Internet Digital Libraries: The International Dimension
Artech House, Inc., 1996, £49.00
256pp ISBN 0-89006-875-5
|2.||Development of digital libraries
|3.||General characteristics and problems of digital libraries
Date of publication: 28 February 1997
Citation: Stevenson, V, 'Jack Kessler's Internet Digital Libraries: The International Dimension', Book Review, 1997 (1) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <http://elj.warwick.ac.uk/jilt/bookrev/97_1stev/>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/law/elj/jilt/1997_1/stevenson/>
Jack Kessler is interested in recent moves towards increased public access to information and presents in this book an overview of what he calls "internet digital libraries": that is, information held in electronic form which is made generally available on the World Wide Web or by some other electronic means. He highlights the similarities and differences between traditional libraries as physical storehouses of printed materials, and the growing number of online digital libraries, making the valid point that end users have always been interested simply in getting information, not in the systems invented by librarians for storing that information: today's users of digital libraries still want a straightforward means of accessing the data they require.
The word "international" in the sub-title is fully justified as Kessler has expertise in electronic access to information in the U.S. and France, allowing him to compare two different models for online digital information provision: the Internet (mainly fuelled by private enterprise) and the French Minitel system (developed because of a strong Government commitment to public access). Kessler describes the development of digital libraries in nine other countries, attempting to put this development in its political, economic and geographical context. Unfortunately the book is rather too short to cover all the topics in detail. Many interesting concepts are introduced but it has not been possible to develop them thoroughly. Most of the examples presented are the home pages of national or university libraries: the book would perhaps have had wider appeal if more examples of idiosyncratic, unusual sites from each country had been included.
Despite this, Internet Digital Libraries does cover a lot of useful ground and would make a good starting point for anyone interested in the development of the Internet. As a document which records one stage in the transition from libraries as carefully guarded stores of printed works to internationally accessible databanks, it will be of lasting value to information professionals.
2. Development of digital libraries
Kessler undertakes the definition of a digital library by presenting some examples of how the term is used in current practice and identifying common strands. He takes as his starting point the development of computerised library catalogues and the databases held by research institutions and governments. In ten short chapters he looks at the growth and increasing accessibility of these "libraries" in different countries and cultures. The countries covered are France, Singapore, China, India, Australia, Thailand, the United Kingdom, Hungary, Japan and Indonesia, which do indeed throw up some interesting contrasts in terms of public access, technological development driven by consumer demand, common standards, language and different responses to the dominant American products.
The concentration on national libraries, government information and universities does not perhaps give a true picture of the anarchic and increasingly commercial nature of the World Wide Web in different countries, but it does facilitate comparisons between these semi-official bodies, the way they have chosen to present themselves, and the extent of public accessibility. The development of digital information is set in context, highlighting social, political, economic and ideological factors which have helped or hindered the growth rate in each country. Early on, Kessler states that "the expansion of the Internet to general public users is bringing all sorts of new and interesting problems". This is certainly true, but while some of these problems are noted in the country chapters, it would have been interesting to examine them in an international context and in more depth, and draw some conclusions for the future. Kessler does state that another book looking at the problems of public access in the United States is currently in preparation, so perhaps these ideas will be developed there.
3. General characteristics and problems of digital libraries
The latter part of Internet Digital Libraries identifies and discusses four specific international characteristics of digital libraries, drawn from the country examples. These are: human language problems; overt politics and political structure problems; technical standards; and the role of business. Kessler suggests that even though business expediency may force information providers to find pragmatic solutions to the first three problems, this may not be the best long-term solution. He then goes on to look at three more general problems confronting the development of internet digital libraries, and at this point many readers, apart from the dedicated librarian or information science student may lose interest. The chapter headings (such as Human users - fitting something new in - wine and bottles, chicken and eggs) become a bit contrived and the focus of Kessler's discussion shifts from current practical problems to look at some of the more theoretical information science issues. Some useful points are made, but is necessary to wade through rather a lot of woolly argument to find them. The book finishes up with several appendices including a glossary, statistical information, a bibliography and lists of access points for digital libraries.
Overall, this is an interesting and worthwhile read for information professionals with a great deal of practical information in it. Many of the ideas are fresh and make the reader look at the development of the Internet in new ways. Perhaps it is wrong to criticise the author for raising more questions than he can answer: Kessler certainly stimulates thought and discussion, which is one of his stated aims. It will be interesting to see whether some of the arguments one might have expected to find in this book are developed in other publications: for example, issues of national censorship, the impact of access to the Internet on developing economies, and the gulf between "information rich" and "information poor" in various countries. As a starting point, however, the book certainly introduces the concept and helps to make the reader realise that we are all involved in building the digital libraries of the future.