English Literature on the Internet :Latest Internet resources (1.1.1)

Free Digital Libraries

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What is Digital Library

Generally speaking, the term “digital library” can be considered an umbrella term, which is used to designate a digital collection of texts, images, videos, softwares, which can be managed and accessed and used online by creators and users. But in the ‘Libraries’ page of the Florida State University, the definition of digital library is expanded to include “a series of activities that brings together collections, services, and people in support of the full life cycle of creation, dissemination, use, and preservation of data, information, and knowledge. The challenges and opportunities that motivate an advanced digital library research initiative are associated with this broad view of digital library environment” (Florida State University/Libraries). Another striking feature that we come across is, what Daniel Atkins has called, digital coherence. As Mary E. Brown explains, digital coherence means that “all the objects in a digital library, whether sounds, images, texts, or some other media, can be treated in essentially the same way... digital coherence is the mechanism which permits a form of equality among various information resources” (Mary E. Brown). However, the concept and practice of digital library have generated lot of ideas and disagreements, which are symptomatic of the digital environment. Stephen P. Harter has tried to classify some of those in an article “Scholarly Communication and the Digital Library: Problems and Issues”. We can say at this stage that digital library, just like the web, is expanding and evolving more and more user-friendly and application oriented.

The Story of Digital Library

The credit for the vision of digital library interestingly goes to a great 20th century English writer gifted with exceptional scientific imagination, H. G. Wells. Like many other visions that later on became a reality, in 1938 Wells conceived of a “world brain that could supplement, and add functionality to and even replace traditional libraries” (Brown). Similar idea was put forward by another visionary, Paul Otlet (1868-1944), the father of documentation and the creator of Universal Decimal Classification. Not many years after Wells’ fantasy, Vanncuver Bush, director of the US Office of Scientific Research and Development, presented his concept of memex machine in an article, “As We May Think” in the Atlantic Monthly in 1945. ‘Memex’ was conceived of as a system for creating and retrieving information from mechanical system based on microfilm technology.

In 1965—fifteen years after computers had been incorporated into the library services, J.C.R. Licklider, a researcher at MIT and Head of the US Department of Defence’s Information Processing Techniques Office, produced a seminal work, Libraries of the Future. In the book he argued in favour of research programmes necessary for a fully functional digital library. More importantly he spoke of a “network of ‘thinking centers’ that will incorporate the functions of present-day libraries together with anticipated advances in information storage and retrieval” (Licklider, 2003)

Despite these inspiring early visions, nothing significant and serious happened with the visions in the actual field until 1980. In the 1980s interests in digital library were revived again following the developments that took place in the fields of creating, presenting and preserving and accessing information in wholly new and more effective ways. The decade saw unprecedented developments in the computer and hardware sectors with great commercial successes. Clifford Lynch sums up the achievements in the field of digital library in the essay, “Where Do We Go from Here? The Next Decade for Digital Libraries”:

“Technologies like distributed search (for example, Z39.50) were well established by the late 1980s; it is easy today to forget Kahn and Cerf's seminal integrative paper "The Digital Library Project Volume 1: the World of Knowbots" was written in 1987-1988. Indeed, by the mid-1980s there were systems both in the commercial sector (consider Lexis-Nexis) and the research world (Bruce Schatz's Telesophy, for example) that might reasonably be considered digital libraries at least by some definitions. Very substantial digital library systems were developed prior to the World Wide Web.” (Lynch, 2005)

With equal pace, however, experiments were on and break-throughs were achieved with sending, sharing and accessing data over a network of many interconnected computers. In this credit goes to Tim Berners-Lee. In 1980, while working as a contractor in CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucleaire) he created a database software that could catalogue people and software models in CERN. By December of 1990, Berners-Lee, in collaboration with Robert Cailliau, had developed functional softwares to run the first web browser—WorldWideWeb, the web server and the first web pages declaring the Project. Cailliau (1995) recalled the event humorously:

“I was determined that the name should not yet again be taken from Greek mythology. Tim proposes "World-Wide Web". I like this very much, except that it is difficult to pronounce in French”

Here it must be clarified that fully functional digital libraries had been created long before the Internet and the Web; for instance, Project Gutenberg, Project Perseus, Ibiblio etc. Stephen P. Harter has summarised the developments for digital library in the following way:

In 1965, J. C. R. Licklider coined the phrase "library of the future" to refer to his vision of a fully computer-based library, and ten years later, F.W. Lancaster wrote of the soon-to-come "paperless library." About the same time Ted Nelson invented and named hypertext and hyperspace. He also analyzed some of the problems to be identified later in this paper in some detail, but never built an operational system. Many other terms have been coined to refer to the concept of a digitized library, including "electronic library," "virtual library," "library without walls," "bionic library," and others.” (Harter)

According to him and many others, the term “digital library” emerged as an accepted term after the foundation of the Digital Libraries Initiative, which received massive funds for researches on digital libraries.

What coincided and converged with the Internet is the fact that from 1994 onwards the huge amount of funds became available for research and it was taken for granted that true digital libraries can best be built up in the realm of the web. The difference in approach and attitude to digital library now was best reflected in the motto of the Digital Library Initiative (the biggest digital library research project): "the Initiative's focus is to dramatically advance the means to collect, store, and organize information in digital forms, and make it available for searching, retrieval, and processing via communication networks." (Digital Library Initiative)

With the spread of the Web an exponential rate all over the world, the concept spread in the similar rate and high quality digital libraries popped up from the major countries of the world, including in India, with more effective and simpler search techniques.

User’s Convenience with Digital Libraries

While it must be said that the digital libraries have not proved as much useful as the physical libraries, they have certain facilities or flexibilities which may not be found with the physical libraries. Digital libraries offer the following conveniences for the users:

· Independence of Physical Location: The “information player”, to employ a new term, can attain independence from a physical location while logging on/in to a digital library. S/he can browse through and access the virtual libraries just from home provided that there is a computer with internet connection of modest speed.

· 24 ×7 Availability: As opposed to the conventional libraries, the digital libraries are available at any time unless some of them are down for maintenance.

  • One Title for All: One of the major conveniences of digital texts is that one copy of title is enough for numerous users at the same time.
  • Rich and Sophisticated Access: Digital libraries provide a rich and sophisticated access in terms of mobility of choices. In a user-friendly interface the user has the option of moving on from the catalogue to the text and to a particular chapter or from one library another in a minute. Using the optional search (word/s, title, author’s name or particular subject), the readers gets a glimpse of the collection in a very short time and even store the search results for future use. Even some digital libraries generously provide links to similar libraries.
  • Instant Saving and Personalised Access: Digital libraries provide the option of instant saving of texts in the user’s computer, which can be used at anytime, and if saved as an online document, can be used by the user from any location.
  • Low Cost: Access to a digital library is low-cost or even free-of-cost affair, though access to some of them is highly expensive.
  • Institutional Independence: While physical libraries are themselves institutions, they have certain institutional norms, which sometimes restrict individual freedom of access and seem to generate inhibitions. Digital libraries do not exert any institutional pressure on the users.
  • Multimedia Experience: Users can have some sort of multimedia experience on the web in a personalised manner.
  • Learning is Fun: If the user is not addicted to the internet, learning can be a fun for him/her, as it provides a break from the traditional system of education.


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