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Progress Towards the Development of Digital Libraries: the Experiences of Some National Libraries in North America, Australasia and Europe

Russian Digital Libraries Journal [2000]


Copyright (c) 2000

1. Introduction

The response of library staff to new technological advancements has tended to be most positive with, whenever possible, the technology applied for the improvement of services. The availability of mainframe computers to the wider academic and public communities in the 1960s led to the first systems including the development of co-operative systems such as OCLC which survives, albeit in very different form, today. The ready availability of mini computers together with software developed especially for libraries in the 1970s led to a rapid application of the technology in libraries. Today, libraries are very actively introducing systems manifesting modern design aspects including Relational DataBase Management Systems (RDBMS) and client server technology. Libraries, too, eagerly embraced the use of information services offered first of all using batch processing, moving onto online technology and more recently including CD-ROMs and the world wide web. The provision of information in a range of electronic forms, together with the ready availability of the technology to create electronic materials from printed and other materials sets a formidable challenge and that is how the user of the library can have as transparent as possible access to the resources available, regardless of their medium.

The availability of materials in various electronic guises, whether as published in such form or whether migrated to such a form, has led to much discussion on the concept of the digital library which has been defined as follows:

"The digital library is an information service in which all the information resources are available in computer processable form and the functions of acquisition, storage, preservation, retrieval, access and display are carried out through the use of digital technologies" (1 p.97 ).

This means that organisation is imposed upon materials regardless of the form in which they exist. In other words users will be provided with an integrated form of access to materials which, at least as far as the user is concerned, takes no account of the medium in which the materials were "published". That the medium was CD-ROM, DVD, online database, world wide web site or whatever will make no difference to the user in that some standard searching protocol and presentation will give the appearance of a standardised information storage medium.

The underlying driving force of the above is the provision of access to the materials but it says nothing about the kind of time frame over which access will be offered. Although libraries, almost by definition, are concerned with time frames which go beyond the short term, it is only national libraries which assume the responsibilities for ensuring that access can be provided in perpetuity. National libraries, as will be mentioned below, have been quite successful in providing long term access to printed materials now face a daunting challenge in carrying out a similar role with electronic materials.

2. National Libraries

There are variations in the range of activities carried out by national libraries but generally speaking there is a common core of activities. The IFLA Section on National Libraries states the following:

"These responsibilities vary from country but are likely to include: the collection via legal deposit of the national imprint (both print and electronic) and its cataloguing and preservation; the provision of central services (e.g. reference, bibliography, lending) to users both directly and through other library and information centres; the preservation and promotion of the national cultural heritage; the promotion of national cultural libraries often serve as a national forum for international programs and projects" (2).

What this means in essence is that national libraries have a core of functions associated with the acquisition of the published output of a country, region or state, the retention and preservation of these materials for posterity and the provision of access to them. National libraries have a long experience with applying these functions in terms of printed material although that is not meant to suggest that all the answers are known for printed material.

2.1 Acquisition

National libraries in most countries are assisted in the acquisition of printed materials by legislation in which publishers in countries are obliged to deposit one or more copies of most if not all publications. Legal deposit originates from France where in 1537 Francois 1 issued a decree requiring every printer to deposit one copy of each book produced in his printing office. Voluntary arrangements for deposit, such as that in the Netherlands, are relatively rare. The acquisition of material, combined with the retention of material, has meant that national libraries have rather large storage requirements. Other libraries, without responsibilities for long term retention, do have the option of disposing of material and are not, therefore, continually requiring additional accommodation to house their collections.

2.2 Retention

Having acquired material by legal deposit as noted above, purchase, exchange, gift or donation it is important for libraries to have clear policies on the retention of material. National libraries will tend to retain all materials acquired, certainly those acquired by legal deposit and purchase. In building national collections, it is extremely important that the retention policies are rigorously adhered to by the national library and known to all other libraries within the country.

2.3 Preservation

The long term preservation of printed materials follows quite logically the decision to retain material but it is a most demanding role requiring considerable investment in accommodation to ensure that an appropriate physical environment is maintained. Additionally the conservation and repair of materials is important as well as the migration from fragile formats such as newsprint to preservation media such as microfilm.

2.4 Access

This can considered in two ways. Firstly there is access to the material itself and in the case of most national libraries this involves making a visit to the library and consulting the material on the premises. The second aspect is that, not of direct access to the material, but access to the records of the material held, namely by use of a catalogue.

3. National Libraries in the 21st Century

Fulfilling the functions of a) acquisition b) retention c) preservation d) access, in an age when materials, which represent the national record of a nation, are delivered in a range of formats, many of which are transitory, is, to say the least, challenging.

3.1 Acquisition

As was noted in 2.1 national libraries have been able to build up large and comprehensive collections through the legal requirement in most countries for publishers to deposit copies of publications thereby not requiring the national library to purchase such materials. It is difficult to see how comprehensive collections of electronic materials could be built up without similar legislation. Although there are at present rather less electronic materials published than there are printed, the commercial acquisition of them is expensive.

3.2 Retention

The point was made in 2.2 that clear retention policies need to be made for retention of printed materials and the format in which materials are delivered does not alter this requirement.

3.3 Preservation

The long term preservation of electronic materials is a formidable challenge because the medium on which content is stored is often very unstable, and the material may require a hardware/software platform which may quickly become obsolete. Smith says that:

"As yet, we have no tested and reliable technique for ensuring continued access to digital data of enduring value……" (3 p. 6).

3.4 Access

The existence of material in electronic form means that with appropriate hardware and software it can, if desired, be made accessible to users no matter where they are located. No longer is there the necessity, as is the case with printed materials, to make an actual visit to the library where the material is held. There is, therefore, a tremendous opportunity to widen access to collections but not at the price of increasing wear and tear on materials. Creating, however, a scenario whereby large quantities of resources are available for networked access is one where substantial resources, financial and human, are required.

4. Progress In Selected Countries

4.1 Acquisition

Legal deposit

The importance of legal deposit for electronic materials has long been recognised by directors of national libraries. Much pressure has been put on governments and publishers to create similar legislation to that existing for printed materials but to date, with very few exceptions, success has been limited. As was mentioned earlier when considering printed materials it was stated that legal deposit legislation, obliging publishers to provide copies of all publications to a national registry, has played a key role in enabling national libraries to acquire the printed published materials of countries. This picture of legislation for deposit of electronic materials is not the case in the majority of countries. Rather the picture is one of a very few examples of legislation and rather more attempts to introduce legislation and implement voluntary codes. An up to date picture of the situation in a number of countries is provided in (4).


Legal deposit in Canada is covered in the National Library Act and the National Library Book Deposit Regulations, 1995. The original legislation applied primarily to books but has been extended over the years to include serial publications, sound recordings, multimedia kits, microforms, video recordings, CD-ROMs and other electronic publications issued in physical formats. There are legal and copyright issues that need to be resolved before the legislation can be applied to online electronic documents. Such documents are covered by the very broad definition of "books" in the Act; however the issue of concern is whether they qualify as being "published".

In 1994-95, Canada conducted a pilot project for the deposit of online electronic publications. After completion of this project and recommendations by the project team, the National Library has continued to collect electronic publications on a voluntary deposit basis. The emphasis is on publications not available in any other format.


Denmark's new Act on Copyright Deposit of Published Works came into effect from 1 January 1998. Under the new Act all published material is subject to legal deposit, regardless of the production technique or type of carrier. In addition to printed material it covers microforms, sound recordings, films, video recordings, photography, Braille, combined publications and electronic publications issued in physical formats. Online electronic documents are not included in this new Act.


Finland's current Legal Deposit Act was passed in 1980 and covers printed and audio- visual material. During 1997-98 a working group, established by the Ministry of Education, undertook a revision of the Act. The proposed revisions include provisions for the legal deposit of both physical format and online electronic information. However, online electronic information is divided into two categories: material considered to be true electronic publications (such as electronic books and newspaper and periodical articles), which would be required to be deposited; and material available online without restriction, which would be collected automatically by robot. The relevant bill containing the revisions was presented to Parliament after the spring 1999 elections, with the aim of coming into effect on 1 January 2000.

United Kingdom

Despite the fact that the UK was one of the earliest countries to introduce legislation for printed materials that has most certainly not been the position with electronic materials. The legislation for legal deposit as enschrined in the Act of 1910 and confirmed in the more recent acts of 1956 and 1988 is restricted to printed materials. The Government published a consultation paper Legal deposit of publications in 1997 recognising that a mechanism is required for the comprehensive deposit of material published in forms other than print (5). Since then negotiations have been held with publishers, and the current situation is that a Voluntary Code for the deposit of microforms and hand-held new media was introduced from the beginning of 2000. Experiences gained from operation of this code will be used to inform the proposed legislation for statutory deposit.

4.2 Retention

As was noted in 3.2 the format of the material does not alter the need for the national library to have clear published policies on retention.

4.3 Preservation

It was noted earlier that as yet there are no tested and enduring solutions to the long term preservation of materials existing in electronic form. This, of course, does not mean that there is no work in progress to provide answers. Two major projects which are currently investigating the preservation issue are NEDLIB and CEDARS (6). That in both projects there are a number of partners involved bears witness to the realisation that solutions will not be reached by the efforts of organisations working in isolation.

4.4 Access

The states of development of access to materials in digital libraries in national libraries vary quite considerably.


The National Library of Australia has been active in aspects related to the digital library for some years, having established a pilot digital archive, PANDORA and created digitised collections of for example oral history recordings and indexed journal articles. It launched the Digital Services Project (DSP) in 1998 with the intention of implementing a system both to manage the collections of digital Australiana and to improve access to the digital collections. The importance of integrating the system with existing systems including the Library's web catalogue has been emphasised. As a result of a procurement exercise the Library has purchased the MetaStar Enterprise software to provide resource discovery services for digital material but was unable to identify an integrated digital collection management system based on commercial off-the-shelf products. The digital collection management system project has, therefore, been divided into several modules and will be progressed through a number of separate procurement and development exercises (7).


The National Library of Canada has been extremely active in digital developments for a number of years commencing in the 1980s with the expression of interest and concerns over the growing number of Canadian electronic publications. A Digital Library Infrastructure Plan (DLIP) was prepared and identified a phased approach towards the creation of the required infrastructure. The Plan has involved enhancing existing hardware and software and will be completed. Additionally the NLC has played an important role in the Canadian Initiative on Digital Libraries.

"The Canadian Initiative on Digital Libraries will promote, coordinate and facilitate the development of Canadian digital collections and services in order to optimize national interoperability and long-term access to Canadian digital library resources" (8).


Die Deutsche Bibliothek (DDB) has a system (Multimediamedia Bereitstellungssystem) which provides controlled user access to the OPAC, electronic publications and the world wide web.


The Koninlijke Bibliotheek (KB), the national library of the Netherlands, has recently completed the first phase of a project - Depository of Netherlands Electronic Publications (DNEP). This project is designed for the storage of the Netherland's cultural heritage as reflected in electronic publications and for the preservation of medieval maps, charts and manuscripts ensuring that all materials will be accessable and usuable in the future. The depository will ultimately contain the following:

a) electronic publications such as e-journals b) offline products such as CD-ROMs; Internet publications and d) digitised images of medieval maps, charts and manuscripts

The present system is based on the IBM RS/6000 series of computers and the IBM Digital Library DB2 software and the database at present comprises electronic journals received under special arrangements from Elsevier Science and Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Until copyright and compensation issues are resolved access to the data stores are restricted to users of the KB and to students and staff at the University of Delph.

The KB is also leading the Networked European Deposit Library (NEDLIB) project which involves seven national libraries as well as the publishers Elsevier, Kluwer and Springer Verlag in the development of a generic storage model for national depositories (6).

United Kingdom

The British Library is currently involved in a procurement activity for the acquisition of a Digital Library System (DLS). The Library is seeking a system which will allow it to build a digital collection from a) acquisition of published digital materials through purchase and leasing/licensing b) voluntary or legal deposit of digital material published in the UK c) digitisation of some materials from the extensive collections e) provision of access to international sources of digital data. An important aspect of the BL's requirement is that for the DLS to be fully integrated with existing and planned services within the Library and not be something separate.


The picture which emerges is one where national libraries in many countries seem to have clear views on what they wish to do in terms of the development of digital and hybrid libraries but one where progress has been limited in the implementation of operational systems. It is interesting to note that the one country which seems to have made most progress is first of all one of the smallest countries but also one in which legal deposit, even for printed materials, exists only on a voluntary basis. Of course it is true that a small country such as the Netherlands has a much smaller publishing output than say, the United Kingdom, and also that the bureacuacry can be more responsive to changing environments. One, though, must give due recognition to those involved in not only having the vision but having the energy and commitment to follow things through. The well advanced developments in both Canada and Australia also bear witness to the ability of such middle sized (in terms of population) countries both to recognise the challenges and to respond to them.

5.National Library Of Scotland


5.1 History

The National Library of Scotland was founded by Act of Parliament in 1925 and is the largest library in Scotland possessing some 8 million printed and new media items, together with extensive collections of maps and manuscripts. The history of the Library goes back more than 300 years as it is the successor to the Library of the Faculty of Advocates founded in the late seventeenth century on the initiative of the King's Advocate, Sir George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh.

Its special characteristics derive from its status as a national and legal deposit library. The privilege was first granted to the Advocates Library in 1710 (by the 1709 Act of Queen Anne) and has been confirmed by successive legislation. Since 1910 the Library has had the right, under successive Copyright Acts, to claim a copy of all printed materials published in the United Kingdom and, by reciprocal legislation, Ireland. Just under 230,000 items are acquired annually by legal deposit.

5.2 Automation History

Automation developments can be divided into a number of phases. They are:

Phase 1 (1978-85); Phase 2 (1985-87); Phase 3 (1988-1999); Phase 4 (1999-

These phases correspond in each case to the use of different systems. The content of the first three phases (up until 1989) is described at some length (9). In Phase 1 NLS was a member of the LOcal CAtaloguing Service (LOCAS) service run by the British Library. This was a batch processed system with the output a monthly microfiche. This was to be the forerunner of a Scottish co-operative system but as the years for Phase 2 indicate, the system, called SCOLCAP, was short-lived. The history of SCOLCAP and discussion of the reasons for lack of success are discussed in (10). The third phase, which has just ended, covered the use of the software package, VTLS. The fourth phase, which commenced in late 1999, involves the use of the software package Voyager, developed and supported by Endeavor Information Systems Incorporated (

5.3 Digital Developments

Progress towards the creation of a digital library has been slow and rather piecemeal, although, given the state of evolution of the technology (hardware and software) and the rapid technical advances, such a position is not necessarily an undesirable one. There can be considerable advantages in not being in the vanguard of developments. There has not been the preparation of a coherent overall strategic plan for digital developments, a situation largely explained by the uncertainties over the most appropriate hardware and software to be employed and the availability of funding for the considerable investment involved.

A catalyst has been the acquisition of equipment for the capturing of images.

A digital Kontron camera was purchased in 1997 and a newer camera, Power Phase 1, in 1999.

It is fair to categorise NLS efforts to date as experimental and many of the projects have proceeded because of individual interest and motivation rather than as part of a coherent planned strategy.

5.3.1 In-house Material

Perhaps the most significant project to date has been the scanning of 77 manuscript maps of Scotland attributed to Timothy Pont and drawn in the late 16th century. This work has provided staff with experience in image capturing and handling the large files created. Most of this material, though, has not been networked and is only available on a standalone basis. Other material that is available on the NLS web site includes the following:

The first Scottish Books; Notable acquisitions; Photographs of John Thompson; Highlights of the Map Library; Highlights of the photographic Collections; Out of Africa: the Kirk Papers; Churchill: the evidence (9).

In all cases the images on the web site are selections from different Collections in the Library and they are only indicative of holdings of the Library.

5.3.2 Material Obtained from Deposit

A voluntary code for the deposit of material published on hand held devices such as CD-ROMs is due to come into operation in 2000. Outwith this code, the Ordnance Survey (Britain's national mapping agency) has reached agreement with the Copyright libraries of the British Isles (British Library, National Library of Wales, National Library of Scotland, Cambridge University Library, Bodleian Library, Oxford and Trinity College Library, Dublin) for the deposit of the data compiled by the Ordnance Survey. At present, however, this data is not networked and access is only available on the premises of the libraries involved.

The functions of national libraries were described earlier as those of acquisition, retention, preservation and access. The future will mean that NLS will acquire more materials in digital form, both from in-house digitisation projects and from deposit of electronic material. Having acquired the material it will need to be retained and preserved. There is no doubt that the rudimentary access at present available will not be adequate for the dealing of quantities of material and a rather more sophisticated form of access will be required.

Major problems over funding developments towards the creation of digital libraries exist. In terms of digitising material held in printed form from existing collections it is highly unlikely that any significant progress will be made without funding from external organisations. NLS is, perhaps, in a fortunate position in that substantial funds are being made available in the United Kingdom through the New Opportunities Fund (NOF) for the digitisation of material to be made available on the network. Obtaining funding from the NOF, though, is by competition and to be successful bidders will need to be able to demonstrate that what they propose to digitise meets the strict criteria of the Fund. Not least of these is the requirement for the proposed material for digitisation to meet the needs of lifelong learners.

NLS also faces the requirement for substantial funding for the handling of material deposited under the voluntary code due to commence in 2000. In recognition of the complexity of the requirements to provide secure access to this material, the UK legal deposit libraries (British Library, National Library of Wales. National Library of Scotland, Cambridge University Library and Bodleian Library, Oxford) joined together and submitted a proposal for funding the development of a system. The proposal, submitted to the Invest to Save Budget administered by HM Treasury, has recently been rejected facing the libraries with major problems in how they will develop systems to handle this material.

In terms of access to materials and improving the integration of digitised material with catalogues either already in machine readable form and accessible over the network or planned to be so in a relatively short period, a key building block, in the form of their recently selected library management system, Voyager exists. Endeavor Information Systems is in the process of developing a product, EnCompass, which is designed to provide seamless linkages between an OPAC and digital objects. The product, though, is not due to be released until the summer of 2000 and it is impossible at this stage to ascertain how well it will meet the requirements of NLS.

6. Conclusions

National libraries, even in the most advanced countries are very much in the early days of developing systems to allow them to fulfil the functions with electronic materials they relatively successfully do with printed materials. It is not necessarily that national libraries do not have clear visions of what they would like to achieve. Rather it is because legislators in most countries have been reluctant to enact legislation, not least because the publishers of the electronic materials have brought pressure to bear because of fears that they very mode of delivery makes them susceptible to being illegally acquired. Once this bottleneck is overcome as undoubtedly it will national libraries then are faced with obtaining the necessary investment not only to store the materials in such a way as they can be made accessible in the short term but also developing procedures and systems to allow the materials to be accessible over the long term. That these problems have not been solved at this stage is hardly surprising given the relatively recent emergence of the new forms of production. On the other hand it is important that solutions emerge relatively soon as undoubtedly much material which if it had been in some printed form would have found its way in time into national collections is no longer in existence.

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of matters to date has been the recognition that the problems will not be resolved by librarians working in isolation but by working together. It is unfortunate, to say the least, that HM Treasury felt unable to provide funding for the co-operative project amongst the UK copyright libraries. A jointly developed and implemented system would have provided the kind of secure and effective access required by publishers and a pathway to the kind of comprehensive system and service which would have served the nation's requirements. It is to be hoped that alternative sources of funding can relatively quickly be identified to allow such a co-operative project to proceed.


  1. Charles Oppenheim and Daniel Smithson. What is the hybrid library? Journal of Information science. Vol. 25 No. 2 1999 pp. 97 – 112
  2. IFLA Section of National Libraries. Annual report September 1997 to August 1998. Http://
  3. Abby Smith. Why digitise? February 1999.

  5. 'PADI. Preserving Access to Digital Information.
  6. Legal deposit of publications: a consultation paper. London: Department of Natural Heritage, 1997.
  7. Titia van der Werf-Davelaar Long term preservation of electronic publications: the NEDLIB project. D-Lib Magazine, Vol. 5 No. 9 September 1999. Http://
  11. Robin Frederick Guy. Evolution of automation in a national library: the experience of the National Library of Scotland from 1978-1989. Program 24 (1) January 1990, pp. 10-19
  12. Bernard Gallivan. Scottish Libraries Co-operative Automation Project. Catalogue and Index. Nos. 98-99. Autumn/Winter 1990
View Citation
Publication Year:2000
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Russian Digital Libraries Journal
Publication Info:Volume 3 Number 3

About the Author

Fred Guy
National Library of Scotland
Fred Guy is currently Director of Information and Communications Technology at the National Library of Scotland. He has held that post since September 1999. He joined the NLS in October 1984, serving first of all as Head of Library Liaison and then as Deputy Director of Computer Services and Research. Prior to joining the National Library of Scotland he was a senior lecturer in the College of Librarianship Wales (now the Department of Information and Library Studies, University of Wales, Aberystwyth).

He is a graduate of The Queen's University of Belfast and the University of Sheffield and holds a Diploma in Library Studies from the University of Wales. He is an Associate of the Library Association (UK), a member of the Institute of Information science (UK) and a member of the American Library Association. He is also a joint editor of Education for information, published by IOS Press, The Netherlands.

Since the start of the project in December 1998 he has been responsible for providing advice and expertise and co-ordinating the activities of NLS staff and sub-contractors on the TACIS funded project (TELRUS 9705) Creation of an information System for the Russian State Library.

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Record Number:14257
Last Update:2012-12-29 14:06:47
Date Created:2009-09-24 10:12:47