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Creating Digital Libraries on a Shoestring

Walter Nelson, library webmaster at The RAND Corp., talked about multiple digital library projects that he has worked on at RAND and elsewhere. He says that digital libraries are not arcane and tough and they can be created on a shoestring. The shoestring takes many forms:

  • Limited funds
  • Limited labor
  • Lack of technical expertise
  • Lack of management interest/support
  • Institutional resistance to new or complex applications.

A key question is, if you have content that is available to the public, do people need to search your interface to find it? If it’s hard to find, will your audience have the patience to find it? Should it be findable by Google? (If it isn’t on Google, does it exist?)

He says be prepared to embrace non-traditional tools – if it gets the job done, use it. A digital library is NOT a digital archive – archives are more about preservation than about user experience

A Digital Object comes in many forms – PDF, DOC, XLS, PPT, media, web page, etc. The PDF is king of multipage documents – it has broad acceptance, most users can open it, and it’s likely to be supported for awhile. He recommends converting other doc formats to PDF. He recommends making your PDFs findable by search engines by entering clear author and title descriptions.

He says the ebook market is in flux so don’t embrace new formats until things settle down. Some ereaders support PDF but the Amazon Kindle doesn’t.

He lists these as findability options:

  • Library OPAC
  • Drupal – it’s open source, includes the search engine, includes “biblio” and “faceted search” modules, it’s good at handling multiple authors (he’s not allowed to use it at RAND but has used it for other projects, including his own website), it can be loaded on your own server, it’s easy to install and use, and it creates pages that are search engine friendly
  • SharePoint – his least favorite option; designed for collaboration, can be expensive, search is bad, confusing to administer

People will go right to your content in many cases, bypassing your home page – so you should have good navigation on all your pages. Consider using a cover sheet on all your PDFs.

His bottom line: If your library isn’t digital, it has a very limited future.

Go to to download his presentation in PDF – note that it has a proper title!

Paula J. Hane

ITI News Bureau Chief

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