Instant Ideas and Collaboration

Feature #11 What do we talk about when we talk about digital libraries?

Modern information work is dominated by the digital. All libraries work with the masses of digital information that computer technology has made possible. ‘Digital libraries’ – the assigned topic of this blog post – is too big a topic to be covered adequately in a 750-1000 word blog post and so, rather than covering all of the issues involved in digital libraries and digital librarianship, the focus of this post is the definition of ‘digital library’. The aim is to be ‘thought-provoking’ rather than ‘comprehensive’. Caveats and excuses in place, let’s begin…

The term ‘digital library’ was once defined as “a focused collection of digital objects, including text, video, and audio, along with methods for access and retrieval, and for selection, organization, and maintenance of the collection.” (Witten, et al., 2010, p. 7) This definition – representative of other available definitions of ‘digital library’ – is so broad as to be meaningless. In philosophical parlance, the definition is necessary but not sufficient. Specifically, the use of the term ‘digital objects’ makes this definition applicable to too many things that intuitively we would not want to categorise as digital libraries: text strings encoded in HTML are digital objects and therefore a focused collection of those – a website – is a digital library; digital images are digital objects and therefore any mobile device with a camera contains a digital library; library OPACs and discovery platforms are digital libraries; each Amazon Kindle is a digital library; Wikipedia is a digital library.Digital Library

Due in part to the ever-changing, ephemeral, and ethereal nature of digital information, any rigorous definition of ‘digital library’ will be insufficient. Digital libraries take too many disparate forms for any one definition to be meaningful. Accordingly, a list of real examples and extrapolation of their shared characteristics may be the best ‘definition’ possible. And so:

A stab at a non-exhaustive list of things that one might call a ‘digital library’ in a LIS work environment:

  • Collections of digitised content. Including but not limited to:

◦       Archive collections

  • The British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership’s India Office Records component

◦       Manuscript collections

◦       Image content

◦       Audio content

◦       Video content

  • Born-digital collections. Including but not limited to:

◦       Institutional repositories

◦       Publisher sites for aggregated electronic content

◦       Commercial ebook vendor platforms

Bonus list of things that are pretty much digital libraries but aren’t considered as such in LIS for cultural and/or legal reasons:

  • Streaming services for digital content
  • Torrent sites (particularly those for ebooks)
    • The Pirate Bay
    • Isohunt.to
    • Etc.

Even if we were to be stricter and restrict the term ‘digital library’ to only those collections which contain books (a term which would itself require definition), then we still have a mass of diverse platforms offering a range of digital objects. Most people in a LIS environment will be working with one or more of these digital libraries and so understanding and appreciation of them and the issues raised in working with them is essential for modern LIS workers.

However, note how many of the platforms in the above list are out of the control of libraries or librarians. Publication databases are created by publishers and commercial entities; repositories are created by academics; websites and social networks are created by software developers and programmers. Digital libraries are, by and large, not managed by librarians. If librarians are not involved in the creation or curation of digital libraries, then in what sense are they ‘libraries’ at all?

Digital libraries provide a good example of the changing role of library and information workers in a culture of digital content. Since we do not manage these platforms, we instead become experts on them: guides through the steppes of digital information. The major issue with this is that while LIS workers are aware of how much they know about digital library platforms, their users are not necessarily aware of that. Why would they associate JSTOR, a shiny commercial platform, with the staff behind the big desk on the other side of the library? How would they know to ask a librarian about digital copyright or FOI requests or off-campus authentication or ebook file formats or etc.?

Golf Sale

Even this new role is becoming reduced. User-focused design for digital platforms aims to make the experience easy for the user: to ensure that users can intuitively navigate a interface without asking anyone for help. Folksonomies and collaborative systems of organisation make top-down hierarchical organisation systems appear at best antiquated and at worst obfuscatory. Between these two strands of development for digital content, what role is there for information professionals? Libraries are left to point towards digital information – towards those who truly provide digital collections – like a person forlornly holding a sign pointing to a golf sale. We all know they could just be replaced by a signpost.

In a digital context, the word ‘library’ is as outmoded as the word ‘object’. Digital information is a paradigm shift and we are still in the process of modifying our language to accommodate it. Just as the digital things that we call ‘objects’ do not share the same properties as the physical things we call ‘objects’, digital libraries are unlike physical libraries. They are not contained. They are (often) not organised with any strict or logical system. They are (often) commercial for-profit enterprises. They (often) have restrictions on their use. They are not managed by librarians. Digital libraries are not libraries: they are information.

by Simon BarronSimon Barron



Witten, I., Bainbridge, D., & Nichols, D., 2010. How to build a digital library. Second Edition. Oxford: Elsevier.

‘screenshot3’ from Flickr user: Cambridge University. CC BY-NC 2.0.

‘Golf Sale man #2’ from Flickr user: Richard Cocks. CC BY 2.0.

About spoontragedy

Former public library Children's Librarian, now working as a Careers Information Officer in a London university. Nearly finished being an #aberils student.

4 comments on “Feature #11 What do we talk about when we talk about digital libraries?

  1. Freya
    February 24, 2014

    I’m operating something which I believe fits your true definition of “digital library” – using Koha to currate and organise born digital content. If you (or anyone else!) would like to see it’s ipsplibrary.net.au – would love your feedback on it.

  2. Pingback: 6 March 2014 Agenda: Digital Libraries | #uklibchat

  3. Pingback: Digital Curation & Public Libraries – First thoughts | Just Another Library Assistant

  4. Pingback: #uklibchat Summary – Digital Libraries – 6 March 2014 | #uklibchat

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This entry was posted on February 23, 2014 by in Feature.


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