Digital Media in Community Libraries, Part 4: The Case for Virtual Libraries

The Public Library in a Google Age

In February 2008, Witold Rybczynski wrote an image essay called “Borrowed Time” for Slate magazine that focused on the question, “How do you build a public library in the age of Google?” As the architecture critic for Slate, he was interested in the fate of the physical library building in a digital age: will the brick and mortar (or in some cases steel and glass) buildings that house the library as an institution continue to serve useful cultural objectives in the age of Google, Wikipedia and Kindle? Or should the institutions be “retired” and the buildings repurposed to serve other needs?


image “Borrowed Time” by Witold Rybczynski, 2008.


In the essay, Rybczynski reports on the findings of a Washington D.C. task force that concluded that the District of Columbia’s central public library was “an outmoded structure erected long before the advent of the digital world.” In addition to noting that the library was missing revenue streams (by not sending out overdue notices), the Task Force concluded that the Washington D.C. library needed a “dramatic overhaul that would combine new high-tech buildings with virtual branches in cyberspace.”

The idea of a “library” that exists only in computer space (cyberspace) is not entirely new. Perhaps the earliest practical example of a “virtual library” was the on-line catalogs that were available to French Minitel users starting in 1982. As a technological antecedent to the development of the Internet and the WWW, the French Minitel system offered a range of on-line services ranging from telephone numbers, computer dating announcements, home banking, local shopping, government documents, and library catalogs (Kessler, 1995). Not surprisingly perhaps, the national library of France (The Bibliothèque nationale de France) was one of the “first wave” of institutions to experiment with the creation of a digital library (Dalbella, 2008). But the DREAM of a virtual library was evident much earlier. It shows up in the science fiction of H.G. Wells (“The Time Machine,” 1895) as well as the hypertext system originally called Xanadu by Ted Nelson (Dream Machines, 1974) (Pennavaria, 2002). Several technological visionaries–who are noteworthy because they always seriously considered culture in their technological projections–believed that technology could serve culture in the form of lbiraries that would make materials available “just-in-time” to any and all cultural participants. For example, Internet pioneer J.C.R. Licklider (1965) wrote one of the first books on the technological promise of networked computer systems to serve as the foundation for Libraries of the Future (1965). In the 1945 article that essentially lays out the foundation for contemporary network computing as a “information processing system,” engineering scientist Vannevar Bush argued that one of the most pressing issues of the day was the need to find a way to enable people to make sense of the prodigious “human record.” He noted that the expansion of research and scholarly documents made it difficult for scientists to keep up on (what he referred to as) the “summation of human experience” (“How We May Think,” Bush, 1945). It was in this article that he proposed the term “memex” as the name of the device “in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications” as well as his (sic) tracesthrough the network of materials. According to Bush’s vision, the personal memex would be (kn turn) connected to “books of all sorts, pictures, current periodicals, newspapers.” Building on the creation of a personal memex and an individual’s traces of travels through that memex, collections would accumulate such that “wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear.” As Bush elaborates:

The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience and of the experience of friends and authorities. The patent attorney has on call the millions of issued patents…. The physician…runs rapidly through analogous case histories…. The chemist has all the chemical literature before him in his laboratory…. The historian can follow at any time contemporary trails which lead him all over civilization at a particular epoch. There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing successful trails through the enormous mass of the common record. Thus science may implement the ways in which man produces, stores and consults the record of the race (p. 8).

We return to Bush’s vision of a networked human record as a reminder that the notion of the digital library has been an abiding goal and guiding objective for the development of computer communication systems from early on. As we review (in this post) research on the development of digital and virtual libraries, we assert that the notion of the digital library is in some respects the enabling foundationof learning in a digital age. This post reviews some of the research on the development of digital libraries before examining some of the emergent efforts to connect brick/mortar libraries and digital spaces.

To begin to map the discussions about digital libraries and the relationship with brick and mortar institutions, consider the following distinctions between “electronic,” “digital” and “virtual” as types of libraries: (From the Berkeley Digital Library SunSITE)

An electronic libraryis a library consisting of electronic materials and services. (As the article notes, this term is not used any longer).A digital libraryis a library consisting of digital materials and services. Digital materials are items that are stored, processed and transferred via digital devices and networks.

A virtual library is a library that ONLY exists virtually. It can consist of materials from a variety of separate libraries that are organized in a virtual space.

The U.S. Library of Congress American Memory Project is offered as an example of a “digital library.” This project provides free and open access through the WWW to digitized materials from the Library of Congress collections that document the American experience. In its early years (1990-1994) during the pilot stage of the project, copies of the digitized materials were distributed on cd-rom to several dozen libraries. By the mid-1990s, the WWW enabled the wider distribution and circulation of digitized materials. As a consequence, in 1996 the American Memory Project became part of the National Digital Library Program (NDLP). The current vision for the sees it as: “a set of distributed repositories of managed content and a set of interfaces (some of which will resemble traditional catalogs) to that content.”

The challenges in building the NDLPas a true network of digital libraries are significant. The issues that have to be explored and have not yet been fully addressed include technical concerns such as the 1) development of improved technologies for digitizing analog materials, 2) the design of search and retrieval tools that compensate for abbreviated or incomplete catalog information, and 3) development of standards for interoperability. Beyond the technical challenges are legal issues such as concerns about access, copying, intellectual property, and dissemination of materials, as well as several social issues such as developing protocols for user generated tagging and meta data creation and developing modes of access that are meaningful for different communities of users.

On April 21, 2009 the World Digital Library, in preparation by the Library of Congress, was officially inaugurated at UNESCO in Paris. Currently there are more than 1,170 items archived from 26 partner institutions. Primarily established as a browsing site, the main page offers a geographic depiction of the world, with item counts by region. An impressive aspect of the site is that it is completely usable in seven different languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, Spanish, and Portuguese. All information is translated including the descriptive metadata for each item. This effort represents the latest and most ambitious attempt to realize the dream of a network of digital libraries.

Review of Work in the Creation of Digital Libraries

In 2005, Clifford Lynch. the executive director of the Coalition for Networked Information (and professor of at University of California Berkeley’s School of Information) edited a special volume of D-Lib Magazinethat reviewed efforts from the previous 10 years to create digital libraries. In his introduction to that volume, he offers the following overview:


“One way to characterize the period from about 1994-2004 is that it represents the first time that digital library research could really get substantial programmatic funding from the major research funding agencies in the United States through The Digital Library Initiative and DLI-2…. Through [these efforts] researchers in higher education systematically engaged in the construction and analysis of digital library prototypes and research in both the underlying technologies and social implications surrounding these systems. This funding legitimized digital libraries as a field of research.”


Lynch points out that the funding coming from NSF and its collaborator institutions (in the early 1990s) successfully contributed to the formation of a multidisciplinary community of researchers, technologists, librarians, and professionals from industry, government, and higher education that could share ideas, technologies, and prototypes that advanced everyone’s thinking about digital libraries. The community-building effort, he argues, was absolutely critical to the creation of full-scale digital libraries. His point in reviewing these early efforts to pose the question: where does this community (and its concepts, technologies and engineering know-how) go next? To this end, he identifies several horizons of research and development:

    1) Research on cyberinfrastructure is critical to the creation of a network of digital libraries. 2) E-research requires new production systems to support research in various scholarly, scientific and engineering fields. These production systems will need to focus on the management of large data sets and networked digital information resources. (This, according to Lynch, will require advance technology development in areas such as high-performance computing.) 3) This will entail the development of systems and services for digital asset management, digital collection creation, and institutional repositories. To this end, he argues that previous digital libraries efforts can offer “a relatively mature set of tools, engineering approaches, and technologies” to the creation of new information management projects.

Beyond that though, he points out that the information management issues on the near horizon are broader than those that deal with questions of digital preservation and stewardship of cultural heritage materials. As Lynch concludes his editorial overview, the most compelling emergent issues that address the interests of the digital library community (as it is incorporates issues of technology, social science, and culture) include:

    1) Personal information management; 2) Long term relationship between humans and information collections and systems; 3) Role of digital libraries in supporting teaching, learning and human development; 4) Environments for computer supported collaborative work.

For Lynch, these issues define the next wave of projects that will draw on the expertise and experience of digital library researchers, technologists, and librarians. Some of these issues are on-going obviously. The question about the long-term relationship between humans and information collections is less a technical problem to be “solved” as it is a process of cultural reproduction. How will people interact with (and indeed learn to value) the record of human experience in the form of digital documents, archives, and repositories? In this sense, the challenges to building an extended digital library (as a national effort such as the NDLP, or a pan-national project such as the World Digital Library) include technological issues, the development of new social practices, as well as the confrontation with competing cultural values (pertaining to issues such as language use, copyright, and literacy standards). As a project to build a new kind of official “institution” the effort is burdened by a host of official requirements: the creation of cataloging standards, protocols of interoperability, and access and privacy filters (to name just a few). Not surprisingly, progress is slow. In the meantime, some of the most creative efforts to expand the role of libraries into new digital realms are going on at the grass roots level as community libraries develop innovative ways to incorporate new information sharing applications into their menu of services that they provide community patrons.

Connecting Real and Virtual Libraries

Brick-and-mortar libraries are now experimenting with social networking sites as a method to connect with new groups of patrons. These libraries are using the sites to augment their basic web presence—where they include such information as hours, catalog information, and special event notices. Some libraries are now offering links to downloadable e-books, blog sites, teen blogs, local community information, and live chatting with a librarian. Indeed, recent applications such as Rollyo, Swiki, and Google-Co-op have provided local libraries with tools to customize their digital offerings by allowing for easy creation of search engines relevant to the library’s community. In these cases, the library website serves as portal to a range of services and other information sites. For example, the New Haven Free Public Library allows patrons to renew books, ask a librarian questions, use specialized search engines, access issues of the New Haven Bulletin and the New Haven Register, download audio books, search the World Book online, and peruse book award lists (with links to award winning books). In a similar vein, the Champaign Public Libraryportal provides links to answers and facts; books; downloadables; a TeenSpace; Event Calendar; Community News; and a Parent site.

Several libraries provide local content on social networking sites to enhance the community’s cultural and historical identity through their website, email newsletters, or even RSS feeds. The Louisiana Digital Library offers an online library of digital materials about Louisana’s history, culture, places and people. The Bethlehem Pennsylvania Digital History Projectoffers digitized primary sources, transcriptions, translatios and contextual information about the early history of Bethlehem (1741-1844). This site has been singled out by the National Endowment for the Humanities as “one of the best online resources for education in the humanities.”

Traditional librarians and associations are actively discussing how to expand the role librarians in a digital mediated world. While the American Librarian Association has a specific set of standards that guide library policies and librarian practices relating to media collections, it is now also considering how to address the skills required to interact with patrons within social networking sites. In this case, librarians have to assume responsibility for understanding and articulating the nature of these sites and their contribution to other library services; librarians not only need to know how to evaluate and apply information available through this sites, but they also need to learn the pedagogical skills to help patrons gain familiarity and proficiency in using these sites. For a discussion about the kinds of networking compentencies required of librarians, see the paper by Joe Murphy and Heather Moulaison, “Social Networking Literacy Competencies for Librarians: Exploring Considerations and Engaging Participation”presented at the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) 14th National Conference, 2009.


It is interesting to note the rapid transformation in the notion of “virtual library” that occurred in the space of decade. In the mid-to late 1990s several sites were developed such as Infomine to provide public access to large collections of scholarly resources. This was only one noteworthy effort to create places and portals that offered access to an increasing collection of internet-available scholarly materials. In 1995, a noteworthy consortium of colleges and universities with program in information science developed the Internet Public Library. Founded by the University of Michigan and hosted by Drexel University’s College of Information Sciences and Technology, the IPL began in a graduate seminar in the School of Information and Library Studies at the U of Michigan. The idea for the library was to 1) ask interesting questions about the interconnections of libraries, librarians, and librarianship within a distributed networked environment, and 2) to learn about these issues by actually designing and creating an online library. The IPL officially went live on March 17, 1995. Now in its 14th year, the IPL is poised to merge with the Librarians’ Internet Index(LII) to create a new web presence. The winning name for the new merger has yet (as of June 8, 2009) been announced.


That same year, 1995, the National Science Digital Library (NSDL)program was initiated by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Undergraduate Education. It held its first formal funding cycle in 2000; since then more than 200 projects have been funded to create collections, services, and tools for teachers and learners in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. The idea was to create a web-based resource for the dissemination of STEM instructional materials, assessment instruments, and high-quality digital learning activities. In 2008, the NSDL entered a new phase of development and will transform into a Resource Center and Technical Network Services.

Throughout the previous decade (1999-2009) there have been several more specialized attempts to created virtual libraries. These include local “home grown” virtual libraries created by helpful information providers (see for example the one by Andy Hold called the “Andy Hold Virtual Library.” In 2002, the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) collaborated with the IPL to create a virtual library of resources by, for, and about Native Americans. More recently, we’ve seen the development of state-wide extended digital library networks. For example, the state of Maine supports MARVEL: Maine’s Virtual Librarythat makes thousantds of magazines, newspapers and reference books available to patrons anywhere in the state through the Maine InfoNet system.

Virtual Libraries in Third Spaces

The notion of a digital library (which according to the definition offered above is a digital repository of holdings within a physical library) differs from the concept of a virtual library as a “third space” of information archive, access and retrieval.

The WWW Virtual Library(VL) is the oldest virtual library on the web. Started by Tim Berners-Lee in 1991, its catalog of holdings is organized by expert volunteers who compile pages of key links in particular topic areas. Individual indices live on hundreds of different servers around the world. Topics include: the arts (art history, classical music, theater, and drama); business and economics (finance, marketing, transportation); commercial media, education, computing and computer science, education, engineering, architecture, history, languages, museums, information and libraries, international affairs, law, mathematics, biosciences, anthropology, sociology and many others.

In the past four years several “third space” libraries have been created to take advantage of the community presence of participants in virtual worlds. Probably the best known and most frequented are the library initiatives in the virtual world, Second Life. As many readers of this blog understand, Second Life is a virtual world developed by the software company, Linden Lab. First launched in 2003, Second Life “residents” interact with each through through avatars—digitally created and manipulated characters that represent the user in the virtual world. Currently there are more than 200,000 residents in Second Life. Over time, communities of avatars coalesce around specific issues such as health, education, business, and special interests (music, art, activism).

In 2006, Lori Bell (Second Life avatar, Loreli Junot) created the Second Life Alliance Library Systemin collaboration with librarians all over the country. Dedicated to creating a new library experience for the residents of Second Life (SL), the Alliance Virtual Library organizes public programs such as lectures, discussions, and presentations. The Alliance also includes an in-world genealogy research center, library gallery, mystery manor, performance center, science center, and si-fi/fantasy center. The growing popularity of the Second Life library has led to two conferences on libraries, education, and museums in Second Life. This purpose of these conferences was to provide a place for librarians, information professionals, educators, museologists, and others to learn about and discuss the educational, informational and cultural opportunities of virtual worlds. In 2009, presentation topics included:

    • Educators and librarians as information providers in a virtual world; • Designing for emotion in a virtual world; • Collaboration among virtual world librarians; • Virtual libraries in the immersive education initiative.

There are actually several virtual libraries in Second Life. For example, in the companion virtual world called Teen Second Life (created for teens between the ages of 13 and 17) there is a library called Eye4YouAlliance that focuses on age appropriate materials and services.. Other Second Life library sites include: Pieta Revolutiei (Virtual Bucharest)—the first Romanian city accurately represented in Second Life; Law Librarians in Virtual Worlds—a site for law librarians, law students and library students.


One of the most active virtual libraries within Second life is the Caledon Branch Library located in the capitol city of the fictional Caledon on the Caledon Victoria City sim. This Branch includes a Reading Room just off the Victoria City Telehub. The Caledon Branch maintains an outdoor reading room, the Vannevar Bush Memorial Reading Garden. Here visitors may browse a display of recent acquisitions, find a comfortable tree under which to read, or treat themselves to refreshments while they peruse their findings. The Caledon Branch hosts monthly book discussions, art exhibits, and other cultural activities. With the Clan of Seafarers and Storytellers, it co-sponsors story-telling sessions at a local pub. It also publishes, on its own and with the Caledon Tesla Society, works of scientific and technical interest. The collection policy of the Caledon Library focuses on two main topics: (1) the 19th century and (2) Caledon’s defining literary genres. Within these areas, Caledon librarians collect primary source material (including 19th c. novels, periodicals, etc, or materials from earlier ages considered important in the 19th century) and research materials concerning the world of the 19th century and its imagination. This virtual library is tied to a fictional place in Second Life and has been a popular site for many residents.


Cybrary City in Second Life provides a virtual home to many public and academic real life (RL) libraries. Several universities and colleges have built sites in Second Life to expand their RL services: Saint Leo University Virtual Campus (Florida Education University); San Jose State University Library and Information Sciences; Orange County Library System (Central Florida); Texas State University San Marcos Educational Virtual Campus; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Stanford University.

In May 2009, the Second Life Alliance Virtual Library sponsored the first “Library Career Fair & Library Fair in Second Life.” This in-world conference provided Second Life residents with the opportunity to promote and discuss various SL library projects and activities. There was also a job fair for RL job seekers. The Career Fair events included: orientations for new avatars (librarians, students, and staff), a Library and Information Science Career Resource Center with links to global job postings, speakers on survival skills for getting a job in a bad economy, resume tune-up, and what employers are looking for in today’s media-rich Web 2.0 information environments.

Other social networking sites are also supporting library networking activities. For example both Facebook and Myspace support public and university library connections. Libraries with Facebookpages include:

      •Cophenhagen University Library: Network for users and employees of Copenhagen University Library (at The Royal Library), Copenhagen, Denmark.
      • Hamner Public Library (VA): A virtual portal for the patrons of the James L. Hamner Public Library in Amelia, VA.
      • Palestinian Holocaust Virtual Library: This virtual library’s goal is to be a depository for all information that is out there regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
      • VIVA, The Virtual Library of Virginia: The Virtual Library of Virginia (VIVA) is the consortium of the nonprofit academic libraries within the Commonwealth of Virginia.


      • Virtual Jewish Library on German-Jewish Intellectual History: Supports the college in setting up a virtual library on German-Jewish literature and intellectual history.
      • Scottish Poetry Library: Discussions, photos, poetry news: virtual membership of the Scottish Poetry Library.
    • The Jones School of Law Library Java Lounge: A virtual library hangout designed to keep ones School of Law students informed.

Libraries with innovative MySpacepages include:

The Jefferson County Library

Wilmington (DE) Stroop Branch Library

University of California Santa Barbara library

Contra Costa (CA) library

References and Citations

Bush, Vannevar. 1945. “As We May Think.” The Atlantic Monthly176 91): 101-108 (July).

Kessler, Jack. (1995). “The French Minitel: Is there Digital Life Outside of the US ASCII Internet? A Challenge or a Convergence?” D-Lib Magazine, December 1995. Available from:

Licklider, L.C.R. (1965). Libraries of the Future. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Lynch, Clifford. (2005) “Where Do We Go From Here? The Next Decade for Digital Libraries.” D-Lib Magazine11.7/8 (July/August). Available from:

Murphy, Joe and Heather Moulaison. 2009. Social Networking Literacy Competencies for Librarians: Exploring Considerations and Engaging Participation. Paper presented at Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) 14th National Conference, 2009.

Pennavaria, Katherine. (2002). “Representations of Books and Libraries in Depictions of the Future.” Libraries and Culture37.3 (Summer, 2002): 229-248.

Rybczynski, Witold. 2008. “Borrowed Time: How do you Build a Public Library in the Age of Google?” SlateFeb 27, 2008.

For an extended list of resources on Digital Libraries see the EDUCAUSEwebsite that includes publications, presenations, podcasts and blogs.


Research by Anne Balsamo and Stacy Ingber, 2009.

Author Bio: Anne Balsamo directs the Interactive Media Division’s Co-Design Lab in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. She teaches courses in design across the curriculum, public interactives, and culture and technology for the Interactive Media Arts and Practice program, the Interactive Media Division, and The Annenberg School of Communication at USC. She is also a freelance museum exhibit developer and curator who has created interactive exhibits for the International Museum of Women, the San Jose Tech Museum, the Papalote Children’s Museum in Mexico City, Liberty Science Center, and the Singapore Science Center. Her new research effort called “The Tangible Culture Research Project” investigates the design of evocative (mixed reality) knowledge objects and the role of tinkering in a digital age. For more information about her current work and new transmedia book project, Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work visit (to be launched July, 2009).