Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship Spring 2000

Book Reviews

Digital Libraries

David Flaxbart
Chemistry Librarian
University of Texas, Austin

Digital libraries. Arms, William Y. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000. 0-262-01180-8. $45 cloth

William Arms, a computer science professor at Cornell University and a founder of D-Lib Magazine, has written an informative and thoughtful overview of the digital library world. The book lends some organization and context to a field that is, to many, bewilderingly complex and multilayered. Its audience is not techies, who will find its brief summaries simplistic. Its value is for the majority of librarians who, like this reviewer, are on the fringes of digital library development and who can use a framework to synthesize the high volume of news reports from the field. The book could also serve as a text in courses on digital libraries, and as a primer for library and academic administrators who oversee digital library development but don't want to be overwhelmed by technical detail.

As a computer scientist, the author might be expected to focus primarily on the bits and bytes of digital information, but fortunately he takes a much wider view, seeing digital libraries as "the interplay of people, organizations, and technology." Without taking sides, Arms lays out the approaches and agendas of the technical, library, and business communities who are working, sometimes cooperatively, sometimes antagonistically, in the digital library field.

Arms emphasizes the speed and inevitablity of change. Far from being finished products, today's digital libraries are simply the precursors of tomorrow's digital libraries. Yet he avoids too much speculation about the future of digital libraries, because, as he puts it, "the technology is more mature than the uses to which it is being put." The progress of technology can be generally predicted, but what organizations and institutions do with that technology is another matter entirely. This is not to say that the technology is mature, but it still outpaces content providers, particularly publishers, who have not yet figured out how to deal with this new medium. Arms' bemused description of the scientific publishing paradox serves as an apt case study of a system that has broken down completely but which is kept alive by all concerned out of sheer inertia.

The author's prose style is simple and direct, and relatively free of jargon (although a glossary of acronyms is provided). The book is peppered with sidebars that highlight specific examples of current and past digital library projects and protocols, many of which will be familiar to the reader. Early chapters describe the teams involved, with a little background on the Internet and the web, and the beloved protocols that make it all work. A chapter called "People, Organizations, and Change" nicely encapsulates the culture in which digital libraries develop. A chapter on economic and legal issues such as subscription models, liability, and copyright is too brief, but these topics would fill many books by themselves. The later chapters cover the nuts and bolts of digital libraries: access management and security, metadata, searching and retrieval, user interfaces, and archiving.

The moral of the book, if there is one, is that no one aspect of digital libraries can be understood in isolation. The technical, economic, social, legal, organizational, and human elements are all facets of the same problem. We'd like to think that teamwork and cooperation direct ultimate progress, but more likely it's conflict and competition that do the job. We are in the very early stages of a sweeping transition from the printed to the digital. Depending on one's point of view, the pace can seem much too slow or much too fast, and there are many dead ends. Those interested in the big picture will benefit from Arms' analysis.


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