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Digital library books

William Y. Arms Digital libraries. Cambridge, MA, London: MIT Press, 2000. xi, 287 pp. ISBN 0-262-01180-8 Price 27.95

Christine L. Borgman From Gutenberg to the global information infrastructure. Access to information in the networked world. Cambridge, MA, London: MIT Press, 2000. xviii, 324 pp. ISBN 0-262-02473-X Price 27.95

Michael Lesk Practical digital libraries: books, bytes and bucks. San Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufman Publishers, 1997. xxii, 297 pp. ISBN 1-55860-450-6 Price not given

A close observer of publication dates will note that one of these books has been sitting on my 'to be reviewed' shelf for rather longer than it ought to have been. However, perhaps that has turned out to be for the best, since it offers the chance to examine three books that deal with the concept of the digital library. Rather ironic, to have so many 'old-fashioned' artefacts like books that deal with such a modern idea. Two of the books (Ar ms and Borgman) are in the same MIT Press series on Digital Libraries and Electronic Publishing (the series editor is Arms), while the third, and earlier publication is in the Morgan Kaufman Series in Multimedia Information and Systems, edited by another well-known figure in the digital libraries field, Ed Fox of Virginia Tech.

As might be expected when three books deal with essentially the same subject area, there is some overlap - this is most readily seen in Arms and Lesk: for example, both deal with text conversion standards, information retrieval (text and image), usability issues, multimedia, archival concerns, economics, and intellectual property. However, they cover these topics in different ways, and each includes topics that they other omits: for example, Lesk deals to a greater extent with digital library initiatives around the world, while Arms says more about meta-data and about organizational issues. Lesk's work has more and better illustrations, a better index (although neither is a perfect model), and a bibliography. Shamefully, Arms provides neither footnotes nor a bibliography, leaving his readers scrambling to find, 'A 1998 article in the New York Times…' or other, similarly disguised citations, as well as the appropriate sources for the numerous standards he mentions - how the publishers can have allowed this is beyond me.

Although these two books cover much of the same ground, they are complementary and both will be of value anyone seeking an understanding of what the digital library idea means today. For the student, Lesk's book is probably the most useful and it could be used as a standard text on the subject. Arms's work is also of value to students, but perhaps of more value to the library manager seeking to map out the future of the library in whatever community he or she serves.

Borgman's book differs from the other two in adopting what she calls 'a social informatics perspective' in her examination of this phenomenon. In my opinion 'social informatics' is a particularly obscure term, since it does not convey what is meant by its adoption. 'Informatics' is from the French, informatique, meaning simply (according to Larousse) 'data processing' - adding 'social' clarifies this not at all, since it seems to convey the idea of some kind of collective data- processing. What Borgman actually means is not entirely clear:

"Social informatics" is an emerging research area that brings together the concerns of information, computer, and social scientists with those in the domains of study.

but I take it that the term is intended to convey the idea of the social and organizational impact of computers and information systems.

To say 'adopting a social perspective' would have served just as well. And, indeed, that is what emerges in what is an excellent text - excellent in more ways than one: where Arms provides us with no bibliography, Borgman gives us one of forty pages, along with a much better index. Part of this significant body of literature is Borgman's own work in the fields of human-computer interaction, digital libraries, and on-line searching - along with her consultancy work in Eastern Europe under the auspices of the Soros Foundation Open Society Institute. The result is a rich, well-informed text, which deals with digital libraries as social phenomena, as well as with some of the technological aspects dealt with by Arms and Lesk. For example, Borgman also touches on the economics of electronic publishing, on retrieval systems and on text-encoding standards, but her analysis of these topics feeds into the intended, more socially informed perspective.

What makes Borgman's work different, and in my opinion, more interesting than that of either Arms or Lesk, is not only the social perspective but also the concept of the 'global information infrastructure', found in the sub-title. She presents a serious analysis of the concept of 'infrastructure' in Chapter 1, based upon Star and Ruhelder's eight dimensions of embeddedness, transparency, scope, learnt nature, practice conventions, standardisation, installed base and visibility on breakdown, and shows how these dimensions are applicable to an information infrastructure. Borgman believes, rightly, I think, that the adoption of technological innovation is a matter neither of revolutionary or evolutionary change but of what she terms 'co-evolution', that is change in social and organizational practices along with the adoption by people of such innovations as work for them. This process results not only in changes in work practices, for example, but also in the innovations themselves as they are adapted to work practices. On the basis of this analysis, a 'global information infrastructure' or GII is:

'...a technical framework of computing and communications technologies, information content, services and people, all of which interact in complex and often unpredictable ways.'

An equal concern with definition is shown in the second chapter, where the problematical concept of a 'digital library' is discussed: is a digital library an institution like a university library, which happens to enable access to its resources digitally, or is it distributed, digitised content to which digital access is enabled. The first, says, Borgman, is favoured by librarians, the second by researchers into the digital library. My own feeling is that the distinction is disappearing and cannot persist: the institutional base of the digital library cannot persist because users have access from their office desks, their student halls and their homes to digital resources well beyond the bounds of any institution to which they may belong and not necessarily requiring access to be negotiated by any library.

This leaves, of course, the question, 'What, then, happens to the institutions we call libraries?' (a question I have tried to answer, at least in part, elsewhere (Wilson, 1998)) and Borgman debates this issue in Chapter 7, 'Whither, or wither, libraries', but, to a degree, leaves the answer to both questions hanging. Libraries are social and cultural phenomena as well as institutions for access to information and, rightly, Borgman believes that their roles and functions need to be re-thought. How they might be rethought is less than clear, however, and she concludes that:

'In developing new approaches to managing distributed information resources, it should be possible to draw on the best theories, principles and practices of libraries, archives and museums. The fundamental goal is to balance cooperation and competition in implementing social strategies that continue to support cultural values for a digital age.'

From which I take it that she believes that the principles of librarianship will survive in the digital age, since they are the principles of information organization and access, but that the institution of library will need to map out new functions in order to complement new forms of information access and services and, having done so, will find itself competing for users and, hence, resources in the global information infrastructure.

Naturally, some things are happening between Chapter 2 and Chapter 7 - in the intervening chapters, Borgman considers the nature of access to information in digital libraries, including topics such as meta-data, which are covered by Arms and Lesk; electronic publishing in general, and scholarly publishing in particular; why digital libraries, with the present state of the technology, are so hard to use and what might make them easier to use. Most of this last chapter (i.e., Chapter 6) is concerned with setting out a research agenda under various headings. Enough topics are mentioned to keep several research teams busy for some years to come: some of them are the old questions in a new light - such as how to improve upon IR systems to make them both easier to use and more effective (a lost cause in my opinion, given the dead end of the present research paradigm), and other issues, such as the transferability of information from pre-digital library systems to digital libraries, which are brought about by the existence of this new phenomenon.

Chapter 8 deals with the issue of 'Acting locally, thinking globally', that is, how to ensure that 'global' information resources are accessible globally - in other words how to achieve interoperability, when resources may be prepared in different languages and in different character sets, and so forth. What standards will be required, based upon those that are now available, to ensure the existence of the true global library? The final chapter takes this further by asking how the technology available is to be scaled up, how access is to be provided, and how to transfer the technology and services to '...parts of the world with different traditions and practices than those of the Group of Seven major industrialised nations that laid the technical and political framework for a global information infrastructure.'

This last point is perhaps the most significant challenge: those of us who use the Internet every day and live in conditions that enable and foster its use, may forget that we are privileged and that, as a recent correspondent (Grosser, 2000) to the pages of Communications of the ACM reminds us, 'Half of the total [of the world's population] have never seen a computer or even made a telephone call.' and that more than two-thirds are illiterate - there is a great deal to be done before any truly 'global digital library' can have any relevance for the greater proportion of humanity, and most of what needs to be done has nothing to do with computer technologies.

Professor Tom Wilson.


Grosser, M. (2000) A plea for dumb computers. Communications of the ACM, 43, (6), 11-12

Star, S.L. and Ruhelder, K. (1996) Steps toward an ecology of infrastructure: design and access for large information spaces. Information Systems Research, 7, (1), 111-134 [Special issue on organizational transformation, edited by J. Yates and J. van Maanen]

Wilson, T.D. (1998) The academic library in the digital age. Journal of Documentation,