More than Two Sides to the DL Debate

Quite a few posts here are mentioning the rift between computer programmers and librarians that comes up in most of this week’s readings.  This does seem to be the most important conflict of definitions/visions that has shaped the evolution of digital libraries.  It is also a very important split for us to find ways to bridge as librarians.

I also felt there was some great insight in the 1999 Borgman article that expanded the idea of competing definitions/visions beyond the programmers vs. librarians dichotomy.  Even though the article is 14 years old, it made some great points that still hold true.

Borgman divides the camps into “researchers” and “practitioners.”  Researchers include computer scientists but Borgman also discusses sociologists, economists and librarian researchers and how each may have her own nuanced definition of DL.  Similarly, practitioners include working librarians but also artists, health care professionals and educators. Again, each potentially thinks of a digital library in a unique way.

Each definition is, in part, a reflection of that groups expectations for digital libraries. Furthermore, Borgman points out that one reason for competing definitions of DL is that a definition can be crafted to inspire researchers or practitioners to tackle important research questions or practical challenges. (p229-230). Within these different groups, their definition of “digital library” sets the stage for progress.  A computer science researcher may think of a digital library as a database of rich content and might then work on improving database structure or retrieval algorithms.  Conversely, a university library might define a digital library more in terms of an institution that provides a service. This definition helps keep a digital library project started by that university within the mission and tradition of an academic library.

The problem is that none of these separate groups actually benefits from actual separation from the other players in the development of digital libraries.  When communication and collaboration breaks down between different groups – say when the university library approaches the computer scientist to help develop a digital library project – the separate definitions can be counter-productive.

As a musician interested in digital collections of folk song field recordings I can also see scenarios where a practicing musician might feel at odds with a practicing librarian as to how a collection should be managed and accessed.  Borgman makes me think about the need for understanding and collaboration between librarians and programmers but also between librarians, programmers and the various communities they, together, serve.

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One response to “More than Two Sides to the DL Debate

  1. I think Borgman emphasized too much on the conflicts between “research-oriented” and “practice-oriented” definitions of digital libraries. Researchers in academics lay foundations for librarians to implement. Such kind of labor division is prevalent in most professional areas. For example, pharmacologists study drug action and physiologists perform theoretical study of living systems, while medical doctors are practitioners who utilize the research results for serving their patients. By the same token, in the digital library field, researchers have been working on fundamentals, whether technological or social aspects and I believe most librarians are looking forward to the insights from researchers as guides to serve their patrons in new environments.

    Although Borgman acknowledged a symbiotic relationship between research and practice, his frequent mentioning “multiple meanings” of digital library to different people make impression that people working in the digital library area are incoherent. Instead, I think he should have offered a comprehensive or unified definition and stopped his dichotomy.

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