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Deep Infrastructure Supports Digital Library Services

Libraries have always been central to the exchange of knowledge, but never have they been closer to the creation and dissemination of scholarly content, and to the fundamental processes of teaching and learning. Duke University has recognized the strategic importance of the digital library as a change agent.

Everybody wants a digital library, or so they think. The term “digital library” has become synonymous with technological innovation in higher education. With a decade of support from governments and private foundations in an international context, digital libraries are maturing as both a metaphor for digital collections and services, and as a framework for advances in computer and information sciences. Digital libraries may prove to be tremendous forces for needed change in teaching and learning and, particularly, for the transformation of the roles that traditional libraries play on and off campus. Duke University is embracing digital library services as a strategic mechanism for advancing deep information technology infrastructure on campus.

What is a Digital Library?

Digital libraries emerged from research and development activities in the decade of the 1990s. They are a nearly ubiquitous feature of higher education today and yet they conform to no easy definition. From among the many competing views, Christine Borgman (2000) offers a dual-faceted perspective: a set of electronic resources—constructed and organized for a community of users.

Perhaps more presciently, Paul Duguid (1997) focuses on the resources required to advance technology over time. For Duguid, a digital library is “an environment to bring together collections, services, and people in support of the full life cycle of creation, dissemination, use, and preservation of data, information, and knowledge.” This definition seems particularly appropriate for a higher education community attempting to balance the flexibility of virtual space with the power that physical space brings to the learning process.

Digital libraries in higher education are tied up in the evolving roles of traditional libraries. In her extended essay, Wendy Lougee (2002) describes how libraries are changing, partly in response to new technologies and partly in anticipation of new opportunities for leadership that technology provides. Rather than being defined by its collections or the services that support them, Lougee writes, the library is becoming “a diffuse agent” within the scholarly community. “We see the library becoming more deeply engaged in the fundamental mission of the academic institution—i.e., the creation and dissemination of knowledge—in ways that represent the library's contributions more broadly and that intertwine the library with the other stakeholders in these activities. The library becomes a collaborator within the academy, yet retains its distinct identity.”

Digital libraries have a life of their own. Daniel Greenstein and Suzanne Thorin (2002) apply the metaphor of human aging (child, adolescent, adult) to the process of building and extending digital library programs. Through a series of case studies, they identify common themes of the maturing process, including the ability of libraries to harness expertise through campus collaboration and to discreetly move resources from traditional library activities to digital research. The most significant mark of maturity, they suggest, is the ability of the research library to embed itself ever more deeply into the scholarly environment and in the change process on campus.

Planning the Digital Library @ Duke

The Digital Library @ Duke is a major component of the university’s overall strategic plan. Goal 6 of a key planning document, Building on Excellence, states the principle that “information technology is an integral and indispensable component of education and research in the 21st century.” The library is central to the university’s plan to connect the Duke community to the resources they need anytime and anyplace and to increase support for the use of information technology in teaching and learning environments. The Digital Library @ Duke is intended to support—and eventually help transform—teaching and learning by members of the Duke community.

The library has identified the development of the Digital Library @ Duke as a top strategic activity of its present five-year plan. Critical Choices: Perkins Library System Plan, 2000-2005 proposes that the digital library will facilitate the transformation of scholarship by “…seizing the opportunities of new technologies to enhance traditional resources and services and to build new roles for the library, presenting it as the resource of first resort for scholars and as the shared intellectual center of the university” (See sidebar).

Early in 2001, a library-oriented planning task force did yeoman work to outline the programmatic and organizational elements of the Digital Library @ Duke. The task force developed a compelling vision for a digital library initiative and identified five strategic recommendations: (1) build an organizational structure to support new digital library initiatives; (2) hire and reassign staff to create a critical mass of expertise dedicated to digital library projects; (3) create a technical infrastructure capable of managing a diverse array of information resources in digital form; (4) pursue outside funding to increase the scale of digital library operations ; and (5) join the Digital Library Federation [], an active consortium of leading university libraries in the U.S. committed to advancing a critical research program.

The digital library program in the Duke University Libraries comprises services, technology tools, and digital content that support the diverse information needs of the multifaceted Duke community, extending well beyond the physical campus setting.
In this sense, then, the digital library is conceived as a resource environment, accessible through computing tools in buildings on campus and on individual desktops on and off campus. Duke’s digital library program becomes the essential mechanism for uniting people and ideas and presenting information that lives across the full spectrum of storage media. In the past decade, the library’s digital efforts have moved at an increasing pace from childhood to early adulthood.

Infrastructure Elements

It is important to recognize that a digital library program makes the library buildings on campus ever more critically important, if for no other reason than a library can usually provide—in tandem with central IT capability—a great variety of computer equipment,
highly reliable connections to the Internet, and inviting spaces where people can learn together using shared technology tools. Since for the foreseeable future only a part of the information resources needed for most scholarly disciplines will exist in digital form, a digital library becomes the essential mechanism for pulling together and presenting information that resides in the library on paper, film, magnetic tapes, and optical disks.

A deep infrastructure is required to support the services that people see and tend to associate with a digital library. Although every digital library establishes its own identity and a unique mix of content and delivery mechanisms, some infrastructure elements are invariably commonplace.

Organization of Expertise

Organizing a digital library involves assembling expertise, building highly technical computer systems to hold and preserve digital collections, and developing the programs and services that make it possible for people to find and use digital information.

On May 1, 2002, a new organizational structure was put in place under the direction of the Director for Information Technology Services. The Digital Library @ Duke functions as three operational departments: Information Systems Support; Web Services; and Research and Content Development. Each department has a distinctive set of operational responsibilities. All have a specific mandate to serve the public directly and to support library staff in their use of information technologies in their work and in their user services. The three departments work collaboratively on an evolving set of products and outcomes intended cumulatively to give programmatic focus to the digital library. The organizational structure functions as if nearly every technology-related initiative in the library system is related in some way to something we call a “digital library.”

This technology department structure represents only those centrally managed digital library resources. The successful development of digital library projects and programs depends on the work of cross-departmental and cross-library task forces, project teams, and advisory groups. The work of seventeen staff members in the digital library organization is leveraged by the work of four times that many staff members working in cross-functional project teams.

Campus IT Relationships

The digital library program at Duke is not an isolated “free agent” on campus but is closely allied with central IT operations and with technology activities based in professional schools and academic departments. The relationship between the library IT operation and the central Office of Information Technology (OIT) can best be characterized as highly collaborative and collegial in that special southern way. The resources that OIT marshals dwarf those of the library. The library’s digital initiatives have, as a result, emphasized a principled division of labor that builds on the library’s traditional intellectual strengths: structured organization of information resources, a deep commitment to preservation, and mediation in the search and retrieval process.

Another source of strength of the particular Duke context is the presence of the Center for Instructional Technology (CIT) within the library organizational structure. CIT supports faculty innovation with technology and manages the university’s course management system (presently Blackboard). CIT gives the digital library program direct access to the very people on campus who are on the front lines of pedagogical innovation.

Digital Library Enterprise Systems

The technical infrastructure of a digital library is built upon a suite of applications that are as fully integrated as technology standards will permit. These digital library applications are being built as enterprise systems managed and promoted not as library systems per se, but as tools for the end-user community.

At Duke, three systems are presently under intense development and will be in production starting summer 2004:

  • Ex Libris [] provides the core metadata repository, as well as a full suite of search and discovery tools and embedded workflow processes that support the acquisition, processing, and delivery of library resources in digital and other formats.
  • Zope Corporation [] is developing a Web content management system for Duke built on the open source Zope content management framework. The library is one of two early adopters on campus to rebuild their Web sites and syndicate content with the new product Zope4Edu.
  • DSpace [], open source digital repository software from MIT, is the foundation of an institutional archiving capability.

A Program of Projects

A mature digital library supposedly traverses a path from experiments, to projects, to core operational programs. The digital library program at Duke, as it is maturing, is more accurately portrayed as an integrated “program of projects.”

Two of the most significant projects to take advantage of the emerging infrastructure are the creation of a new digital production center to support the digitization and full text conversion of library resources for faculty applications and the implementation of a digital image delivery system from Luna Imaging, Inc. Both projects are fully described on the Information Technology Services Web site [].

Everybody wants a digital library… or do they? Whether you choose to answer that question with an enthusiastic “of course” or an emphatic “no way,” the idea of a “digital library” is now a critical intellectual construct in higher education. For some, the idea evokes the mysterious world of bits and bytes and conjures up notions of a library without books, librarians working in cyberspace, and buildings stagnating on campus because students gather and learn online. For others, especially the present generation of students raised with the Internet, digital information is the only way to go. In fact, the digital library of the future is a reflection of the real library of today, albeit one with new tools, new services, and a new perspective on how technology can enhance the learning experience.

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