Teaching digital library concepts using digital library applications

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  • Int J Digit Libr (2009) 10:113DOI 10.1007/s00799-008-0049-6


    Teaching digital library concepts using digital library applications

    Jeffrey Pomerantz June Abbas Javed Mostafa

    Published online: 8 January 2009 Springer-Verlag 2008

    Abstract Many digital library topics may be taught usingdigital library applications, in the context of project-baseddigital library courses. Several digital library applicationsexist, and these applications are used as teaching tools toillustrate the functionality of digital libraries as well as thedesign decisions that go into them. Using digital library appli-cations as teaching tools provides a valuable learning expe-rience for students, and may provide useful feedback to thedevelopers of DL applications. This paper identifies and exp-lores DL topics that may most effectively be taught using DLapplications, in the context of project-based DL courses.

    Keywords Digital libraries Digital library applications Education Curriculum

    1 Introduction

    Hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in digitallibrary (DL) research since the early 1990s. This researchincludes a significant body of work on how DLs can aid edu-cation, but there has been no parallel investment to supportteaching and learning about DLs. In order for development

    J. Pomerantz (B) J. MostafaSchool of Information and Library Science, University of NorthCarolina at Chapel Hill, CB 3360, 100 Manning Hall,Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3360, USAe-mail: pomerantz@unc.edu

    J. Mostafae-mail: jm@unc.edu

    J. AbbasDepartment of Library and Information Studies, Graduate Schoolof Education, State University of New York at Buffalo,534 Baldy Hall, Buffalo, NY 14260-1020, USAe-mail: abbasjm@buffalo.edu

    of DLs to continue in the future, it is essential for academicprograms to educate information professionals who fullyunderstand the processes by which DLs are developed andtheir users are supported, as well as the potential of DLs tooffer novel information services.

    An important component of this educational experience isfor students to gain hands-on experience in using, designing,evaluating, and managing DLs. There are several DL appli-cations in existence, and these applications may be used asteaching tools in DL courses. The primary function of DLapplications is, of course, to enable the creation of DLs, andnot to serve as teaching tools. Nevertheless, using DL appli-cations in this way provides a valuable learning experiencefor students. In addition, by enabling teaching with DL appli-cations, DL application developers may reap the benefit ofa distributed pool of knowledge, expertise, and ideas thatcan inform future development. Thus, the interaction of DLapplication development and DL education can benefit bothsides.

    The purpose of this paper is to identify and explore thoseDL topics that may most effectively be taught using DL appli-cations, in the context of project-based DL courses. This isnot a research paper, but rather a critical consideration of thepedagogy of teaching about DLs. As such, two questions thatare two sides of the same coin will be addressed in this paper:What DL-related topics may be taught by making use of DLapplications? And: What functions of DL applications maybe used to teach what DL-related topics? As a corollary tothese questions, a third question will be addressed: What ped-agogical techniques lend themselves to teaching DL-relatedtopics using specific functions of DL applications?

    Specific DL applications will be used as examples asappropriate during this discussion, but this paper is not acritique or evaluation of DL applications. There is a need forevaluations of DL applications; the only example of such an


  • 2 J. Pomerantz et al.

    evaluation of which the authors are aware is Goh et al. [20].Goh and colleagues evaluate the functionality of DL appli-cations, with the aim of identifying the essential categoriesof features DL software should possess (p. 361). This papertakes a different approach: rather than evaluating DL appli-cations, this paper focuses on issues that may be raised in acourse, using the functionality of DL applications as illustra-tion. Likewise, not all topics that may conceivably be taughtin a course on DLs will be addressed in this paper. Rather,only those DL-related topics that can be taught by makinguse of DL applications will be discussed. A complete dis-cussion of all DL-related topics that need to be taught toappropriately train information professionals to work on DLprojects would be too extensive for this paper. Additionally,the authors are currently engaged in projects to articulate therange of these topics and develop educational materials forteaching them [7,28,31].

    2 Assignments in DL courses

    Most definitions of DLs include the following elements: aDL is a collection of electronic materials, that collection ismanaged and organized, it is created and managed for (andsometimes by) one or more user communities, and technicaland user services are provided that add value to the materi-als [2,6]. Most DL courses address these elements in somemanner.

    In two previous studies [30,32], the authors identifiedthe topics taught in DL courses in Library and InformationScience (LIS) and Computer Science (CS) programs. Thesestudies revealed that architecture and project management arethe topics on which readings are most frequently assigned,in both LIS and CS courses. Other topics that are frequentlyaddressed include collection development, organization ofinformation, services, and preservation. An understandingof these topics is critical for the work of developing andmanaging DLs, and DL courses in LIS and CS programsare designed to provide students with the skills necessary toconduct this work.

    DL course instructors have by and large created and imple-mented their own courses. Naturally instructors, particularlythose at the same institution, share syllabi and assignments.But there has to date been no coordinated effort among DLcourse instructors to share resources. Indeed, little systematicexploration has been performed of the content of DL courses.Pomerantz et al. [30,32] have begun to explore this issue.This research has identified 40 DL-related courses offeredbetween 2003 and 2006 in ALA Accredited LIS Mastersdegree programs. Analysis of the syllabi from these coursesidentified 33 in which descriptions of course assignmentswere present. Of these, 14 courses (35% of the original 40)were project-based and included an assignment in which

    students built a DL or a prototype DL. There are two modelsof project-based DL courses that the authors have identified,though these really are more like two variations on a singletheme. In the first of these models, the instructor identifiesseveral small-scale projects for the students in the course,students work in groups, and each group takes on the entiretask of planning and implementing one of these small-scaleDLs. In the second model, the instructor identifies one large-scale project on which the whole class works: again studentswork in groups, and each group takes the lead on planningand implementing one aspect (e.g., digitization, metadata,etc.) of the larger DL project. Other literature on DL edu-cation has also identified project-based courses as being theprimary means by which DLs are taught in LIS programs[26,29].

    The task of these project-based courses is often to builda brand-new DL, for a group or an organization that desiresbut does not currently have one, sometimes on campus andsometimes in the local community. Sometimes these projectshave been on the organizations wishlist for some time butare languishing, so to speak, for lack of requisite knowl-edge or staff time within the organization to take on theplanning and implementation. Some examples of projectsof this type that the authors have been involved in includethe Bentley Snow Crystal Digital Collection of the BuffaloMuseum of Science (www.bentley.sciencebuff.org) and theKarpeles Digital Manuscript Library (soistudent.sis.buffalo.edu/lis563/karpeles/). Often these projects are begun in a DLcourse and then handed over to the group or organization tosustain.

    This paper proceeds from the assumption that the DLcourse being taught is project-based. In a project-basedcourse, a DL application is often used, and this paper presentssome topics that the authors suggest must be taught in anyDL course, and provides some examples of how these top-ics may be taught using one or more of the available DLapplications.

    One of the most important considerations in a project-based DL course is selecting the application to use. Thereare many software applications and tools that may be usedto build a DL. Some of these applications are specificallydesigned for building DLs: for example, Greenstone(www.greenstone.org) and Fedora (www.fedora.info). Someof these applications are designed for similar types of prod-ucts to DLs, such as digital archives and institutional repos-itories: for example, CONTENTdm (www.contentdm.com),DSpace (www.dspace.org) and EPrints (www.eprints.org).Greenstone, Fedora, DSpace, and EPrints are all open sourceapplications; CONTENTdm is the only commercial appli-cation of the lot, though it has a number of open sourceextensions. Additionally, several open source tools exist thatmay be used to construct components of DLs [33]: for exam-ple the Apache HTTP Server, Apache Tomcat, and MySQL.


  • Teaching digital library concepts using digital library applications 3

    Alternatively, DLs can be built using a wiki, or even withnothing but HTML pages.

    Even in courses where one application is used to build aDL, of course, it is still possible to use other applicationsas examples for discussion. Indeed, comparing DL applica-tions provides an excellent opportunity to compare the dif-ferent approaches to DL architecture implemented in theseapplications. Having students use DL applications enablesthem to experience their broad range of functions and theirlimitations first-hand. The following sections address someof the functionality specific to various DL applications, theDL-related topics that may be taught using this functional-ity, and some instructional techniques that may be employedto take advantage of this functionality for teaching thesetopics.

    2.1 DL applications used in DL courses

    It is worth pointing out that all of the applications mentionedabove are designed for building DLs, and not for pedagogy.There are many applications that are designed specificallyto be used in educational settings (e.g., the Mavis BeaconTeaches Typing series), and many applications that that aredesigned for other purposes for which there are educationalmodules (e.g., the Student Versions of SPSS). Neither ofthese is the case for the DL applications discussed above,however. It is therefore all the more noteworthy that DL appli-cations are used as widely and as successfully as they are inDL courses.

    Of the 14 courses identified by Pomerantz et al. [31,32] asbeing project-based courses, ten mandated or recommendedthe use of a specific DL application for this assignment. Innine of these courses that application was Greenstone; in oneit was CONTENTdm. In another two courses no applicationwas recommended, and the decision of how to construct theDL was left to the students. It is worth noting that even thoughit is a small sample, two-thirds of the project-based coursesused Greenstone for building a DL.

    A set of informal conversations with instructors of DLcourses in North American LIS and CS programs in 2007provided some of the reasons that many instructors of DLcourses chose to use Greenstone:

    Versions exist for the operating system environments mostoften present in universities, and it is designed to becross-platform;

    There is much published literature about it, including atextbook;1

    1 As of this writing, a second edition of the book How to Build a DigitalLibrary is being prepared for Morgan Kaufmann Publishers.

    It is easy to set up and can be managed by students who donot have much programming or systems administrationexpertise;

    It is flexible enough to allow students to make many deci-sions about the construction of the DL; and

    It is XML-based. It is deliberately designed to be used by librarians, with

    the inclusion of the Greenstone Librarian Interface;

    Other DL applications fulfill some of these requirements, butmany instructors apparently consider Greenstone to be thebest fit for their courses. It is perhaps understandable why DLcourse instructors do not use CONTENTdm in their courses:as a commercial application, it is likely to be inaccessible toinstructors, as there is often a notable lack of funding in highereducation for purchasing or licensing software for teaching.Many academic libraries use CONTENTdm to manage theirdigital collections, and it may be possible for the instruc-tor or the instructors school or department to negotiate anarrangement with the library to allow students to access tothe librarys CONTENTdm install. Negotiating this is depen-dent on the library having extra seats for their license, and awillingness to set up an online environment in which studentsexperiment with CONTENTdm; this negotiation is thereforedependent on all parties having a fairly enlightened view ofthe integration of education and library operations, and thusmay not be possible at all institutions.2 It is less clear whyFedora, DSpace, and EPrints are not used more widely inDL courses, as all are open source applications. It may bethat these applications are seen as serving functions that arenot fully appropriate for a DL course. EPrints, for exam-ple, is designed primarily as a repository for documents, andinstructors may wish to use an application that is more flex-ible. The authors suspect, however, that the last bullet itemabove, the existence of the Greenstone Librarian Interface,and the overall approach to Greenstones development withstudent uses in mind [29,38], is a more critical decision pointfor instructors than our informal conversations were able todetermine.

    It is unknown, of course, whether or how many DL courseinstructors spend the time, either prior to teaching a DLcourse or during the semester, to conduct a full compari-son of all of the available DL applications. This speaks to theneed for resources for instructors, evaluating and comparingDL applications and related software tools. Goh et al.s [20]evaluation of the functionality of DL applications, mentioned

    2 The authors would like to point out that precisely this sort of arrange-ment was negotiated with the University of North Carolina at ChapelHills library. Many thanks are therefore due to the Systems librarians atUNC-CH for their efforts to make this possible, and for their enlightenedview of the integration of education and library operations. AlthoughGreenstone is used in the DL course at UNC-CH, CONTENTdm is usedto manage many of the librarys digital collections.


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    above, is one useful resource, but more w...


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