recordings by different artists, obtain a CD, watch a video, or buy sheet music.

The scope of digital libraries

These four examples, at different stages of development and deployment, hint at the immense range of digital libraries. From the perspective of ordinary people, libraries often seem scholarly and esoteric. But they are not necessarily so. Practical topics are of interest to practical people like Kataayi’s members. Academic libraries have as their purpose research and education: high-energy physicists already base their research activity on electronic document collections. Digital libraries offer unique ways of recording, preserving, and propagating culture in multimedia form. Collections that reflect popular taste in music (or film, or TV) have already become mass-market consumer products, with delivery to teenagers on miniature, mobile, Web-capable, pocket devices.

An application that makes a sustained market for a promising but underutilized technology is often called a killer app. The term was coined in the mid-1980s for the Lotus spreadsheet, then the major

driving force behind the business market for IBM PCs. (VisiCalc had previously played a similar role in the success of the Apple II.) The World Wide Web is often described as the Internet’s killer app. The killer app for digital libraries may well be music collections; in turn, Section 1.4 shows that as far as the developing world is concerned, digital libraries themselves may be killer apps for computer technology.

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