In the early 1990s, when traditional library systems were first galvanized by the sweeping possibilities of digitalizing centuries of paper artifacts and documents into computer databases, library scientists believed a global network of digitalized materials was just around the corner. This grand digital library would be accessible to individual users anytime on any computer, thus rendering obsolete the notion of a library as a public building servicing a given community. However, that bold vision proved to be a significant challenge to bring to fruition. Computer software experts and library scientists charged with devising the systems, system links, and databases and amassing the archives to create digital libraries realized that reaching their goal would involve overcoming a myriad of complexities that still remained unresolved in the early twenty-first century.
Not every available archive of information, documents, specialized publications, and data is a digital library; by that definition, any Internet search engine would qualify. Instead, much like traditional libraries, digital libraries stress organization of the materials in addition to the traditional functions of long-term storage and preservation.
Digital libraries offer an important strategy for extending the reach of traditional libraries, and public and university libraries routinely subscribe to global databases for patron use in addition to participating in ongoing projects to convert centuries of print material into digital format. Although library science is well on its way to catching up to the possibilities of digital collections, distinctions have been established between materials that have to be digitalized—a process that is relatively quick, cheap, and applicable to basically to any publication from before 1990—and materials that are “born digital.” Those charged with developing the templates for digital libraries stress the virtual system's need to organize the ever-growing body of materials to permit efficient and transparent access to users worldwide, given that there will be no central digital library, simply links that connect databases and archives around the world. Such a system would require well-trained professionals to move users smoothly through an often-intimidating network of information.
The development of digital libraries poses a number of significant challenges, including designing the superstructure of an architecturally sound interrelated network of systems, rewriting existing international copyright laws for reproduction and distribution of materials, and generating meta-data—that is, data that describes and can be used to catalog primary materials, much like traditional card catalogs or indexes. In addition, libraries must keep up with the ever-expanding body of data that includes not only traditional print materials, such as books and periodicals, but also films, music, government records, and scientific and research data. Coordinating a theoretically unlimited number of digital libraries, each storing and organizing a specific area of available materials, and putting that network within reach of users ably assisted by digital librarians is the challenge that remains for library scientists and computer engineers.
—Joseph Dewey, MA, PhD
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