:: Digital Libraries Columns


Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant

Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date.

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  1. The Copyright War — 06/15/2001 — Copyright as we presently know it is dead. To be specific, copyright law as it currently stands is not only unenforceable, it is widely perceived by the general public as overly protective of publishers and, to a lesser extent, creators. Thus, even as copyright law is strengthened in the legislatures and the courts, it is dead to many in our society.
  2. MARC Exit Strategies — 11/15/2002 — In last month's column, I outlined why it is time for us to rethink our most basic bibliographic standards: MARC elements, MARC syntax, and AACR2 (the rules for populating them).
  3. The Digital Library Federation — 03/15/2000 — It was the beginning of February 2000, and although Daniel Greenstein had been traveling for weeks, he was only halfway through his itinerary. As the new (as of 12/1/99) executive director of the Digital Library Federation (DLF), Greenstein was on a whistle-stop tour of all of the federation's 23 organizational members, from one U.S. coast to the other.
  4. Co-Branding and Libraries — 12/01/2000 — The common business practice of co-branding enables an organization to purchase content or service while making it appear as if it were its own. A typical such arrangement may involve a news feed that goes to any client that licenses that service. The content is "co-branded" with the client's look and feel, and there may be no clue as to the content's source.
  5. XML: The Digital Library Hammer — 03/15/2001 — Abraham Maslow once said, "When the only tool you own is a hammer, every problem begins to resemble a nail." Once you understand XML and the opportunities it offers for creating and managing digital library services and collections, you will begin seeing nails everywhere. It is not the only tool you have, but it is by far the most useful.
  6. Free as a Bird: Wireless Networking Libraries — 08/15/2002 — My first time was on a Gale bus. It was during the recent annual conference of the American Library Association, while traveling between the Georgia World Congress Center and my hotel. I was nervous and uncertain, but it turned out to be both easier than I thought and incredibly fulfilling.
  7. Peer-to-Peer Networks: Promise & Peril — 09/15/2000 — Recently the press has been full of news about how the music industry is trying to shut Napster down to prevent users from swapping pirated music files. But the genie's out of the bottle, and no one -- no person, industry, or government -- can put it back. Napster is just the tip of the iceberg.
  8. Institutional Repositories — 09/15/2002 — Faculty and researchers at universities worldwide gather and interpret data, advocate new ideas, and extend human knowledge. This work is sometimes shared with other scholars and researchers as working papers, technical reports, and other forms of prepublication work. Although this scholarship may eventually show up in a peer-reviewed journal or book, some may not.
  9. The Other E-Books — 09/15/2001 — When People refer to e-books, they typically mean device-dependent e-books such as those marketed by Gemstar. These are also what most people probably think of when hearing the term "e-book"-a device that is similar in size and shape to a hardback book but is in fact a special purpose computer
  10. Digital Potential and Pitfalls — 11/15/1997 — With the recent influx of millions of dollars in grant funds and a fast-growing awareness of the potential of digital technologies to transform access to information, digital library hype has outrun reality.
  11. The Open Content Alliance — 12/15/2005 — About a year ago, Google announced a project to digitize large numbers of books from five research libraries.
  12. Coping with Disasters — 11/15/2001 — Now that we've all witnessed a disaster that beggars the imagination, preventing disaster seems not only an appropriate topic but an imperative one.
  13. Cross-Database Search: One-Stop Shopping — 10/15/2001 — You know you want it. Or you know someone who does. One search box and a button to search a variety of sources, with results collated for easy review. Go ahead, give in -- after all, isn't it true that only librarians like to search? Everyone else likes to find.
  14. Interoperability: The Holy Grail — 07/01/1998 — As fast as digital libraries are being built, they still remain islands of order in a sea of chaos. Locating them by using web search engines or subject directories is just the first step in a long process. Users must then go to each one, searching or browsing it before moving on to the next. This laborious method for locating digital library objects (from full-length books to individual photographs) is obviously anachronistic.
  15. The $64,000 Question — 07/01/2001 — "What digital library software application should I buy?" asks the typical harried library staff member. It usually means that his (or her) boss decided that, to be modern, they must go digital. The librarian or library assistant then bravely surfs the Internet to find the appropriate software. It's not that simple.
  16. Revisiting Digital Reference — 01/15/2003 — Nearly three-and-a-half years ago I wrote about digital reference in these pages. Clearly, we have come a long way. Back then computer-based chat was nearly the only option for providing that service.
  17. Accessing Electronic Theses: Progress — 05/15/2000 — Somehow the art of Salvador Dali seems to be an appropriate accompaniment to an eclectic group of people interested in electronic theses and dissertations (ETDs). Overlooking Tampa Bay, an international group of librarians, computer scientists, university administrators, and graduate students are sipping wine and munching hors d'oeuvres at the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, FL, at the reception of the Third International Symposium on Electronic Theses and Dissertations.
  18. 21st-Century Cataloging — 04/15/1998 — Cataloging has basically remained unchanged for decades. Despite the development of Machine-Readable Cataloging (MARC) and the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules, 2d Edition (AACR2), what is recorded about a library item is the same as it was when we used handwritten catalog cards. Today, many library catalogs simply duplicate the catalog card on a computer screen. Now, the game has changed.
  19. Open-Access Journals — 10/15/2003 — The current system of scholarly communication is in need of major changes.
  20. What To Know About Web Services — 07/15/2002 — As amazing as technological progress in libraries has been in the last decade, more dramatic opportunities await. One such opportunity, under the prosaic name "Web Services," would knit together software applications to construct powerful new services.
  21. MARC Must Die — 10/15/2002 — When MARC was created, the Beatles were a hot new group and those of us alive at the time wore really embarrassing clothes and hairstyles.
  22. Open Archives: A Key Convergence — 02/15/2000 — Over two years ago I identified interoperability -- the capacity of a user to treat multiple digital library collections as one -- as a key digital library challenge (LJ 11/15/97, p. 31-32). In a follow-up column on this "grand challenge" (LJ 7/98, p. 38ff.), I more fully discussed interoperability and some methods to achieve it.
  23. Different Paths to Interoperability — 02/15/2001 — In a previous column, I discussed the importance of interoperability among digital library projects ("Interoperability: The Holy Grail," LJ 7/98, p. 38ff.). Users should be able to discover through one search what digital objects are freely available from a variety of collections, rather than having to search each collection individually.
  24. Selecting Collections To Digitize — 11/15/2000 — Two years ago, I looked at the issue of selecting items or collections to digitize ("So Much To Digitize, So Little Time (and Money)," LJ 8/98, p. 36-37). Much new guidance has since become available, aimed mostly at university/research libraries but helpful to others
  25. The Digital Library Divide — 08/15/2001 — All digital library projects are not created equal. Some projects attract millions of dollars of research funding, while others create useful collections without a dime of outside support. Some projects serve only for research purposes, while others produce specific online collections or services.
  26. The Convenience Catastrophe — 12/15/2001 — Anyone who has worked a reference desk has seen users pleased with a quick and mediocre answer when, with a bit more time and effort, they could get a better one. It's called "satisficing."
  27. The Emerging Role of E-Books — 08/01/2000 — Nearly two years ago, I asserted that print books were going to be around for quite some time ("The Print Perplex: Building the Future Catalog," LJ 11/15/98) and that we had to get better at providing combined access to both digital and print material. My opinion has not weakened over time but rather has strengthened.
  28. Linking, Not Thinking — 11/15/2006 — Though open URL resolvers are a major step forward in guiding users to the right copy of the item they seek, they are not the complete solution.
  29. The Engines of Innovation — 06/15/2002 — You don't need to be a futurist or a rocket scientist to know that our profession is rapidly changing. Our clienteles—not to mention their abilities and needs—are changing demographically, and the tools we use to do our work are different. The very content that we buy and provide access to is more diverse and often requires delivery in entirely new ways.
  30. The Importance of Being Granular — 05/15/2002 — Our libraries are increasingly dependent on metadata. Besides the obvious (our catalogs), other uses are becoming more commonplace. Virtually any content we digitize and make available to our clientele requires metadata for discovery and access. Every interlibrary loan transaction is a slug of metadata that helps libraries get a book or journal article to a user.
  31. Bringing Out the Dead (Technologies) — 10/15/2000 — Some of us are old enough to remember owning and playing vinyl music records. Now, if you don't have an MP3 player, you're nearly ancient history. And between LPs and MP3s can be found several other dead or near-dead technologies -- reel-to-reel, 8-tracks, audiocassettes, and CDs -- all of which are relatively recent.
  32. Will RDA Be DOA? — 03/15/2007 — The rules and guidelines that have guided catalogers for decades are undergoing revision.
  33. Beg, Buy, Borrow, License, or Steal — 06/15/2000 — Acquiring intellectual content on behalf of a particular group of users isn't always as simple as buying it outright. Librarians have long used a blend of techniques to acquire content, but with the advent of digital content yet another technique (licensing) has been added to the mix. Meanwhile, we must adjust our tried-and-true acquisition methods.
  34. The Right Solution: Federated Search Tools — 06/15/2003 — I recently took library catalogs to task for being the wrong solution for the right problem—general information discovery. But I believe that federated or cross-database search tools now available on the market are the correct solution for unifying access to a variety of information resources.
  35. Science Portals — 03/15/2003 — The Internet offers a wide range of materials to help teachers and students with science education. The problem is finding them. Anyone seeking science information must either search an index such as Google or browse a large number of individual web sites.
  36. Avoiding Unintended Consequences — 01/01/2001 — We digital library developers don't get up in the morning wondering how we can ruin the lives of our patrons. Nonetheless, unintended consequences of our work may damage the capacity of libraries to serve their clienteles, from public library patrons looking for books to researchers searching archives.
  37. A Database for Every Need — 12/01/1999 — Many digital library projects require database software -- whether for a catalog of holdings, subject pathfinders, or other kinds of structured information. Database solutions are actually fairly generic; the same software can support a large variety of uses. Only one of the solutions noted below (SiteSearch) is tailored to any degree at all for library uses, and yet it can also be used for other types of data.
  38. Hustle and Flow — 03/15/2006 — It hit me while looking at the activity report for the photographs I had uploaded to
  39. Google, the Naked Emperor — 08/15/2005 — Google rules. Wherever you turn you hear about a new Google initiative.
  40. I Know This Much Is True — 11/15/1999 — In this crazy, mixed-up world it can be tough to distinguish fact from fancy, hype from honesty, and the next "killer" application from vaporware. As information bombards us, we must employ all of our skills as librarians to filter out the noise and find the signal. Sometimes we must rely on our own experience and intuition. So here I go out on a limb to say what I believe to be true about information technology today -- not tomorrow, as times change.
  41. Library Catalogs: The Wrong Solution — 02/15/2003 — Most integrated library systems, as they are currently configured and used, should be removed from public view.
  42. The Expanding World of OAI — 2/15/2004 —
  43. The Trouble with Online — 09/15/2004 — Imagine you are a student with a paper due the next day and the library is closed.
  44. The Consequences of Cataloging — 01/15/2002 — As our usage statistics decline (on average), owing to the perceived promise of the Internet, we must think imaginatively. More and more, I believe that means establishing ever-wider cooperative relationships with other libraries.
  45. Where Librarians Go To Hack — 11/15/2003 — There is a subculture of librarians that could make a significant impact on the profession.
  46. The Murky Bucket Syndrome — 12/15/2004 — Two recent, unrelated events put into stark focus the major challenges we have ahead of us if we want to serve our users as they expect and deserve.
  47. Bibliographic Control Future — 04/15/2007 — Standing in front of Google's main lobby, I'm unimpressed.
  48. Five Easy Pieces — 11/15/2004 — With our noses plastered to the proverbial grindstone, it can be difficult to step back and take a look at the big picture.
  49. Academic Library Futures — 12/15/2006 — Librarians have every right to wonder what their future holds in an age when Google is digitizing entire research libraries and our users routinely go to Internet search engines for the things they formerly used libraries.
  50. Patriotism As If Our Constitution Matters — 07/15/2003 — You have probably thought about what you will do if the FBI comes to your library and requests your circulation records for the last few months. And you've no doubt thought about your web logs that keep track of every click a user makes.
  51. Not Your Mother's Union Catalog — 04/15/2003 — For years the largest bibliographic databases in the world, OCLC's WorldCat and RLG's Eureka, have remained nearly unchanged from the user's perspective—except for new records.
  52. Metadata's Bitter Harvest — 07/15/2004 — I recently conducted my first harvest. Not pulling in corn or wheat but bibliographic records.
  53. Evolving the Resolving — 07/15/2006 — In the ubiquitous web era, it seems strange that linking well can be such a problem for libraries.
  54. Is Metasearching Dead? — 07/15/2005 — The best thing about Google Scholar, the beta Google service for searching scholarly information, is Anurag Acharya. Acharya, the architect of Google Scholar, is approachable, bright, and focused on building a usable interface for those seeking scholarly information.
  55. So Much To Digitize, So Little Time (and Money) — 08/01/1998 — So you want to build a digital library. You have some money or some staff to throw at the project -- ideally, both. Now what? More specifically, what do you choose to spend that money and staff time to digitize? It's a good question, mostly because there is no single best answer to the selection question. Rather, there are a number of issues librarians at any level must consider.
  56. Mass Digitization — 10/15/2006 — In my very first LJ Column, I wrote, "Only a very small fraction of the millions of print items currently held by the world's libraries will ever be in digital form."
  57. The Grand Challenges — 12/01/1997 — Decades ago, our professional predecessors laid the foundation upon which so much of library technology rests. Through sheer hard work and determination, they created a metadata standard for the interchange of bibliographic data between computers called machine-readable cataloging (MARC). Now we are at a similar professional crossroads, wherein the particular technologies, standards, and models we choose to adopt will shape digital libraries for decades to come.
  58. What I Wish I Had Known — 11/15/2005 — It has been many years since I left library school.
  59. The Year of the Open — 09/15/2007 — Two events this year are ushering in a new era of openness — both in the source code and the file formats of commercial software.
  60. Factoring in the Only Constant — 02/15/2002 — The only constant is change. This is surely no truer than in the process of creating and managing digital libraries. Until recently, though, change came rather slowly to libraries; one could even say that change (at least in the form of deteriorating collections) was viewed with some animosity.
  61. The Perils of Prediction — 09/15/2006 — Predicting the future accurately is extremely difficult.
  62. Enriching the Catalog — 06/15/2004 — After decades of costly and time-consuming effort, nearly all libraries have completed the retrospective conversion of their card catalogs to electronic form.
  63. Lipstick on a Pig — 04/15/2005 — Recently I viewed a library catalog redesign before it went public.
  64. Open Source Metasearch — 10/15/2007 — Software that searches multiple remote sources and merges the results for the user has been available for several years. Whether called federated searching, cross-database searching, or metasearching, it aims to make it as easy as possible for library users to find what they want from many different sources.
  65. Skills for the New Millennium — 01/01/1999 — This column identifies skills needed to create and manage digital library collections and services.No one likely will have all of the following skills and experience, nor will most employers require all of them. Some skills may be taught in library schools, while others must be learned elsewhere or on the job.
  66. The Library Brand — 01/15/2006 — It's likely that few professionals worry more about how their services are perceived than librarians.
  67. Technology Decision-Making: A Guide for the Perplexed — 04/15/2000 — Technological change is rapid and constant. Yet our organizations now depend on technology to serve our clientele as they wish to and should be served. But choosing the technologies that will form the foundation of our future services from among the plethora available can be difficult and nerve-racking.
  68. Doing Data Differently — 06/15/2005 — Metadata is often created in a time-consuming process by catalogers, digital library technicians, and others.
  69. Google Out of Print — 02/15/2005 — Since Google announced its initiative to digitize all, or major portions, of the book collections in select research libraries, I've struggled to figure out what to think of it (see "Google Is Adding Major Libraries to Its Database." All links for this article are available at
  70. User Interface Design: Some Guiding Principles — 10/15/1999 — Until the last few decades, the user interface to the library had long remained relatively unchanged. For decades, the only changes in the card catalog were minor tweaks in production techniques (from cards written in "library hand" to ones produced by computer). From grade school, library users became accustomed to the interface, and it changed not at all or very little...
  71. The Engine of Interoperability — 12/15/2003 — We don't think about standards when we replace a light bulb or use an electrical outlet.
  72. Metadata Leadership — 08/15/2004 — You may not believe that our dependence on MARC alone limits our future. But you can't deny that libraries now deal with a wide variety of metadata formats.
  73. Big Ideas and Small Solutions — 03/15/2004 — Innovations are sorely needed for libraries to compete with Google and Amazon.
  74. Looking Back To Go Forward — 08/15/2007 — My story is probably similar to many others. We saw, we learned, we used, and we eventually discarded. For every technology like the web, there are at least five other technologies that have passed into oblivion.
  75. The Digital Librarian Shortage — 03/15/2002 — Recently, both First Lady Laura Bush and the Institute of Museum and Library Services pledged support for librarian recruitment in response to a shortage of library professionals.
  76. The Power of Prototypes — 05/15/2006 — I love prototypes. Prototypes allow you to be creative without the detail that accompanies building a production system and often kills enthusiasm. It is, in other words, just the fun part.
  77. Getting to "the Right Stuff" — 09/15/2005 — In a world awash with information, finding what you really want can be difficult.
  78. The Role of Open Source Software — 01/01/2000 — The open source software (OSS) movement has garnered headlines in a variety of computing journals, and Linux -- an open source operating system -- has even been touted as a competitor to Microsoft Windows. Also, in articles and speeches, librarians such as Yale's Daniel Chudnov have exhorted colleagues to embrace OSS. So what is all the fuss about? To understand OSS, you must first understand how software is created.
  79. The Banal Barriers — 01/01/1998 — My last column identified a number of "grand challenges" that face digital library developers if we are to build effective digital libraries. But as many a monarch has discovered, the fate of empires all too frequently turns instead on the commonplace difficulty. Digital library development is no different.
  80. When Popular Goes Public — 01/15/2005 — As librarians, we are in the business of serving the public.
  81. Open Source Goes Mainstream — 08/15/2003 — A few years ago, I wrote about the role of open source software in libraries. At the time, there were indications that OSS would be important, but there were few library-specific applications to point to as proof.
  82. Fixing Library Discovery — 06/15/2006 — Regular readers of this column know that I've often taken library catalogs to task for being the "wrong solution" for most user needs.
  83. Facing the Not Knowing — 01/15/2007 — As I write this, I'm 30,000 feet over who knows where, on my way to another speaking engagement, where library staff will be gathered to hear what their future holds.
  84. The Gender Gap — 08/15/2006 — Recently, I've had reason to reflect on a disturbing situation in digital library development.
  85. Dawn of a New Era — 02/15/2007 — On September 5, 2006, over 250 libraries in the Georgia consortium, PINES, began using a next-generation integrated library system they wrote from scratch.
  86. Strategies for Keeping Current — 09/15/2003 — Even as technology makes it easier for us to gather information, the explosion of technology makes it harder than ever to keep up.
  87. Bigger, Cheaper, Everywhere — 10/15/2004 — I'm fond of saying that hard disk storage is cheaper than dirt.
  88. The Most Important Management Decision: Hiring Staff for the New Millennium — 02/15/1998 — The field of digital libraries is in a constant state of change. What we do today may not be what we will do tomorrow. In such a state of flux, what tends to remain the same? The staff you hire. Technologies may change, some people may come and go, but when you make a hiring decision, its consequences likely will last for decades. This column aims to help you make these consequences good ones.
  89. Collection Development Today — 05/15/2005 — If you have something to say, you've never had it so good.
  90. Of Real and Digital Libraries — 05/15/2007 — I arrived by chance in Jackson County, OR, the day after its 15 libraries were shut down on April 6.
  91. The New Cataloger — 04/15/2006 — I've often said librarians should like any metadata they see.
  92. Honoring Technical Staff — 05/15/2001 — Librarianship faces a pivotal and possibly disastrous problem. Our noble and essential work, for which we labor in quiet and unrecognized solitude, mostly attracts people for whom technology holds little interest. Instead, we attract people who love books and who understand that democracy rests on a foundation of open access to information.
  93. Feed Your Head: Keeping Up by Using RSS — 05/15/2003 — Keeping up has never been easy, although we can probably be forgiven if we think it is harder today. From print magazines to journals, from electronic discussion lists to web logs, there seem to be more sources of information than ever.
  94. Bridge the Jargon Divide — 04/15/2004 — We all hate jargon that we don't understand.
  95. Building a New Bibliographic Infrastructure — 01/15/2004 — More than a year ago I called for the death of MARC. That column sparked a lively discussion among librarians—especially catalogers.
  96. Demise of the Local Catalog — 07/15/2007 — Over four years ago I wrote that the library catalog should be pushed into the back room where it belonged and that a unified finding tool be put in its place (LJ 2/15/03, p. 28, and LJ 6/15/03, p. 28). I still believe our users want to find everything they can on a topic in one place, with one search, rather than going from place to place puzzling out each new interface.
  97. The Benefits of Grid Networks--Digital Libraries — 03/15/2005 — Some recent events have made me think about grid networks.
  98. What I Hope Will Be — 02/15/2006 — My recent column "What I Wish I Had Known" took a look back at lessons learned from years in library automation. This month I look forward to a bright library future and the ways it will be accomplished.
  99. Three Hard Things — 06/15/2007 — A few years ago, I wrote a column called "Five Easy Pieces" to help answer the question, "Are you focused on the right tasks, solving the right problems?" here are three things that may not be easy but are nonetheless important to your professional development.