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WHILE THERE WERE MANY EFFORTS IN THE RESEARCH and practices of digital libraries, evaluation was not a conspicuous activity. It is well recognized that digital library evaluation is a complex and difficult undertaking. Challenges facing digital library evaluation are enumerated. A conceptual framework for evaluation is suggested. A review of evaluation efforts in research and practice concentrates on derivation of criteria used in evaluation. Essential requirements for evaluation are stated. Discussed are constructs, context, and criteria of digital libraries: What should we evaluate? For what purpose do we evaluate? Who should evaluate? At what level do we evaluate? Upon what criteria do we evaluate? In addition, included are suggestions for adaptation of criteria from related activities. The article is considered as a part of the evolution of concepts for digital library evaluation.
Digital libraries have a short yet turbulent and explosive history. A number of early visionaries, such as Licklider (1965), had a notion of libraries in the future being highly innovative and different in structure, processing, and access through heavy applications of technology. But, besides visionary and futuristic discussions and highly scattered research and developmental experimentation, nothing much happened in the next two decades. By the end of the 1980s, digital libraries (under various names) were barely a part of the landscape of librarianship, information science, or computer science. But just a decade later, by the end of the 1990s, research, practical developments, and general interest in digital libraries exploded globally. What a phenomenal decade for work on digital libraries. The accelerated growth of numerous and highly varied efforts related to digital libraries continues unabated in the 2000s.
While the exciting history has yet to be written, Borgman's (1999) discussion of competing visions for digital libraries is a good beginning for understanding the forces and players involved. These competing visions and associated definitions come from several communities that are involved in digital library work. The work of two communities, research and practice, are reviewed below. While they work and proceed mostly independently of each other, they can be considered as two ends of a spectrum, which as yet have not met in the middle. The research community, on one end of the spectrum, asks research questions directed toward future vision or visions of digital libraries, or rather of their various aspects and components, unrestricted by practice. On the other end of the spectrum, the practice community asks developmental and operational questions in real-life economic and institutional contexts, restrictions, and possibilities, concentrating on applications on the "market" end of the spectrum.
Large resources and efforts have been expended on digital library research and practice. There are many efforts, projects, and implementations, not only in the United States but in many other countries and on international levels as well. More are underway. Many exciting things are being done and explored. However, evaluation is more conspicuous by its absence (or just minimal presence) in the vast majority of published work on digital libraries, in either research or practice. So far, evaluation has not kept pace with efforts in digital libraries (or with digital libraries themselves), has not become a part of their integral activity, and has not been even specified as to what it means and how to do it. At this stage of digital library evolution, evaluation in any formal sense (as opposed to anecdotal) is being more or less bypassed. True, evaluation has been talked about and implemented in a few instances (as reviewed below), but these are exceptions rather than the rule. Why is that? Some speculations are:
* Perhaps it is too early in the evolution of digital libraries to attempt evaluation in any formal way. Evaluation at this stage of evolution may be premature and even dangerous because of possible stifling effects.
* At this stage, informal and anecdotal ways of evaluation suffice.
* Maybe evaluation is taken to be sufficient on a very basic technical level--the fact that something computes or that an electronic collection is searchable and accessible is sufficient as evaluation in itself.
* From a cynical perspective, we might suggest that the interest in evaluation is suppressed. Who would want to know about or demonstrate the actual performance?
* On the other hand, perhaps in the pressure of the rapid pace of evolution, the rush to do something and then to rush to something next does not leave time for evaluation.
* And maybe evaluation of digital libraries is so complex that, even when desired, it cannot be accomplished with what we presently know about evaluation. In other words, we might conclude that the conceptual state-of-the-art of digital library evaluation is not sufficiently developed to start with.
While all these speculations may be true to some extent, I believe that the last, the one about the underdeveloped conceptual nature of evaluation, is actually true. Evaluation of digital libraries is a complex undertaking, and thus it is a conceptual and pragmatic challenge. The main purpose of this discussion is to address various conceptual and theoretical questions about the evaluation of digital libraries and to propose concepts and approaches believed to be appropriate toward their evaluation. The article is considered as a part of the evolution of the concepts for digital library evaluation.
DIGITAL LIBRARY COMMUNITIES
While there are numerous communities interested in digital libraries, the concentration here is, as mentioned, on the research and practice communities as being most closely evaluation bound. Each has a differing interpretation and definition affecting the conceptual nature of evaluation. This translates into specific questions: What is a digital library? What is there to evaluate? What are the criteria? How to apply them in evaluation? Why evaluate digital libraries in the first place?
The distinction (and possible source of tension and lack of communication) between the two communities and approaches has been nicely illustrated by Rusbridge (1998) while contrasting two different approaches to digital libraries--i.e., the U.K. approach in the electronic libraries (eLib) program with the U.S. approach in the Digital Library Initiatives (DLI):
The participants [at digital library conferences in the United States reflecting DLI] aimed (properly) to be innovative and free-thinking, leaving aside the constraints of existing practice. The results are exciting and extraordinarily interesting, but it is very hard to determine how many of these ideas might be effectively deployed in real life situations. It is notoriously difficult to transfer new technology from experiment to practice, but this is clearly harder the more distant the experimental context from real life. By contrast, the eLib program characterised itself right from the start as "development" rather than research.... [The mission of Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) funding the eLib projects] is to stimulate and enable the cost effective exploitation of information systems and to provide a high quality national network infrastructure for the UK higher education and research ... communities; in this context, JISC funds a number of development programs aimed at supporting universities by piloting the use of appropriate new technologies. Unlike the fundamental research characteristics of the NSF and similar agencies, JISC's projects are concentrated at the near-market practical application end of the spectrum. Both are needed. The eLib work is still research, despite a curious disdain for the word in some quarters.
The research community, with most members having a background in computer science, concentrates on developmental research and experimentation in dealing with technology applications in a variety of areas and media, for various communities, and on enabling technologies and networks as an infrastructure for digital libraries. While there is a notion that the research will result in practical applications and in actual digital libraries, the goal is not connected to actual operations …