digital libraries, electronic libraries and virtual libraries


Could anyone explain to me the differences between digital libraries, electronic libraries and virtual libraries?

Answer #1 from 
Stephen Thomas, Senior Systems Analyst
Mail : Barr Smith Library, The University of Adelaide, South Australia 

In my opinion, a Digital Library is a repository of information in digital form, ie. stored as data files on a computer. It is also the tool-set provided to enable search and retrieval of the repository.

An Electronic Library is the same thing -- but the term should be deprecated, because the term "electronic" is less precise: it might include analogue data formats, or it might refer to the subject of "electronics". I prefer Digital.

A Virtual Library is a collection of resources available on one or more computer systems, where a single interface or entry point to the collections is provided. The key point being that the user need not know where particular resources are located -- the location is "virtual".

Answer #2 from
Richard T. Sweeney, University Librarian
New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) Robert W. Van Houten Library
Newark, New Jersey 07102-1982, 

Here are my own thoughts based upon conversations and research.

The digital library is an organization including staff, computers, networks, and all other resources necessary to organize, store provide access to, subsidize, preserve, and retrieve selected digital documents where, when, and how needed by users. The term "Digital documents" is used in the widest sense of the word, and includes, but is not limited to one or more computer usable files and can include everything from text, multimedia, database, motion pictures or any other type of digital document.

The virtual library is a digital library which has the look and feel of a traditional physical library with collections of materials. It may have additional features, as well, but it takes advantage of users intuitive understanding of libraries. There are very few examples today, especially among those libraries that call themselves a virtual library.

The electronic library, as defined by Ken Dowlin in his book is no longer used. I think the term was to broad. it could, for example, be used to define a library that uses fax machines". The term digital library is today's preferred term.

Answer #3 from
Eduardo Villanueva Mansilla, Coordinador de Automatizacion/Systems Librarian
Biblioteca Central,  Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Peru

I found Steve Thomas reply quite precise and useful, but I'd like to stress that a Digital Library implies the existence of some collection of data, that is, computerized information replacing the traditional printed sources, while the virtual library doesn't neccessarily requires the existence of local information. The work of the librarian, in the case of a virtual library, is to maintain a logical and useful order of the resources and update links or the like to assure access. I think that this "ghost library" is different to a digital library complemented with virtual resources, but there is no single term that conveys the meaning of the digital/virtual library as opposite to the "simple" virtual library.

Answer #4 from
Roy Tennant, Project Manager,
Digital Library Research & Development, UC Berkeley Library

In my definition, I explicitly include "services" as well as "collections". My brief working definition of "digital library" is simply library collections and services in digital form. Most people have some kind of impression of what library collections and services are, so this gives them a frame of reference. It also serves to reinforce the fact that although digital technology provides us with many new challenges and opportunities, the basic mission and goals of the library remain constant.

Definitions of "digital library" as a data repository and its accompanying search tools are common in the computing profession, which comes from the use of the word library to denote collections of subroutines and code fragments. I hasten to assure you that a library is much, much more than that. Can you imagine, for instance, using online conferencing software and networks to have a reference question answered from the comfort of your home or office? I can, and that would not be included in your definition of "digital library". I think if we are going to define the term, we should do it so it will logically include future collections and services as well as present ones.

It is just because the word "electronic" can include analog formats (such as large format laserdisks) that I prefer it over "digital" which is less inclusive. However, after the library world stampeded to "digital" I gave up and started using the more common terminology. But that doesn't mean I have to like it.

Answer #5 from
Giles Martin, Quality Control Section,
University of Newcastle Libraries
New South Wales, Australia 

There is another kind of virtual library that I am aware of: a computer similation of a library. For an example, visit the Internet Public Library MOO:

Telnet to 8888 (On my local VAX computer, the command is: telnet /port=8888 )

Then connect as a guest by giving the command: co guest

This virtual library has a Reference Department, a Youth Room, a Cafe, and a Catalogue -- but no books (virtual or real) as yet!

Answer #6 from Robert Wedgeworth

The term digital library, as I understand it, and as it is used in my library, refers to digitized files of information, cataloged, indexed and with professional assistance available to help users. These files may be comprised of original materials or may be the result of the electronic conversion from pre-existing material including, but not limited to, books, journals, manuscripts, photos, prints, videos, etc. While the term library is used somewhat casually in many instances, its use within the professional community usually requires three elements: a collection, organized according to some scheme and professional guidance in its use. However, there are many collections called "libraries" that are not organized systematically and/or do not have professional assistance associated with them.

Answer #7 from
Karen Coyle, University of California, Library Automation;

We don't consider audio CD's electronic publications - instead we consider them sound recordings, just as we did the analog vinyl records. But when a resource that was previously printed on paper comes out on CD ROM, we redefine it as "electronic." In the USMARC format, a copy of BIOSIS Abstracts on CD ROM is cataloged as a computer file. It seems to me that to the user the BA CD ROM is still language material, since the end product is text on a screen that is read.

The storage medium is less of concern to the end user than the final product that she can view or manipulate. The more relevant aspects of digital resources then should be defined in terms of how they affect the use of the information. A file of raw data that needs a program for manipulation, a distant resource that must be used "in house" because of special equipment requirements - these are more important aspects of the digital resource than whether it is in the library but on CD ROM, on a hard disk, or on paper.

Digital products are going to be structured differently to hardcopy products, by their very nature. A person can open a book and read words from the page; a digital file needs software that provides navigation and viewing. Many years from now, when "digital" is no longer a new medium, we will have less of tendency to consider a digital version (with search software) all that different from the hard copy. Even in hard copy, quality of the indexes and ease of finding what your need is a consideration.

I find it interesting that in another list I've been involved in discussions of copyright in the digital age. In the copyright world, the tendency seems to be to consider two files identical if they produce the same output, no matter what the storage form of their digital selves. So a WordPerfect version of a MS Word document would be a *copy* if it printed out a seemingly identical document. Here's a case in which the end result seems to have more clout than the means by which it is produced.

This just shows me that many of our current assumptions about what makes a work the "same" will not translate easily in the digital world.

ARL Definition:

Below is an electronic version of the one page hand-out "Definition and Purposes of a Digital Library" which was distributed at the ARL spring Membership Meeting last May in Boston.



There are many definitions of a "digital library." Terms such as "electronic library" and "virtual library" are often used synonymously. The elements that have been identified as common to these definitions* are:


The purposes of a North American digital library system** are:

*See: Drabenstott, Karen M. Analytical review of the library of the future, Washington, DC: Council Library Resources, 1994.

**Adapted from The CAN-LINKED Initiative, a proposal for the co-ordinated development of a distributed national digital library system in Canada, prepared by a group of academic and research libraries. February, 1995. --

Association of Research Libraries 10/23/95

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