British Library Corner: Setting Priorities for Digital Library Research, The Beginnings of a Process?

Graham Jefcoate describes the background behind the recently announced British Library Research and Innovation Centre call for proposals in the field of digital library research.

Further details on the call for proposals mentioned in this article can be found at: The British Library Research and Innovation Centre has initiated a process of discussion and debate among those working in the field of digital library research. This discussion is intended to help gain some idea of which issues need to be addressed and to establish how the research programmes and funding agencies in the field might set their own priorities. It has provided valuable information in drafting a call for proposals in the digital library research field which the Centre has announced - and in shaping our response to future grant applications in this area. Our current research plan (1996-1997) describes digital library research in the following terms:

"... exploring ways in which technology can be applied to improve the provision of information and library services, and investigating the consequent social, economic, legal and other issues; this programme covers networking (including the use if the Internet), document delivery, electronic publishing (including issues relating to copyright and legal deposit), digitisation of information resources and automation of library processes".

We therefore define digital library-related research very broadly, encompassing not only technical aspects but also the whole impact of networking and digital technologies on the library and information fields and their users.

The Centre already has an impressive record of support for research in the whole digital library field. Perhaps most significantly, the Centre funds (jointly with JISC) the United Kingdom Office of Library and Information Networking ( UKOLN) as a national centre for support in network information management in the library and information communities. An important recent example of a succesfully-completed research project is ELINOR (Electronic Library INformation Online Retrieval) at De Montfort University's International Institute for Electronic Library Research, the first project in any British university to build a full-text library system for students. RUDI (Resource for Urban Design Information) is a project at the University of Hertfordshire which is building a multimedia information resource for research and teaching in the field of urban design. Other current projects include studies of:

  • the use of online journals (Loughborough University);
  • retrospective catalogues in the non-academic sector (Bath University);
  • an automated reference service (Sheffield University); and,
  • an online thesis service (Edinburgh University).

In addition, the Centre supports an important programme of initiatives in public library networking. Among recent projects are Project EARL, a pilot/demonstration project to enable public libraries to develop networked information and resource-sharing services, CLIP (the Croydon Libraries Internet Project) and IT Point at Solihull, all of which have had a significant impact, raising awareness of the Internet among library professionals and the wider community.

Research proposals currently under consideration (December 1996) relate to a wide variety of topics including the use of the Internet by sections of the community often "excluded" until now and its impact on specific professions.

A Call for Proposals

Much preliminary work in building models and demonstrators or setting standards has therefore already been undertaken or is currently supported by the RIC and other bodies (especially, of course, the eLib programme in the higher education field). But many key issues remain unresolved providing opportunities for fruitful research.

In the RIC Research bulletin No. 14, the Research and Innovation Centre announced that "it is our intention, ... to identify specific topics or broader programme areas where we and our advisers consider that some concentration of research effort is required. We will then issue calls for proposals in those topics or programmes" (p. 4). We are currently making a call for proposals in the field of digital library research. This is an area where a number of national programmes has emerged and there is the potential danger of a duplication of effort or lack of coordination among them. There is a clear need to target the Centre's modest resources to best effect.

To help me with the formulation of the call for proposals, and to assist in the selection process, I have been working with a small, informal advisory panel (Rosemary Russell, UKOLN; Heather Kirby, Croydon Libraries; Dr Andrew Prescott, British Library Special Collections). The call itself was announced before Christmas and applications must be received by the Centre before 31 January 1997.

Two kinds of proposal will be defined: full-scale, longer-term projects such as involving one full-time research assistant and more modest, shorter-term studies, workshops or other appropriate activities. Ariadne readers are referred to the Centre's Digital Library Research pages on Portico for further information.

The Discussion

While working on the call, the panel decided it would be useful to widen the circle of those involved in informal discussions on the future of digital library-related research in this country. The first step was to arrange a meeting, or rather an informal "brainstorming" session, of interested parties. Key individuals were invited to participate from the British Library itself, the Libraries and Information Commission Research Sub-Committee, UKOLN, the eLib programme and the European Union's DGXIII. Including the members of the panel, some fourteen individuals met at the Centre in London on 21 November. These individuals were not regarded by us in any way as representative of all the agencies with an interest in the topic. (In addition to this meeting I have held quite lengthy discussions with other centres of excellence in the field, for example the International Institute for Electronic Library Research.) Neither was the November meeting intended to have any formal outcome, although it seemed useful to disseminate a résumé of points raised in discussion simply in order to stimulate further debate.

The meeting was asked to address two main questions:

  • What topics and issues should be addressed by the next phase of digital library research in this country? And,
  • Which priorities should the research programmes and funding agencies set?

I am not sure we found any ready answers to either of these questions in the limited time available, but many helpful points emerged. There was also a sense that the discussion was a useful beginning to a timely initiative. To kick off the proceedings, the panel had drawn up a list a possible topic areas. The list was intended merely to stimulate discussion but may have constrained the debate in that participants felt they needed to address and discuss only the points on the paper before them! Some were also uneasy about the very wide definition of "digital library research" the Centre has used, feeling that a greater emphasis on technical aspects might be expected.

Access for all

The first set of questions was grouped under the heading of "Access for all" which clearly recalls "Information for All", the current application by the Libraries and Information Commission with the Library Association for lottery funds to connect public libraries to the Internet. Where Information for All is concentrating on widening connectivity in the physical sense, we were concerned that wider issues of access to networked information should not be neglected. Among the questions we asked ourselves were:

  • How could a 'public-benefit' network be established (covering not only public libraries but also citizens' advice bureaux, museums, charities, NHS trusts, etc.)?
  • Could the experience of the eLib programme be applied in other sectors beyond the higher education sector?
  • Is a NetSkills programme for the wider library and information community feasible?
  • How can access to digital information be provided for those with disabilities or other disadvantaged individuals or groups?
  • What initiatives could be developed aimed at children and young people or indeed older people?
  • Have possible therapeutic benefits of access to the Net been considered?
  • What hardware and software solutions might be developed?

Integration of digital information into services

Here we felt that much more needed to be done to ensure that digital and networked information was integrated into the 'culture' of library services. Questions included:

  • How are digital information resources being used to support and enhance services?
  • How effective are staff awareness and training programmes?
  • Are there strategies to provide unified access to the full range of information resources? How effective are they? What are the challenges in achieving a unified service?
  • How far can the development of transparent interfaces (e.g. scholar's workstations) help?
  • What can be learnt about the need for cultural change among staff and users (cf. for example IMPEL 2)?

Digital information across sectoral boundaries

Here we were concerned to address issues relating to the cooperation of institutions working in the same subject area but in different 'sectors', funded by different public and private sources: central and local government; higher education; business; voluntary organisations and so on. Networking technology appears to invite the creation of 'virtual communities' of those sharing common interests, but these had in practice been slow to develop.

  • How can networked information initiatives break down sectoral barriers?
  • What models are there for successful, cross-sectoral cooperation in particular areas?
  • How are quality services (e.g. eLib subject gateway projects) being used inside and outside the higher education field? What is their acceptance?
  • Should national, non-sectoral information gateways be developed?
  • What lessons are there from experience in Europe and the US (e.g. the Federation led by the Library of Congress)?

Economic modelling

This appeared to us to be another key issue (or rather group of issues). Structures and services will only develop when 'the price is right'!

  • What will be the principal pricing models for networked information?
  • What are the factors that will underlie pricing strategies? What are the technological and market restraints?
  • What relevant initiatives are there outside the UK?

Electronic and print media

Perhaps because the background of the present writer and some of the panellists is in the humanities, issues relating to the impact of digital and networking technologies on reading and scholarly communication also featured prominently in our initial discussions. A 'new literacy' will be needed so that users are equipped to locate and evaluate networked information.

  • How will the spread of electronic media (CD-ROM, the Internet) affect the print industry?
  • Will a balance be reached between printed discourse and the dissemination of information in digital formats or over networks?
  • How will the presentation of discursive arguments and scholarly communication be changed by the digital format? Will complexity be lost?
  • How will the process of reading be affected?

Further Issues and Suggestions

The November meeting suggested a further range of possible issues. Indeed the discussion ranged far beyond research priorities as such, seeking to define a series of desirable outcomes. It was felt, for example, that JANET, the academic networking consortium, might provide a funding model for the non-academic sector. This might have a similar kind of collective 'purchasing power' to JANET in negotiating with providers. Networked 'virtual communities' might link individuals and institutions across sectors (the archives community was mentioned several times as one example; other topic areas mentioned were business and local history). National services (for example, a 'virtual business library') might build on the blocks of local initiatives. How could the experience of local projects be 'scaled up' for wider implementation? New organisational models might emerge, for example 'federating services'. A national body might be needed, however, to 'broker' or mediate between sectors.

There was much discussion of the need for mapping to ensure we were aware of research and relevant initiatives across sectors and indeed throughout the community. Information flows and the value and impact of networked information needed to be better understood. In any case a 'national networked information policy' and a strategy were urgently required! The desirability of a workshop on economic modelling was also agreed.

The meeting also focussed on the prime importance of training: spreading the 'skills infrastructure' in the LIS community to match the physical infrastructure represented by the networks, the hardware and software. Following up the experience of NetSkills and IMPEL in the higher education community similar projects in the non-academic sector were clearly desirable (IMPULSE was even suggested as a possible acronym for a public library project!).

Librarians and information specialists should seize the opportunity to re-establish themselves as 'mediators' (or 'knowledge managers'!) between users and information, redefining (and adding value) to their professional skills. But some felt that education in the LIS field was not equipping students with the basic technical skills they needed. Was the profession in danger of missing a golden opportunity?

It was felt that the British Library should play a role in pulling together the results of individual projects and initiatives and ensuring their wide dissemination.

Conclusions and Next Steps

My personal conclusion from the many discussions I have had with colleagues over the past few months on priorities for the next phase of digital library research is that there is a growing consensus.

Most seem to agree that priority in digital library research ought now to be given to what might be called 'user-centred' issues: access, awareness and training. It is these issues that feature most prominently among the research priorities described under Centre's call where we express the wish to stimulate research leading to innovative solutions of questions such as the following:

  • How can access to networked resources be widened to include the whole community?
  • How can digital information resources be integrated more effectively into library and information services?
  • How can networking technology aid cooperation between different sectors in the library and information community?
  • What skills will information professionals and users need? How can they be acquired?
  • What will be the principal economic models for the digital library?
  • What technical standards or evaluation methods will apply?

We stress, however, that we would be happy to consider any proposal that will address the impact of digital and networking technologies on libraries and information, welcoming particularly proposals in the field of public libraries or community information. The text of the Call itself will be found elsewhere on the UKOLN server.

Clearly the discussions we have held so far have only been a beginning of a longer process. Perhaps they have only begun to indicate how such a discussion should be shaped. We should welcome views on this document that might take the discussion further. Meanwhile we have proposed a widening of the debate in the form of a panel discussion at the next ELVIRA (Electronic Library and Visual Information Research), the annual UK Digital Library conference to be held in Milton Keynes in May next year.

Date published: 
Tuesday, 19 November 1996
Copyright statement: 

This article has been published under copyright; please see our access terms and copyright guidance regarding use of content from this article. See also our explanations of how to cite Ariadne articles for examples of bibliographic format.