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Fesenko, Kirill. “Models of Digital Cooperation.” Slavic & East European Information Resources 8, no. 4 (2007): 87–97

ABSTRACT Three cooperative digital library projects (American Memory, Publication of Archival, Library, and Museum Materials program, and the Minnesota Digital Library) are analyzed for evidence of the costs and benefits of cooperative digital library projects for digital conversion generally.

KEYWORDS digital conversion, American Memory, PALMM, Minnesota Digital Library, benefits, comparison


This paper examines issues of cooperation and use of digitization technologies by archives, libraries and museums for improvement of access and development of new online collections. Over the last fifteen years, librarians have experienced profound change caused by growing social and economic pressures to digitize collections and to provide online access to them as well as compete with others in this area. The nature and scope of modern digital projects have also become more time and resource consuming. Given this new level of digital competitiveness, technological and organizational complexity of digital initiatives, librarians and other information professionals feel the growing need for specialization and cooperation in large digital projects.

Thus, the answers to the “Why digitize” question seem to increasingly interlink with answers to the “With whom to digitize” question. The Access to Russian Archives and Savine projects are reflective of these changes and have a potential to grow beyond original plans of their initiators. As has been shown many times before, thoughtfully devised digital collections tend to continue growth following “like attracts like” and “snowball” principles of collection development. The Access to Russian Archives database, for example, as the largest open electronic collection of archival fond (record group) descriptions, can potentially become a hub project to which many more guidebooks may be added in the future. Containing descriptions for hundred thousand or so archival fonds, this database is also attractive for future linking of digitized archival collections that can reside on the same server or on individual archives and institutions’ web sites. The fact that each individual fond has its unique stable URL in the database should support the future linking of relevant resources.

The core module of Savine project, when completed, has the potential to become the largest open bibliographic database on Russian émigré life, containing descriptions and author biographic information for over twenty thousand works. As in the archival database case, Savine’s first stage includes development of a large bibliographic database to which additional records as well as images; full texts and archival collections will be added at later stages. It is safe to assume that this future growth of both projects will raise their technological and organizational complexity to a new level. These projects may spread beyond institutions where they started and include cooperation of a variety of other organizations including libraries, archives, museums and individuals in many countries.

Since creation of digital copies of material and posting them on the institutional web sites became possible for libraries, they have faced new issues of copyright and institutional competition. Digitization of an institution’s unique material for contribution to cooperative collections is particularly sensitive for archives and libraries. This is perceived sometimes as a potential threat to an institution’s competitiveness and uniqueness of its collections. Among other challenging questions for those wishing to combine their digital efforts are the following: What participant will host cooperative collections on its server? How will individual contributors preserve their identity and visibility in a shared collection which may reside on somebody else’s server? How will copyright issues and potential commercial use of cooperative online material be handled? These and other worries often complicate collaboration in development of mutual collections. This paper examines three models of such cooperation that provide ideas for effective resolution of some of these concerns.


American Memory is one of the earliest and most ambitious projects in cooperative development of primary source online collections. It started as a pilot program in 1989 with the goal to disseminate selected American historical and cultural primary source material in computerized form (prints, negatives, early motion pictures, recorded sound, texts). Building directly on this experience, the National Digital Library Program (NDLP) was announced in 1994 as a five-year program to assemble a core collection of important digitized Americana material from LC’s vast collections. The program’s initial effort resulted in identification of two hundred collections as candidates for digitization. The following selection criteria were used: (1) uniqueness of material; (2) usefulness of digitization for fulfilling other collection custodial tasks such as preservation, for example; (3) availability of suitable digitalization technology, and (4) the value of material for education.

Another aspect of the American Memory project was to incorporate LC’s reach experience in distributed models for storing and dissemination of digital material among libraries and in the area of information search and retrieval over networks (MARC and Z39.50). [1] From the outset, a cooperative principle was built into the program. First, the high quality images of the participants’ digitized material; descriptions and finding aids remained on their own institutional web sites. Second, the participants contributed to LC’s web site the following information:

  • standardized descriptions and finding aids for collections and individual items;

  • thumbnail images of documents;

  • raw OCR texts of documents for full text searching only (the search query on LC’s site finds a relevant document but in order to see the text, one needs to click a link to view the document on the contributor’s own web site);

  • stable URLs for linking of descriptions from LC’s site to the documents on the participants’ web sites;

  • copyright and other institution-specific information.

On the LC’s American Memory web site, participants’ collection information and finding aids are presented in standardized way to allow easy navigation across more than 135 collections (of which 23 were contributed by other repositories), vast range of topics and formats (digitized books, manuscripts and other texts, photographs, maps, motion pictures and sound recordings). Although the higher quality images of most documents are located on the participants’ servers, American Memory visitors can still search the full texts and view thumbnail images of documents across complete collection and individual sub-collections from one screen. If a visitor wishes to study document of interest more closely, she will follow links to the contributors’ own web site for those partners who have chosen to participate in this distributed way. This solution provides a good balance of interests for LC and contributing partner institutions. The result is beneficial for all. Users can access and search American Memory “collection of collections” using standardized interfaces and navigation on LC’s web site. For material contributing participants, this is an opportunity to raise visibility of collections and to increased traffic on their own web sites from those LC visitors, who want to examine the digitized material in greater detail. [2]

LC plans to reuse some aspects of the American Memory cooperative model for development of the World Digital Library with support of a $3-million gift from Google. This new initiative expands LC’s digital collection building efforts beyond U.S. to include digitized primary source material from special collections around the globe. James Billington proposed that research libraries work with private funders to digitize and bring together rare cultural material from U.S. and Western repositories with those that “lay beyond Europe and involve more than one billion people.” [3] LC’s model of digital cooperation was recognized as useful and adopted with variations by other collaboratives.


The PALMM cooperative project of ten Florida state universities uses the Florida Center for Library Automation (FCLA), the largest shared library system in the country, in place of the central data storage and computer application facility for the cooperative digital library. This cooperative effort grew out of realization that the universities need to combine disparate digitization efforts of individual members actively experimenting with digitization technologies in mid-1990s. As a first step in this process, the ten universities formed of a Digitization Discussion Group in 1997 that later was transformed to Digitization Services Planning Committee. The group began its work with discussions of a possibility of cooperative digitization project and with a goal to encourage the local digitization of archival, library and museum materials by the universities and to support the provision of access to these digital collections. The “Program” status of this initiative may be reflective of the collaborators intention to provide a more sustainable environment for such cooperative work as collection building, use of common standards and guidelines, support of central data storage and computer applications, and concerted efforts to publicize and promote the use of PALMM collections. [4]

The PALMM group efforts resulted in the Florida Heritage Collection of digitized primary source material. In this cooperative, nine out of ten libraries are responsible for provision of digitized material to collection while the tenth library focused on development of help pages, online tutorials and promotional materials for the project. Florida Center for Library Automation provided data hosting and software support for the digital library. [5] When the proper balance of interest between the ten universities and their library system organization was found, the digital library flourished and the participants soon noticed the growing interest in cooperative digital collection building from other parties. The success of PALMM program triggered many new partnerships between two or more individual libraries, between libraries and university departments, libraries and external institutions.

With respect to partnering with external institutions, the Florida state universities developed an “agreement model” which was successfully used to build a collection of digitized material on U.S. Virgin Islands History and Culture. In this project, the University of the Virgin Islands took the lead in selecting material for digitization from its own collections and collections of the University of Florida and Florida International University. All three libraries contribute digitized material and metadata to form a new collection that comprehensively covers all aspects of Virgin Island history, culture and ecosystems from the pre-Columbian era to the present. Florida Center for Library Automation, as an experienced database hosting organization, provides the digital library hardware and software platform for this project. In this type of cooperation, it is important for external partners (in this case, institutions outside of the Florida State University System) to preserve their own identity and ability to brand their contributions even though the cooperative collections may be hosted on other institutions’ web sites. In order to fit the needs of external partners, PALMM group had to adjust their standard digital library interfaces so that they display the name of the source institution prominently above all other institutions’ resources, to develop a software module which would show different headers on the screens depending on where the user is coming from, and post other important to external partners information such as a sponsor or parent organization. Encouraged by successful experience of digital cooperation, PALMM group has been working on developing a “template agreement” which addresses other challenging questions of digital cooperation such as these: Who has the ultimate responsibility for collection development decisions? What happens if one institution contributes material which others consider as inappropriate for the collection or refuses to contribute desired material? What happens if one institution wants to remove material from cooperative collection? Once the template agreement is finalized, the PALMM group plans to reuse it in future projects. [6]


Yet another approach to cooperation has been used by the Minnesota Digital Library Coalition (MDLC) for building of the Minnesota Digital Library. [7] Similarly to the PALMM model, the group united several Minnesota universities and the Minnesota Library Information Network (MINITEX) to achieve the following goals through the joint effort:

  1. to help smaller local and regional libraries, museums, and historic societies digitize parts of their collections;

  2. to identify common issues and goals in digital collection development;

  3. to consolidate individually developed digital collections;     

  4. to enhance user access to distributed collections through a common portal; and

  5. to develop a collaborative structure that would minimize obstacles to cooperation and maximize benefits for future material contributors in order to encourage broad participation.

With these ideas in mind, the Coalition gathered for its first conference, adopted a mission statement, and focused on research in the areas of participation, policy and planning; standards and training for the participants; audiences and presence; strategies for collection development; and resolution of ownership and authority issues. The Coalition sought answers to “Where to begin digitization” question by incorporating user needs assessments into traditional selection processes used by archivists, curators and librarians. Parallel to these studies, the Coalition agreed to conduct a survey in order to identify important, unique, or heavily used resources in collections around the state. The Coalition established four principles for identifying resources for digitization and inclusion into the Minnesota Digital Library:

  1. Value (content is rare or unique, may be useful to multiple audiences, enhances collaborative collections).

  2. Demand (active use by multiple audiences, has potential for new audiences).

  3. Preservation (reduced handling of fragile materials, reduced risk of theft or mutilation).

  4. Feasibility (quality of digital material and fidelity with original, ease of access, potential for sustainability).

The Coalition developed digital a standardized library contributor application and publisher agreement that supported enrollment of members-contributors and helped resolve copyright issues with their material. Material contributors receive several benefits from this cooperation, including: (1) a digital master copy of the images; (2) full descriptive information on these images; and (3) training in digitization and metadata creation. In return, the participants grant the Coalition rights to retain high quality master copies of the digitized images, to make them publicly available online on royalty-free and non-exclusive basis and to aggregate this material with other digital collections. The agreement between the Coalition and a material contributor also indicates that the contributors retain full ownership of the material digitized by or distributed electronically through the Coalition’s digital collections. Coalition may not use the collection commercially and anyone interested in reproduction rights or any other commercial use of the collection are required to receive permission directly from the contributor. Each document in the collection contains rights holder information as part of its metadata set.

It should be noted that sharing of best practices, common digitization and metadata standards was a principle factor that allowed the Coalition members to build digital collections together. One of the challenging aspects of sharing metadata standards was the fact that participants come from many libraries, archives and museums that have been already using various metadata schemes. This issue was resolved through selection of a core set of necessary descriptors common to all metadata schemes or with crosswalks between schemes, on the one side, and through support of the optional elements that could be based on any scheme, on the other. This solution allowed participants to share descriptive metadata required for the MDL and still use optional descriptors required for local use of digitized material.

This harvesting of common descriptive metadata and proliferation of standards among participants is done with help of Excel templates for entering metadata, data definition documents and training on how to use these documents. Aggregated participant metadata forms a central catalog. The Coalition views this catalog as a complement rather than replacement for existing metadata repositories of individual contributors. Metadata on individual collections in this case may reside both on the servers of participating institutions and the MDL.

Over the last five years, the Coalition successfully resolved many issues of cooperative digital collection development that lead to creation of the “Minnesota Reflections” collection of historic photographs and “Minnesota Maps Online.” Today, the collaborators are facing new challenges that are not uncommon to matured digital collections. First, the Coalition feels a need to find a viable solution for archiving and digital preservation for the collections. Although some work has already been done, an official digital archiving and preservation program is yet to be developed. Second, the Coalition is looking for ways to create complex relationships between records, collections, and individual objects in MDL image and map collections. This will add value to existing collections and enhance them for educational and research needs of various users. Third, the Coalition works on addition of various toolkit programs to allow social tagging of content (possibly WIKI), development of custom collections from the MDL materials and creation of slide shows (Pachyderm). Finally, the Coalition members feel a growing need to move from the hybrid cooperative governing for the MDL towards more solid administrative structure and stable funding which would assure digital library sustainability and growth. So far the project has been funded by LSTA grants and in-kind contributions from key participants. MDL is pursuing funding through state and federal legislature as well as establishing itself as an independent organization.

Through proper balancing of interests of contributors, sharing of standardized metadata sets and digitization processes, the Coalition built two digital collections for which material was drawn from 60 libraries, historic societies and museums: “Minnesota Reflections,” providing access to 5,347 historic photographs, and “Minnesota Maps Online,” containing 3,589 original plat maps. [8]


These models of cooperation suggest ideas for less stressful and expensive ways for libraries to participate in digitization and online collection development projects. At the source of many of these initiatives lays the realization of participants that together they can achieve much more through focusing on what each does best and sharing of knowledge. This is becoming even more important as the wave of technological changes blurs familiar boundaries between professions and institutions, and poses new complex technical questions. In most cooperatives, this sharing and spread of knowledge starts with smaller groups of professionals tasked to research issues and devise a strategy for the group (steering or planning committees, discussion groups, etc). This is sometimes referred to as a Lancasterian structure which permits the majority of collaborators to benefit from those few who are ready to contribute their time and experience. One group came to realization through such effort that they need to focus on “delivering quality content through their professional skills of archivists and librarians” and that “the greatest problem in implementing EAD are not the technical issues of XML and XSL, but the utterly familiar and traditional issues of description, arrangement, and interpretation.” [9] This point is important--fascination with new digital technologies at the expense of professional obligations to patrons is a common danger for librarians.

Among other questions worth of consideration may be the following:

  • Were the real needs of researchers thoroughly considered? More focus is needed on their needs than on technology.     

  • Digital archiving and preservation issues are often underestimated in digital projects. Data migration may be an easier task when considered in the beginning of a project than in its end.

  • Is it more important to invest scarce resources in digitization of processed/accessible collections than, for example, on processing of the backlogs of unprocessed material in non-electronic formats?

  • Should scarce resources be directed towards putting more content online or towards the development of more elaborate finding aids and syndetic structures?     

  • Should more efforts be invested in digitization of new material and     creation of individual digital collections or in integration of digital collections with the non-electronic collections?

There are no easy or simple answers to these and other questions, especially if one seeks answers alone. Cooperative investigation and knowledge sharing may help libraries to adopt new technologies in ways that are most beneficial to their patrons.

[1] Arms, Caroline R., “Historical Collections for the National Digital Library. Lessons and Challenges at the Library of Congress.,” D-Lib Magazine, April, 1996.     http://www.dlib.org/dlib/april96/loc/04c-arms.html. (Accessed November, 2006.)

[2] American Memory at the Library of Congress.     http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/about/index.html. (Accessed November, 2006.)

[3] Kniffel, Leonard and Gordon Flagg, “Library of Congress Gets $3 Million from Google,” American Libraries. January, 37, no. 1. (2006).

[4] Publication of Archival, Library & Museum Materials (PALMM). http://palmm.fcla.edu/. (Accessed November, 2006.)

[5] Florida Heritage Collection. http://palmm.fcla.edu/fh/. (Accessed November, 2006.)

[6] Caplan, Priscilla, “A PALMM Grows in Florida: The Publication of Archival, Library and Museum Materials Program,” Resource Sharing & Information Networks. Vol. 16, no. 1 (2006): 53-65.

[7] The author is grateful to Robert Horton, Director, Library, Publications and Collections, Minnesota Historical Society, for providing helpful comments on the Minnesota Digital Library project.

[8] Documents of the Minnesota Digital Library. http://www.mndigital.org/documents/documents.htm. (Accessed November, 2006.)

[9] Cox, Robert and Rachel Onuf, “Digital Anxiety and Cooperation in a Networked World,” OCLC     Systems & Services., Vol 19(1), pp 36-40.