What's a digital library?

Originally written in March 2012, this piece has been modified, with information and additional references added. As well as the references, please also see the additional potentially relevant links below.


This piece will explore the concept of 'digital libraries', and the collections and services of digital libraries, in comparison to 'traditional libraries'.*

A quick exploration of what a library is, what some services provided by libraries include, and what a traditional library is, will be given. Then a brief history of the idea of digital libraries, and a discussion about what a digital library is, before a definition is given. The remainder of the piece will examine the differences between digital libraries and traditional libraries with regard collections and services offered.

The piece concludes that the differences are mainly to do with technology, rather than a fundamental change in the way libraries operate. This is because digital libraries are still libraries with the same goals and purposes.

Libraries and traditional libraries

Any definition of 'digital library' or 'traditional library' rests upon the definition of 'library'. There are many different types of library, targeting many different audiences, and they provide many different services. For the purposes of this paper, at least, a library is: “a curated1 2 collection of information sources3 intended for use 45. This definition does not talk about a particular group or community (unlike definitions given by, for example Keller, Reich, & Herkovic (2003) or Lagoze, Kraft, Payette, & Jesuroga (2005)). The central purpose of a library is to provide access to information Buckland, (1997, p. Introduction). Harris (no relation to me) (1995, p. 3) provides the following similar definition: “a library is a collection of graphic materials arranged for relatively easy use, cared for by an individual or individuals familiar with that arrangement, and accessible to at least a limited number of persons”. I read this after I originally wrote the work, but consider it quite a nice definition. Harris also does not require a skilled individually, merely an individual, and appears to consider the only requirement for the library is providing access to material, not reference work or similar.

Given what a library is, a couple of points about what a library is not. Because a library collection is curated, a random6 collection of material is not a library.7 A museum or an archive is also not a library, as the material and resources in these places are not generally intended to be used as such (but rather conserved). Moreover, a librarian or other 'information professional' is not required for a library to exist, the curator could be a layperson. (While someone with training may have a better understanding of how to curate, than a person without training, it is not required.)

The definition of 'library' given above does not include any reference to the services that libraries typically provide. This is because it may be the only service that a particular library provides is access to information. Other sorts of services depend on the type of, and specific, library, but may include reference services (“interpretation and discovery information for patrons”), distribution (interlibrary loans and document delivery), preservation, and similar (Keller et al., 2003).


Given the definition above, could it be said that a bookshop could be a library? No, they are different, though not for the reason that many people seem to suspect; that at a bookshop you have to pay. After all, there exist many libraries (private) that you have to pay to be a member of, and some bookshops allow you to sit and read all day without paying. Also, not all libraries allow you to take items home, so that can't be the difference. I would argue that the difference is purpose. The purpose of a library is to provide material to use, whereas the purpose of a bookshop (or any shop) is to sell that material. And of course, a better differentiation would be between any sort of 'information' shop (including online, 'ebook sellers') and a library. So again, an 'information' shop sells information, and exists primarily for this purpose, and a library provides access to information for usage. The bookshop does not care if once you have bought a book, you take your book home and turn it into mulch. They have your money.

traditional libraries

What is a 'traditional' library? Libraries have always been centred in a physical space with physical collections. While the nature of the collections have changed (clay tablets, paper items (books etc.), through to microfilm, tapes, and CDs), they have still remained located in space (Troll, 2002). However, since the advent of modern ICT, libraries started offering services via computer; some of which do not require physical access to the library. These services included not just non-essential, but ‘nice-to-haves’ (like the catalogue becoming online and publicly accessible), but digital resources , such as bibliographic databases, first available on CD-ROM and then online, and then full-text databases, electronic journals and so on. This is when 'traditional' libraries started becoming 'digital'.

History and definition of digital libraries

The idea of electronic, interconnected, digital, virtual libraries have been around for many years. Lynch (2005) marks 1965 as a potential turning point between the pre-history (ideas such as Bush's (1945) Memex) and history of digital libraries. Lynch (2005) also mentions that there were digital libraries in the mid-1980's (“at least by some definitions”). Harter (1997) mentions that speculative authors were the first to write about interconected computerised libraries.8 The earliest usage found for the term 'digital library' was in 1988 by Kahn & Cerf, and slightly later, workshops were based around the term in the early 1990s (Fox, 1993).

Since the early 1990s there has been much debate about what a digital library is. Harter, (1997) outlines three broad view points from the most narrow, a redefining of the 'traditional library' in digital terms, to the broadest – the Internet is a library, with none or few of the properties associated with traditional libraries (such as organisation, selection, etc.).

A number of definitions (including from Seadle & Greifeneder (2007) and Trivedi (2010)) make the point that 'digital libraries' are libraries. That is the “traditional library institutional missions … must extend to the digital library environment” (Lynch & Garcia-Molina, 1995) and that they have “ the same purposes, functions, and goals as traditional libraries” (Cleveland, 1998; Wainwright, 1996). Buckland (1997) would agree, and wrote that the same existing and familiar principles should be applied in ways “appropriate to the technical characteristics of the medium”. Harter (1997) argue s that the usage of the word library should mean that 'digital library' is a narrow term. Buckland, (1997) uses the term 'electronic library' to mean a similar thing, where the collection is stored electronically. Ogunsola's (2011) definition includes that the digital resources can be stored in “various locations”, and “accessed and used with great ease”, for multiple purposes. Peterson (2001) makes the point that the digital library's most important asset, and what makes it a library, is the people who give the library focus. It is the people who select and organise the collection.

It makes little point to call something a library if it does not have the qualities of the library (if your aim is clear communication, at least). So, this piece will use the term 'digital library' as if they are libraries. Therefore the only thing needed to define is the digital part of the term.

In the context of the idea of a 'digital library', 'digital' means 'digital technology'. That is, modern information communication technology (ICT). This includes computers, computer networks (including the Internet), mobile phones and other interconnected devices. This meaning comes from the meaning of 'discrete', in contrast to analogue. The binary system that makes up modern ICT is a discrete system.

A digital library, then, is a library where the collection and services are in a digital form and/or accessed digitally. The collection can be either 'born digital' (created in a digital form originally), or scanned or otherwise copied from a physical artefact.

Automatic and hybrid libraries

It makes little sense for a solely digital library to not also be a solely virtual library9. As the imposition of space required for the physical aspects may as well be used for physical items (such as newspapers and magazines) for loan or use as well. Today, most 'traditional' libraries are actually hybrids, a mix of both a physical collection and a digital collection. Rusbridge, (1998), Pinfield et al., (1998), and then Schwartz, (2000) discusses hybrids in more detail. The term 'holistic' is also used (Niegaard, 2011). Lynch & Garcia-Molina (1995) talk of digital libraries as spanning both “print and digital materials”, in the same sense that 'hybrid' is used here.

Buckland (1997, p. The Automated Library) also discusses 'automated libraries', which, have a physical collection (rather than digital), but use modern ICT for technical operations and procedural purposes, to facilitate running and using the library. This usage of technology does not, however, define the library. Ways in which technology maybe used include: record keeping; providing an OPAC (online publicly accessible catalogue); and sending emails and mobile phone text messages relating to loans and due dates.

Digital, virtual, electronic, oh my!

Tennant (1999) makes a distinction between digital libraries, virtual libraries and electronic libraries. However, I would suggest that this distinction is not meaningful most of the time.

While it is true that libraries can have 'electronic' media (including cassette tapes, CD-ROMs, DVDs, etc.) without being a digital library, these items can be used or loaned the same as print media and microfilm. No actual electricity is required for the storage, or loan of these items (though admittedly it is required for the use of them).

It is also possible to have a digital library where the collection is stored on CD and not accessible by a network (though this would be disputed by some). So, it is possible to distinguish between a digital and a virtual library; but I would say it makes more sense to distinguish between virtual libraries and hybrid libraries (libraries with both digital and physical collections). There is little point in having a digital-only library that is not also a virtual one (at least from the perspective of the users). A digital library that does not offer remote (i.e. virtual) access to it's holdings is a lot less useful than one that does.


There are a number of differences in how a traditional library operates, compared to a digital one. These tend to revolve around the differences in the inherent properties of a digital collection compared to a physical collection, and licensing issues when it comes to digital collections.

With a 'traditional' physical collection, the inherent properties of the collection hold. It both takes up space, and so you can not have more collection than you do space, and it is difficult for more than one person to use an item at a time (Buckland, 1997, p. The Paper Library). If the collection gets too big for the space, it will need to be weeded. However, with a digital collection, the major restrictions are artificial, relating to licensing, copyright and digital restrictions management (DRM).10

In 'traditional' libraries, material is bought, and then can be lent out without obtaining permission from the publisher, author or other potential copyright owner.11 However, with digital content, it is often not sold, but only 'licensed' (see, for example, Kahn & Cerf (1988), Samuelson (1995) and Schwartz (2000) for discussions).

Reference services (finding information and providing answers) can be done via email, telephone and online chat (Troll, 2002). But the person who is answering emails may well be sitting in a public space ready to answer face to face queries. Digital libraries may not even need humans to answer many questions that may be asked. Software agents, both proactive and passive (for example, the 'knowbots' of Kahn & Cerf (1988), any of a myriad of SF (science fiction/speculative fiction) artificial intelligences, or just 'simple' search engines allowing direct search (Schwartz, 2000)) may well be all that is needed.

Relating to searching, if a document or work is in the catalogue, it should be available (assuming that it is not license restricted, and that it is not in a location that has since disappeared (part of the problem with cataloguing the WWW)) (Troll, 2002). That is, the catalogue should link directly to the work (Buckland, 1997, p. Collections Reconsidered). Buckland (1997, p. The Electronic Library) likens this to changing from closed library stacks to open stacks in a physical library; in the digital library: “library staff would be mainly concerned with creating and sustaining the system so that users could serve themselves.” .

Digital libraries potentially offer greater accessibility to users who may have previously been restricted (by disability, location or similar). One accessibility issue is opening hours, and they become less or not important, as digital library collections are available 24 hours a day (Buckland, 1997, p. The Paper Library; Troll, 2002). However, services need to be created with accessibility issues in mind, so that users are not locked out (Schwartz, 2000). These include such things as making sure that websites and programs are usable by screen-readers for example.

In a digital library, it becomes easier to collect usage information. This has a number of potential side affects; for example, performance measures become more accurate (Troll, 2002). It may also lead to more customised services, depending on the individual. This maybe based on “knowledge about individuals, their past behaviors and preferences, and their connecting technologies” (Schwartz, 2000). Though, it is also true that 'automated libraries' could offer a certain amount of customisation due to the potential saving of past behaviours and preferences. This may raise privacy concerns though.

Because the collection is digital, it is not as restricted as a physical collection; it could potentially include digital items held by other organisations. Related to this, digital material can, in the usual case, be copied and shared. This makes archiving and preservation easier (LOCKSS etc.) (though multiple libraries having multiple physical copies of items also tended to preserve and archive items (Troll, 2002), libraries cannot keep forever these items¸ particularly as they go out of date and/or stop being used).

Different types of training (information literacy skills, etc.) are needed for both users and staff (Schwartz, 2000). However, new tools can be used for training, including interactive software.

Schwartz (2000) and Troll (2002) discusses further differences, including relating to learning facilitation, collaboration, training, the fact that the technology may offer different ways of browsing the collection and preservation issues. Chowdhury & Chowdhury (1999) conducted a review of the (then) literature, and would be a good place to start for more issues.

It can be seen that there are various and many potential and actual differences between 'traditional' physical libraries, and 'digital' virtual libraries. However, these differences are not fundamental. They do not mean that the the digital library is less or more of a library than the physical library, or the hybrid library; any more than the introduction of computerised catalogues meant that the new 'automated' libraries were less or more library than the libraries using the older card catalogues.

Many of these differences are positive benefits. However, careful consideration needs to be given to some aspects. While digital documents are generally more flexible, DRM and licensing could restrict usage and make them less preferable to users. As well, DRM could restrict preservation efforts (as could incompatible file formats, and obsolete media (such as floppy disks)). Chowdhury (2010) discusses digital preservation in much more detail. Accessibility is also a potential problem. For example, while it is easy to make digital text documents usable by screen-reader users, it does not always happen. As well, to use the digital library, a user needs to be able to connect, which may require unaffordable technology (particularly in developing regions).


The term 'digital library' has been around for at least 24 years, and possibly longer, and some of the ideas behind the term have been around for much longer. While there is still disagreement about the meaning of the term, this piece argues that, digital libraries are not fundamentally different from 'traditional' libraries; either in the purposes of existing, or in the services provided. The main differences come down to how the services are provided, and how collections are stored and managed.


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*The term 'traditional library' was given, in reality I would probably prefer "physical library". I made a comment at Leeder (2013) that a traditional library is one you grew up with, except that in my case, those libraries all changed...

1“Curation”: choosing, sorting, managing, organising, administering, maintaining and preserving.

2A curated collection is thus an organised collection. An un-organised or disorganised collection is not a library. Libraries require organisation to enable things to be found... A curated collection is also a described collection. Given that the collection exists, a user should be able to know what is in it (and then, where to find specific items).

3“Information sources” includes various material and resources in different formats, both physical (including paper, microfilm, tape, etc.) and electronic/digital. Information is meant to be taken to include entertainment, ephemera and so on, as well as the more specific types of information.

4“ Use” implies provisioning access, whether by lending or otherwise, and implies not archiving for conservation purposes.

5A similar definition by “Coral” November 19, 2011, left as a comment at Newman (2011) is “a curated collection of resources made available for the specific purpose of lending or providing access to a group of people”, I am unsure if I saw this definition before I wrote my own.

6“Random”: having no definite aim or purpose.; done without a plan or system. Haphazard.

7So the World Wide Web (WWW) is not a library; you could argue that someone who collects links and categorises them could be creating a library, though, Keller et al. (2003), say that a web page of links is not a library. You could easily argue that a web site could be a library. Wikipedia , e.g., bills itself as an encyclopaedia (Wikipedia contributors, 2011, 2013), but apart from being a single 'information source', fits the definition given above. Sites such as ibiblio , Project Gutenberg (hosted by ibiblio (“About,” 2010)), and Project Gutenberg Australia fit the definition better, as they provides various types of resources and are not restricted to just encyclopaedic material.

8 An example is “A Logic named Joe” first published by Astounding magazine in early 1946. See also Gunn (n.d.) and Orr (2011).

9A library of any sort has to have a physical presence, even if only servers in a rack for digital libraries. Proposals (e.g. (Bexar County Commissioners Court, 2013)) to create digital libraries with physical locations come and go. That is, the collection is digital, and accessible via the Internet or similar, but there also exists a space with computers, meeting rooms and other amenities. They may also loan out ebook readers and laptops. This style of library is a special case of a hybrid library. In reality, I can't see this style of library existing without also offering physical newspapers, magazines and other physical items. Having a physically accessible reference librarian would also be a plus, but mostly these style of libraries are intended to save money...

10An increasingly minor issue is having good enough computers and networks. As time goes by, technology gets better, and networks get faster.

11This maybe because of a “first sale doctrine” (or equivalent) or some other legislated compulsory right given to libraries. In certain places libraries give a certain fee to a fund for each item they lend out. But this is decided by legislation or other government regulation. A major problem with writing about copyright law and libraries is that it is subject to change, and has changed.

Additional potentially relevant links

These are in no particular order. If they don't have a date, they were checked (but not first accssed) 28 Jan 2014. Otherwise, there is an accessed date. These seem potentially relevant, but I haven't got around to (or can't be bothered) incorporating them into the main essay.

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