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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

Digital Libraries: Introduction

Digital libraries have evolved rapidly over the past decade and are now as varied as physical libraries. Although digital libraries have been driven mainly by developments in technology, progress has also been made in addressing the intellectual and social issues involved in sharing knowledge in digital forms.

Building digital libraries involves the integration of complex systems, including collections of documents with varied structure, media, and content (with diverse types such as standard metadata elements like "title," and distributions of interrelationships such as direct references). Add to that mix hardware and software components interoperating across different data structures and processing algorithms and multiple people, communities, as well as institutions with different goals, policies, and cultures. The challenges of integration and interoperation are faced in corporate, government, and academic settings. Solutions involve building upon the experience of traditional communities of practice to cooperate and leverage information technology. This special section aims to illustrate the variety of available and potential applications while offering status reports from projects we've visited previously.1

We've divided the section under three headings: Application Domains; Principals, Tools, and Issues in Building Digital Libraries; and Digital Libraries for Learning and Global Cooperation. The Applications segment begins with an article generalizing the state of digital library technologies from examples of access to scholarly materials across temporal, geographic, and cultural dimensions. Crane et al. describe the latest developments in one of the oldest and largest digital libraries devoted to the humanities and the development of a cultural informatics community. To further illustrate the range of applications, we present four brief examples that discuss genomic information (Neville-Manning), a digital strategy for the Library of Congress (Inouye), and content support for open source communities (Jones) as well as through a freely available yet powerful digital library system (Witten et al.).

The Building segment opens with an overview of principles and practices by McCray and Gallagher that draws on experience in delivering medical research literature over the past decade as well as recent development of the Profiles in Science digital library. The several short articles that follow present state-of-the-art developments on various fronts. Marshall and Golovchinsky discuss implications of mobility (including e-books and online reading). Brown and Seales discuss advanced display and digitization technologies. Nelson and Maly present work on object-oriented architectures for digital libraries using buckets that integrate metadata and code along with the primary information. Gladney and Cantu describe security management in digital libraries, while Arms describes proposed standards for naming content objects. Borgman discusses the roles of human intermediaries, and Tibbo considers preservation where digital libraries serve as digital archives as well.

The third collection focuses on digital libraries in educational settings and in global environments. Duval et al. describe the ARIADNE system that provides access to instructional materials in a variety of subjects across several European communities and languages. McArthur et al. describe a model for sharing and reusing instructional resources with metadata tailored to support the needs of instructors and learners. Marlino et al. describe a digital library for the earth system science community, and Zia provides an update on the NSF-sponsored National Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology Education Digital Library. A global perspective of digital libraries is provided by Witten et al., highlighting the practicalities of digital libraries in developing countries and a suite of tools developed to support progress as well as by Apperley et al.'s example of creating a cultural digital library from Mãori language newspapers in New Zealand. In addition, Urs and Raghavan discuss adding Indian dissertations to the Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations.

As digital library systems, applications, and projects proliferate, we expect a growing industry to emerge. In many ways, digital libraries propel the state of the art in information technology by requiring seamless integration of diverse approaches to collecting, organizing, storing, accessing, and applying knowledge. The benefits will affect millions as education is revitalized through a dramatic worldwide increase in sharing of learning resources and access to information. We hope you will use digital libraries, and help expand their scope of applicability to even broader forms of content management, strengthening the core of the information age.

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Edward A. Fox ( is a professor in the Department of Computer Science at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA.

Gary Marchionini ( is the Cary C. Boshamer Distinguished Professor in the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

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1 Communications featured special sections on digital library technology in April 1995 and April 1998 that focused on the technical and conceptual state of the art.

©2001 ACM  0002-0782/01/0500  $5.00

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2001 ACM, Inc.


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