March 15, 1998 issue. This file presents an archive copy of the issue of the FYI France ejournal, ISSN 1071-5916, which was distributed via email on March 15, 1998.
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* Announcement: in case anyone thinks librarians have no courage --
The French have assembled a remarkable new "digital library" in Lyon. There the bibliothèque municipale has mounted "Enluminures", an online presentation of 3000 images -- so far, eventually to be 10,000 -- from the library's famous collections of illuminated manuscripts and incunabula: 5th century to the Renaissance --
Along with the Bibliothèque Nationale de France's "Gallica", reviewed here in the January issue, the BM Lyon's "Enluminures" must rank now as one of the best online "digital libraries" thus far assembled.
Before I describe "Enluminures", though, it might be useful to define "best". "Digital library" is a much - abused term, nowadays -- the only definition which I have found so far which covers all candidates is,
things digital which call themselves library,
things library which call themselves digital
-- some greater precision in terms generally is needed.
I will try the following here:
8 Criteria for What Makes a Digital Library "Good"
|1) content||5) metadata|
|2) organization||6) multilingual|
|3) size||7) interactive|
|4) updates||8) standards|
so, as applied to the BM Lyon's "Enluminures":
1) content. Is the information provided actually interesting and useful to users?
-- not the system, not the design, not the cute little waving Java figures or the scrolling banners, but the "substance" which regular users ultimately obtain?
By this criterion, "Enluminures" succeeds magnificently. Even if you are not particularly interested in early books and manuscripts, the images which you can obtain here are beautiful and the texts fascinating, so much so that they themselves might spark your interest in their subjects -- what more could "good" content provide?
The images currently loaded are taken from 58 works in the collection, including "Psautier latin, VIe siècle", "Pentateuque, VIe siècle", "Boéce, De Consolatione philosophiae, XVe siècle", "Ysopet, XIIIe siècle", "Gautier de Metz, Image du monde, XIIIe siècle", "Térence, Comédies, XVe siècle", and so on.
Accompanying text is minimal, so far: just the short descriptions as shown above. One must hope -- one must imagine -- that the BM Lyon eventually will add textual commentary, which would greatly enhance this already - excellent "content": there is so much which librarians, conservators, historians of the book and of the subjects treated, and users themselves -- let's make this medium "interactive"! (see below) -- might say or already have said on these subjects, which could be included or at least added in via a link.
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2) organization. Can a user find things?
A pet peeve which I long have cherished against Ted Nelson and the inventors of "hypertext" has been that I myself do not think that way: "leaps" are fun for those who can make them, but there is no single best way of human thinking. The Internet, particularly its "hypertextual" Web, is overpopulated at the moment with sites which assume that their particular way of finding things is the only way. Good organization, with multiple paths, is the key to "access".
"Enluminures" has put a great deal of effort into organizing its "content" for presentation. Things -- images, text -- are not just "thrown up" here, as they are so often elsewhere online. Their formal system is called "SGBI / Système de gestion de banques d'images", developed by the "Maison de l'Orient à Lyon", a unit of the CNRS and the Université Lyon 2. The site contains an index page which for now lists only "Enluminures", but which provides ample additional room for other listings, hopefully indicating that "SGBI" is to be expanded.
A "linear" browse passes through 5 levels of "frames" screens: home, "entity" selection screen, thumbnail images selection screen, a detail screen showing text about the thumbnail selected, and a final full image. This works well. More description detail is needed for the "entities", though -- "Bible latine, XIIIe siècle" does not tell a user much, and there are five of them listed just so, even now -- but presumably more detail will be forthcoming sometime. The thumbnails are enticing, as thumbnails should be: small enough to load quickly, large enough to see something interesting. Five levels of organization are not too much to handle: there are few horizontal links yet -- another feature which hopefully will be added as things progress.
Multi-criteria searching appears to be available: a second "path", alternative to the "linear" method of just plunging through the levels. Search indexes currently are "creator, entity name, image name, image creation date, image modification date, caption, illustrator, descriptors, dimensions, placement, title, authors, 'date'". Scholars will want standardization of these, and more access points and better definitions, but already "Enluminures" offers more possibilities than most "digital library" search engines provide for images. (I cannot seem to make the searching work yet myself, though: my efforts to enter "Bible" and "Pline" and "Saint Augustin" in the single data entry field so far yield only the dreaded "document contains no data" popup -- "Aucune r%oponse" toujours -- en travaux, perhaps?)
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3) size. Can the user's systems handle the sizes involved?
One of the Internet's greatest problems in "scaling up" is incompatibilities among hardware, software, systems, routers and connections and users, in dealing with ever - changing "sizes", of files, transmission speeds, hard disks, floppies, image resolutions, etc., etc. The Internet grows like a teenager: just as soon as you think you've got the shoe size figured out, the shirts no longer fit.
There is no indication of the size of images in "Enluminures". This would be helpful to users. Knowing that one page might take a few seconds to download while another may take many minutes is crucial to planning online research strategies -- also to avoiding user frustration and ultimate abandonment.
At 56k flex, however, and dialing in on a busy Friday over a particularly - busy trans - Atlantic connection, none of the "Enluminures" pages -- even the fullsize images -- seem particularly hard to reach. Someone has done well at the BM Lyon on the very necessary and often neglected judgments balancing page and image "size versus quality".
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4) updates. How current are both the information and the system?
The age of digital information is the age of ephemera: digitization puts information into a medium where it can be too - easily changed -- alteration of a few bits or bytes, even simply to "improve", puts versions "out of synch", creates "variants". It is as though the world wants to suffer through the growing pains of the post - Gutenberg "age of incunabula" all over again, reinventing that wheel. Change must occur, but it ought to be tracked very carefully.
For each of its images, "Enluminures" provides "creator", "date created", "date modified". This will be immeasurably useful to users who, as the BM Lyon improves its service, will discover that the image which they downloaded months ago suddenly somehow has changed in its online version. Certainly textual changes, but also images: better resolution, more effective photography or scanning, any difference whatsoever -- all can be announced to users very simply via an "update date" shown on the page.
The same goes for updates to the online system. The Babel of standards and versions and "browser wars" and HTML anomalies and "server - side improvements" gets worse and worse for users, even as it improves digital information as an industry: to the user, yesterday's technique, approach, IP address, Unix "path" location, browser - or - other - software - and - version, always is suspect -- it may not work today, and it probably will not work tomorrow, at least because somebody will have "improved" it. It is incumbent on providers to let users know about this. For "Enluminures", for example, their excellent "SGBI" system undoubtedly will change: for the users, it will be best if the system is labeled online with a version number, and if caveats are posted regarding any anomalies which its developers may discover while testing it online (see below).
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5) metadata. Can users find it from other systems?
I do not see any metadata in the HTML of the several "Enluminures" pages which I have examined for this, but then there is not much metadata in use on the Web generally anywhere, yet. This will have to change. The "choose - your - own - superlative" growth of the Internet guarantees that search and retrieval which tries to index all the contents of all the pages of every site cannot / will not keep up with "information overload". And that is just for text. Systems for classifying images still are being developed. To locate everything users will need metadata -- "Dublin Core"
or whatever -- and libraries, which appreciate the need for "indexing" and "access points" better than anyone, should be in the forefront of the effort. Metadata hopefully will be a future addition to "Enluminures", as it should be to any other "digital library".
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6) multilingual. Can users understand what they find?
Library schools long taught that "access" is a complex term: "you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink", "do you have any books about horses?" -- these and other librarianship "old saws" should have made their impact on digital information systems and interface design. But they haven't. The Internet still, for example, is largely monolingual: American English, that is, and colloquial American English at that.
France is a leader in the "non - Anglo - Saxon" world in getting away from the "American English" model, and proudly so. Sometimes they never let you forget it. Just so, multi - lingual "Enluminures" has been made available in English in addition to its original French: some day hopefully the BM Lyon will add German, and Spanish, and Italian, and Chinese, and other languages as well. Merely the addition of one extra language puts this French online "digital library" well ahead of most on the Web in providing "user access". Salesmen say that "you have to speak the language of the customer"...
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7) "interactive". Are users being offered something new, or just "old wine in a new bottle"?
The greatest complaint heard among serious digital information critics is that old technologies simply are pouring their contents into the new technologies blindly, without availing themselves of the advantages of the new. For the most part this doesn't work. In the US, print newspapers which simply have dumped text into Websites have gone largely ignored -- a few now are failing, spectacularly. Users do not like "being had", and they feel this when they are subjected to something which is nothing better than clumsy re - packaging. The precise advantages of the new technology have to be considered carefully in an application, and then fully - used.
XeroxParc, the Media Lab, INRIA and other "think - tanks" have formulated various lists of the essential advantages of the digital innovation. Among these have been simply the presence online of images in addition to text: "Enluminures" is a sterling example of this. Another "Internet advantage" is links -- the ability to "hop around", "hyperactively", both within the site and outside to other resources: "Enluminures" offers some hypertext linking internally, although very little externally yet -- hopefully more is coming.
Yet another general "Internet advantage", then, is "interactivity", the possibility of "give and take" among users and authors and other participants in the medium: email messaging, "chat", econferencing, online interviews, "bulletin boards" -- the entire panoply of digital techniques signified by the information engineer's hoary old term "feedback".
Users and teachers love "interactivity": it is what makes users become involved with the thing which they are using -- it is why libraries, on both sides of the Atlantic, which never have succeeded before in enticing teenagers into their reading rooms, suddenly are besieged by youthful "Internauts" hogging the public Web stations. There is a range of "Internet advantages" which still too often is ignored at Web sites: "interactivity" is a leading one, which "Enluminures" and other "digital libraries" hopefully will provide as they develop.
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8) standards. Can users transfer current skills to this system?
The "user's credo" might as well be that of the average automobile driver: "I don't want to / have time to learn how this thing works, I just want to drive it". Users are "un - interested" in learning new technique: they want the end - product, the information -- the easiest thing for them is to transfer existing skills.
Standards are the key to the transferability of skills: if and to the extent that the Internet industry can agree upon certain standards, users will be able to rely upon their own single set of standard skills rather than having to go out and become electrical engineers every time they have to press an unfamiliar button.
Unfortunately, "Enluminures" offers an example of this need for standards which not only is fundamental to the Internet's success but happens to be making world business headlines at the moment. The main "search" page for "Enluminures" does not come up at all in my brand - new "Internet Explorer 4.0 -- version 4.72.2106.8 -- 128 bit enabled", even though my older "Netscape Communicator 4.03" has no trouble in reading it.
I think it's a "frames" problem, having to do with HTML coding standards for same, and I have suggested this to Lyon. Trouble is, as a mere "user" I don't really know, don't really care, and most importantly don't really have time to find out what the source of this problem is: I am "the un - interested user", par excellence, who "just wants to use the thing". And the BM Lyon, lucky them, are caught in the middle of the very "Netscape vs. Microsoft" / "antitrust" / "browser wars" battle which they thought was merely an American business headline. More and better standards -- better - observed by Mountain View and Redmond to the aid of Lyon -- might help everybody, here.
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So, 8 Criteria for What Makes a Digital Library "Good", and an excellent and successful "digital library" effort by the BM Lyon...
One of these days digital information all will be accessible and easy to use and up to date -- and "ubiquitous" and "invisible" and "inexpensive", as XeroxPARC says -- but at least if it can be as interesting and attractive as "Enluminures" is so far, the world will be a better place.
Announcement: as mentioned above --
* Débat: "Les bibliothèques, l'extrême droite et la violence des mots" Salon du Livre -- Paris Expo - porte de Versailles -- salle Machado de Assis, lundi 23 mars, de 15 h à 16h30 -- see,
"Comment les bibliothèques peuvent - elles répondre aux pressions des mouvements d'extrême - droite qui souhaitent, sous prétexte de pluralisme, en faire des instruments de diffusion de leurs idées ?"
Organized by: L'association Mémoires vives, BP 935 75519 Paris cedex 15
Participants: animé par Anne - Marie Bertrand (Mémoires vives), avec
FYI France (sm)(tm) e-journal ISSN 1071 - 5916 * | FYI France (sm)(tm) is a monthly electronic journal, | published since 1992 as a small - scale, personal, | experiment, in the creation of large - scale | "information overload", by Jack Kessler. Any material / \ written by me which appears in FYI France may be ----- copied and used by anyone for any good purpose, so // \\ long as, a) they give me credit and show my e - mail --------- address and, b) it isn't going to make them money: if // \\ if it is going to make them money, they must get my permission in advance, and share some of the money which they get with me. Use of material written by others requires their permission. FYI France archives are at http://infolib.berkeley.edu (search fyifrance), or http://firstname.lastname@example.org/ (BIBLIO-FR econference archive), or at http://www.fyifrance.com , or at http://listserv.uh.edu/archives/pacs-l.html . Suggestions, reactions, criticisms, praise, and poison-pen letters all will be gratefully received at email@example.com . Copyright 1992- by Jack Kessler, all rights reserved.