The University Record, February 7, 1994

Digital Library Project will combine expertise of three units

By Kate Kellogg
News and Information Services

Three campus units are collaborating on a futuristic building project that will require very little, if any, bricks, mortar or steel. Rather, it will use electronic tools to build an organized network of information resources ranging from book-length, on-line texts to digital slide collections, to multimedia tools. The initiative is named the Digital Library Program, to reflect the concepts embodied in physical libraries—namely, the themes of selecting, organizing and providing access to information. Unlike our current concept of libraries, however, the program will address a broader “information environment,” including resources not traditionally held in libraries.

The goal of the program’s three primary architects—the School of Information and Library Studies (SILS), the University Library and the Information Technology Division (ITD)—is to create a digital “collection” of resources unrestrained by time or location.

The three units will bring complementary expertise to the creation of a framework for information available to the campus via networks, as well as to “seed” projects that involve access to scholarly, administrative, and general campus information.

“The combined focus of the three organizations is to invent ways to bring about a future information environment that supports teaching and research more effectively,” says Library Dean Donald E. Riggs. “As we create the library of the future, we must capture and make available information that is more than just text. The ‘new’ library must include compound documents with animation, graphics and video.”

One organization, working by itself, probably could not have accomplished this, he says. “We likewise will benefit from economies of scale made possible by complementary expertise and the synergy of the three units involved in the program. It’s a situation in which one-plus-one equals three,” Riggs adds.

As an example, Riggs cites the Computer-Aided Engineering Network’s recent collaboration with Elsevier Science Publisher to develop a system that provides on-line access to the full texts of about 40 materials science journals.

The first step in building the Digital Library is to broadly define the U-M’s “collections,” then to develop strategies to organize and provide access to these resources in a coherent way, says Wendy P. Lougee, who is on leave from her position as head of the Graduate Library to direct the Digital Library Program during its first year.

“As the power of distributed computing greatly increases the number and types of information being distributed, we need to create a framework that encompasses the resources scattered throughout campus,” she says. “For example, we have slide collections in various departments, geographic and mapping systems, multimedia programs, and many different kinds of census and survey data sets. We need systems and tools to locate and make use of these resources.”

Many of the issues related to electronic information were identified by participants in the 1990–91 Information Symposium, a Universitywide series of forums and study groups that helped generate the idea for the Digital Library Program, Lougee adds.

The Digital Library provides a new platform for research being conducted by faculty in SILS, notes Dean Daniel E. Atkins III. Several faculty members are designing interfaces to access “electronic highways” to worlds of information resources that exist outside the Uni-versity.

“Our physical advances in electronic information access currently are far ahead of the intellectual,” Atkins says. “The Digital Library will greatly advance our ability to provide more tools and approaches for supporting intellectual access to information.”

Atkins sees the program’s integration of information professionals into the computing environment as “a microcosm of the future. It is our hope that this seminal event will create a permanent coalition for scholarly communication,” he says.

While the Library is focusing on organizing the content of the Digital Library, ITD is setting up new networks and preparing to put the results of other units’ work into place where appropriate, according to Douglas E. Van Houweling, vice provost for information technology.

“The development and implementation of the future computing environment is critical to the success of the Digital Library initiative because it will provide scholars with access to applications that display the information being provided,” he says. “Fortunately, most of the applications that provide access to these new tools and resources are very easy to use.”

The Digital Library Program is jointly funded by the three collaborating units. SILS, the Library and several other units have applied for grants from the National Science Foundation that would provide additional funding for various components of the program.

Current activities include:

  • A project to provide access to full texts of dissertations on the network.

  • The deployment of systems to provide access to full text articles from some 400 “core” journals.

  • A collaboration with the U-M Press to address the issues surrounding the handling of book-length texts and the integration of media.

  • Conversion of slide collections to digital formats.

  • A service to deliver table of contents information from over 10,000 journals via e-mail.

  • Direct linkages with online card catalogs at Big Ten and state institutions.

    Another related but separate project, known as the U-M Digital Library Project (UMDL), has submitted a multi-group proposal to the National Science Foundation for a grant of about $5 million. The goal of this longer-term project is to conduct research and development to gain insight into the creation, operation and use of advanced digital libraries.

    Directed by Atkins, the participants are faculty, research staff and students from the departments of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences in the College of Engineering; SILS; the University Library; the U-M Press; ITD; the Department of Economics; and the Computer-Aided Engineering Network. Outside partners include the New York Public Library, Ann Arbor Public Schools, IBM Corp. and various major publishing companies.

    While the Digital Library Program will use mainly internal resources to accomplish its goals, the UMDL project is trying to bring in large amounts of outside support, Atkins says. The goals of the UMDL—to design, construct, deploy and evaluate a testbed of a digital library— complement those of the three-year Digital Library Program that Lougee is directing.

    Individuals or units interested in the three-year Digital Library Program or potential projects can contact Lougee at 764-8016 or