Springtime in Milton Keynes means blossom on our famous shrubs, daffodils on our famous roundabouts, and at De Montfort the sound of busy people preparing for this year's ELVIRA . While the endless controversy rages over pronouncing the conference's name (which stands for Electronic Library and Visual Information Research), all is progressing well. Whether pronounced with Vera Duckworth or the 'Queen of Darkness' in mind, ELVIRA's an old lady now in relation to most digital library conferences. With the fourth year's programme finalised, what can we learn about the progress of the field from her history so far?
The most important change, of course, is the shift from proposals of what a digital library would or should be like, or descriptions of hopeful prototypes, towards reports on actual working systems and completed research studies. Thus presentations at both the 1996 and 1997 conferences consider the longer-term experiences of managing, and observing usage of, relatively mature digital repositories. Indeed, for this year's conference the reviewers rejected many papers which they felt were still in a relatively early stage, with too little experience to report, since there are by now plenty of more mature studies and developments to choose from. Real systems will also be demonstrated, alongside new designs. Issues now arising include integration of developed technologies, long-term economic models, and use by well-experienced users. At the same time, innovations are still appearing, especially in multimedia and in the use of network protocols like Z39.50 to link multiple sources together. As digital libraries become a more established field, so we also begin to see clear specialisms developing such as electronic journals, rights management and user issues.
Meanwhile, the digital library community is also changing. The days are fast vanishing when a few researchers and computing experts could expect to lecture to wide-eyed librarians about their new developments. Thanks to initiatives like the eLib programme , the European Community Libraries Programme  and the US Digital Library Initiative , we're all researchers and developers now. At this year's ELVIRA, reflecting this trend, four workshops (mainly panel-led discussion sessions) will run in parallel with the traditional paper sessions, giving delegates the chance for participation in semi-structured debate. Naturally the workshops reflect some of the most topical issues in the field: management and integration, the research agenda, collaborative systems, and the troublesome migraine of copyright.
As Ariadne readers will know, it's very important to learn from new initiatives across the world, not merely in the UK, since digital library developments and research are going on in all English-speaking and many other countries. Past ELVIRAs have reflected this, with papers from Japan, the US, Ireland, and other European countries. This year, our keynote speaker is from an Australian university, and we have papers from South Africa, New Zealand, Ireland, and an Austrian-Hungarian collaborative project. However, not all the overseas submissions were accepted - the same criteria applied to all (broadly, the criteria of originality, readability, interest, quality and relevance to the conference).
What about the projects themselves? One would expect a change in more than quantity as time passes. Content, technologies, Internet dependence, accessibility, size, user interface metaphors and the scale of ambition of projects might all be expected to change as well. This isn't always obvious, however: many new eLib projects are still on a relatively small, exploratory scale. Furthermore, until all the technical and copyright issues are resolved we are likely to see continuing variance in the use of document formats and software architectures. Some projects continue to choose 'tried and tested' over 'innovative and standards-defined'; others are looking beyond their own collections towards enabling their users greater accessibility to the vast collection of material that is the WWW. This year's technical sessions include, inevitably, a heavy emphasis on the WWW, but also on other technical innovations.
One definitely growing trend is in my own specialist area of interest, user issues. Right from the start, ELVIRA has included papers on this theme: at least three papers in each year's conference have explicitly focused on social or organisational aspects, user interface design or user cognition. In the 1997 conference, user issues are touched on in a number of papers, and those explicitly focused on them form two sessions in their own right. As somebody who has been involved in human-computer interaction projects for some years, it is exciting to work in a new field where human factors are recognised as important and interesting right from the beginning of the technical developments.
Finally, the sign of a maturing field is perhaps the point where people step back and consider higher-level strategic and policy issues underlying the hectic pace of developments. This is definitely a growing tendency, as shown by last year's inclusion of papers considering the cultural changes implied by the new paradigm. This year's conference has a whole paper session devoted to policy issues, and inevitably they will also be discussed in the workshops on the research agenda and on rights management/economic models. Thus ELVIRA continues to be a conference for everyone in the field: library managers and staff, technologists, researchers and anyone else interested in the fast-growing digital library world.