Close this search box.
Close this search box.

The Digital Library:  A Biography

report cover

by Daniel Greenstein and Suzanne E. Thorin

Second Edition December 2002
First edition September 2002

Copyright 2002 by the Council on Library and Information Resources. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transcribed in any form without permission of the publisher. Requests for reproduction should be submitted to the Director of Communications at the Council on Library and Information Resources.

About the Authors



SECTION 1: The Biography

Aspiration and the “Skunk Works”: The Young Digital Library


Leadership and Ownership
Organizational Location

Quest for “Killer Apps”

Rolling Projects into Programs:The Maturing Digital Library


Interest in Modular Systems Architecture
Desire for Common Standards
Focus on the User
Technical and Organizational Integration
Marketing and Promotion

From Integration to Interdependency: The Adult Digital Library

Digital Libraries as Infrastructure
Move Toward Permanent Funding
Continued Experimentation
Deep Interdependency

Competition Within the University
Archiving University Information
Instructional Technologies


SECTION 2: Case Studies

California Digital Library (University of California)
Harvard University
Indiana University
New York University
University of Michigan
University of Virginia


Appendix 1: Survey Respondents
Appendix 2: Survey Data: Principal Preliminary Results

About the Authors

Daniel Greenstein is university librarian for systemwide library planning and scholarly information and director of the California Digital Library (CDL). Before joining the CDL in May 2002, he served for two and a half years as director of the Digital Library Federation, during which time he conducted research for this report. Mr. Greenstein was a founding director of the Arts and Humanities Data Service in the United Kingdom, and founding co-director of the Resource Discovery Network, a distributed service whose mission is to enrich learning, research, and cultural engagement by facilitating new levels of access to high-quality Internet resources.

Suzanne E. Thorin is the Ruth Lilly University Dean of University Libraries at Indiana University. From 1980 to 1996, she served on the staff of the Library of Congress (LC). From 1992­1996 she was the LC chief of staff and the associate librarian. At LC, Thorin served as the official U.S. representative, appointed by the White House, for the G-7 electronic libraries project, one of eleven G-7 pilot projects for the Global Information Society. She was also responsible for the National Digital Library Program.


This report was born in the spirit of congenial collaboration that so characterizes the Digital Library Federation (DLF). The idea for the study took shape in a New York City steakhouse where four DLF directors met to reflect on the new roles and responsibilities that were emerging for their libraries as they entered an increasingly networked digital age.1 Realizing that lessons from the past were easier and perhaps more predictive than prognostications about the future, they suggested that a study of DLF member programs would reveal the history, aims, organization, and immediate challenges in their libraries.

The study progressed quickly, following the development of a lengthy (104-question) survey that was received and completed without complaint at DLF member institutions. We learned subsequently that numerous hands had to be called into play to supply the answers to the questions we posed. Once compiled, the data provided a rich source of information that indicated the very different developmental trajectories and experiences in DLF institutions. Review by a slightly broader group of library directors suggested that the study be extended to include the case studies that are presented here.2 These, they argued, would breathe the life of human experience into otherwise dry, if informative, statistical data. The research was destined from this point to impose even more heavily on already overcrowded schedules that were opened graciously and with the utmost concern for congenial hospitality to accommodate the authors’ site visits.

In addition to the support we received from the library community, we acknowledge the assistance of the Center for Survey Research at Indiana University, which produced, compiled, and analyzed the data. With a Herculean effort, Doug McKinney, Assistant to the Dean at Indiana, summarized the survey data and offered numerous insights into their meaning. The case studies benefited from the wisdom, experience, and gracious hospitality of DLF colleagues too numerous to name at the California Digital Library, Harvard University, New York University, Indiana University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Virginia. At the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), Kathlin Smith provided welcome encouragement and sound editorial direction. Cassie Savage, of CLIR, and Shawny Taysom, of Indiana University, ensured that the authors met deadlines and stayed in touch through the course of the investigation. Despite the best efforts of all the aforementioned, this report will sadly be lacking in ways that can be attributed uniquely to its authors.

Daniel Greenstein, California Digital Library
Suzanne Thorin, Indiana University


Digital libraries, once project based and largely autonomous efforts, are maturing. They are finding value in cooperating with other units on campus, and their services are being promoted in the broader academic community. Many are obtaining core funding. Although digital libraries have a long way to go before they reach their full potential, there has been significant development in the past decade. Nonetheless, referring to the digital library generically masks the fact that digital libraries exist in diverse forms and with quite different functions, priorities, and aims. As individual programs have matured, each has developed its own personality, reflecting the circumstances of its birth, its environment, its caretakers, and its leaders. This report draws on the results of a survey and case studies of DLF members to reveal how these influences have molded a range of organizational forms that we call the digital library.

Precisely because of the distinctive quality of the programs surveyed, it may seem odd that we have chosen to title this report “A Biography,” rather than “Selected Biographies.” Digital libraries are likely to retain their distinctiveness even as they become more deeply integrated and build upon commonly available collections and services to meet users’ needs. But it is worth considering, as the authors do, where the developmental trajectory will lead, and it is worth thinking about how we will describe the body of information that is being made available for research and teaching through the efforts of numerous not-for-profit institutions. We have learned that users of electronic resources do not care where their information comes from, as long as it is authoritative and authentic. I suspect the user will refer to this rich and growing body of information not as a collection of individual efforts, but as one digital library.

Deanna B. Marcum
President, CLIR


1 Nancy Eaton, Pennsylvania State University; Tom Shaughnessy, University of Minnesota; Suzanne Thorin, Indiana University; Daniel Greenstein, DLF.

2 Peter Botticelli, Cornell University; Nancy Eaton; Elaine Sloan, Columbia University; Suzanne Thorin; Duane Webster, Association of Research Libraries; Wendy Lougee, University of Michigan; Bill Forden, University of Washington; Marty Runkle, University of Chicago; Bill Britton, University of Tennessee; and Daniel Greenstein.


Skip to content