Technology has changed every aspect of our lives, but perhaps none has been so deeply affected as the act of creating and sharing knowledge. Before the digital era, physical libraries were one of the main hubs where such creation and sharing took place, so it stands to reason that libraries, too, must change if they are to keep up with the times: and thus, digital libraries are born.
Defining a digital library
Before we go into a definition of what a digital library consists of, it is necessary to clear up a common misconception: a library, even a traditional one, is not (only) a collection of books. While books are the prevalent form in which we store knowledge and make up the majority of the content of a physical library, any object that conveys information has a right to be in it, and this wider definition can also include magazines and audio or video recordings, just to name a few: it is interesting to note that IFLA, the International Federation of Library Associations, can define a library without ever using the word ‘book’.
With digital libraries, this holds truer than ever: a digital library is a repository of information accessible on one or more digital supports, from a collection of CD-ROMs to an Internet-based archive of files available for download or online fruition. As we know, a digital file can be anything: text, images, sound and video can all be archived and shared with the same ease, and therefore, with the aid of technology, it is even easier than before to create a heterogeneous collection that merits the name of ‘library’ even if its content is not exclusively made of books.
The perks of going digital
Although the purpose of a digital library is similar to a traditional one, they are fundamentally different in nature and there are things a digital library can do that a physical one cannot hope to match. Here is an overview of the advantages of choosing a digital library over a collection of physical objects:
- Sharing knowledge anywhere, anytime, with any number of people: a school that provides its students with a digital library allows them to access the collection from home even outside of opening hours and enables entire classes to study the same material without worrying about running out of copies, promoting asynchronous and collaborative learning.
- Greater ease of storage and preservation: a digital library takes up no space and is not subject to the same risk of deterioration that threatens the conservation of physical objects. As long as a device that supports that particular file type is available, the files in a digital library generally do not suffer from overuse or accidental damage: because of this, great efforts are being made to migrate the content of libraries from physical to digital for the benefit of the future generations of students and the greater scientific community, but it is just as important to move said content from obsolete supports to newer ones from time to time, or risk having collections that are perfectly preserved, but still inaccessible.
- New ways to search and study: an Internet-based digital library will usually have an easy-to-use search engine that allows users to find what they are looking for in seconds by typing a few keywords instead of navigating the filing system of its physical counterpart only to find that the item they were after has been misplaced or lost; once the file has been found, students can do things with a digital text that they could not do with a printed book, such as finding relevant words or phrases within an e-book and even finding out how many times they occur, highlighting passages and adding notes without concerns about defacing the book, accessing dictionary definitions of unfamiliar words, and more: this promotes a new, more engaging and in-depth learning style.
In conclusion, digital reading is still reading: it has been said many times over that technology is driving young people away from books and learning, but digital libraries could be the solution to the problem by providing virtually endless collections of information to be accessed, shared and analysed with greater ease than ever before.