Spark 1

Digital Libraries Investigation


A digital library, as defined by Lamb is, “an organization which identifies, selects, manages, and provides access to information sources through well-organized digital collections along with providing a variety of services to support user interests and needs” (2017). Digital libraries vary in form, organizational sponsor, scale, scope, size, purpose, and content, to name just a few variables. Content can include a very narrow topic, such as the Roman de la Rose Digital Library, which features multiple versions of one highly influential medieval text, or it can contain digital objects tied to vast collections, such as the British Library, which invites users to access “the world’s knowledge”. Confusion surrounds terminology among experts and end users. An example of this is in the use of digital collection vs. digital library. According to Babeu, “One way to distinguish between a digital collection and a digital library is that a library provides a variety of services in addition to an organized collection of objects and texts” (2011, 8). These services can encompass “technical assistance, tutorials, guidelines, pathfinders, and other resources aimed at the library’s audience (Lamb, 2017).

The current state of digital libraries is marked by rapidly evolving technology, innovation, proliferation of platforms, vast increases in the amount of digital content created and made available, and a diverse cast of producers, consumers and mediators with a variety of backgrounds, perspectives and agendas (Calhoun, Breeding). The present technological moment sets the stage for the ascendance of digital libraries. Research indicates user’s receptiveness to digital libraries and a high level of interest in developing digital skills with the assistance of libraries (Horrigan, 2016). This, combined with the pervasive and widespread use of smart phones, personal devices, computers and dependence on the internet help to explain why digital libraries are viewed by many as the future of libraries (Calhoun, 10).

The digital library revolution has a great deal of potential to increase access to human knowledge, but problems exist as well in this area. Digital libraries have the potential to demolish physical limitations of distance from physical location and ameliorate problems associated with scarcity of resources and to overcome space considerations which limit the number of materials a shelf or building can provide. Previously these issues might have denied users access to materials.  In this way, digital libraries open up the opportunity to connect previously isolated information locked in “silos” (Calhoun 10, Breeding 18) and expose collections to wider audiences. This potential is mitigated however, by problems related to questions of the sustainability of media and questions about the longevity prospects of organizations. Ironically, the very technological advances that made digital libraries a reality are moving at such a fast pace that hardware and software become obsolete at a much faster rate, endangering access to the information stored (Harvey, 2012). That is to say, as Marshall Breeding notes, unlike papyrus scrolls which have undergone countless years of benign neglect in a cave, “Any storage medium used for digital files may have a life expectancy measured in years or possibly decades, but certainly not centuries (2014).” The systems that house digital libraries are vulnerable on the issue of sustainability as well, as Geneva Henry notes that not only is it a question of, “hardware and software, but also of the entire organization (13).” The potential for digital death destroying evidence of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is not a settled matter, however. Vint Cerf warns that data may become unreadable as obsolete technology and software vanish and digital media deteriorate (2015). Bertram Lyons insists however, “there will be no digital dark age.”

The twelve digital libraries selected for this spark assignment include specialty libraries that focus on a particular topic, such as the Civil Rights Digital Library, state libraries and their associated memory projects, major cultural heritage institutions, and digital libraries that act as portals, connecting scattered digital materials that might otherwise remain in silos. This selection demonstrates the wide variety of digital libraries, from highly focused, to massive sprawling cultural heritage preserves. Some of the selected digital libraries highlight their usefulness to lay persons for exploring family history using materials the that might otherwise be restricted to college students and academics. By illustrating examples of the different leisure uses of these organizations, I hope to demonstrate that even those that are associated with high culture (such as the British Library or the Library of Congress) can be sources of interest and fun to the average person, either as a source of public domain copyright free images (such as the British Library Flickr page) or could be used as education resources for all ages and ability levels.


Digital Libraries


The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County : The Digital Library

Library of Virginia

KDL: Kentucky Digital Library

The British Library

HathiTrust Digital Library

The Internet Archive

Ohio Digital Resource Commons: University of Cincinnati

Indiana Memory

Civil Rights Digital Library

The Morgan Library and Museum

Smithsonian Digital Library

Digital Public Library of America




Babeu, A. (August 2011). “Rome Wasn’t Digitized in a Day”: Building a Cyberinfrastructure for Digital Classics. Council on Library and Information Resources.

Breeding, M. (November, 2, 2014). Ongoing challenges in digitization. Computers in Libraries, 34 (9), 16-18.

Calhoun, K. (2014). Emergence and definitions of digital libraries. In, Exploring Digital Libraries: Foundations, Practice, Prospects. ALA Neal-Schuman.

Ghosh, P. (2015 February 13). Google’s Vint Cerf warns of ‘digital dark age’.

Harvey, R. (2011). Why there’s a problem: Digital artifacts and digital objects. In Preserving digital materials (Ch. 3 pp. 39-55). Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter Saur.

Henry, G. (July 2012). Core Infrastructure Considerations for Large Digital Libraries. Council on Library and Information Resources.

Lyons, B. (2016 May 11). There will be no digital dark age. Issues and Advocacy

Sympson, M. G. (Spring 2012). Roman de la Rose Digital Library. Digital Philology: A Journal of Medieval Cultures, 1 (1), 116-169.