Personalizable Collaborative Environments for Digital Libraries

J. Alfredo Sánchez
Library of the Universidad de las Américas-Puebla
and Center for Research in Information and Automation Technologies (CENTIA)
Cholula, Puebla 72820 México

Realizing the vision of widely accessible digital libraries will take enormous efforts from researchers in multiple disciplines. Work is needed, for example, in developing expedite mechanisms (both legal and technical) to build digital collections, providing infrastructure for highly reliable and responsive distributed operation, and designing usable interfaces to facilitate research and scholarship in the digital medium.

This proposal describes a project to explore the issues in the development of digital library environments that facilitate collaboration among distributed users while still responding to their specific individual needs and preferences. The project builds upon ongoing work on the definition of  architectural components for distributed digital libraries as well as work on user interfaces for managing large information spaces. The results of the work include operational interfaces and a collaborative environment for an actual digital library which is part of a large federation of digital collections.

1. Background

Over the past three years, the Digital Libraries Group at Universidad de las Américas has developed a system architecture for a digital library that addresses the needs for communication, collaboration and information management among a highly distributed community of users. We have also designed and prototyped several library services and user interfaces for a specific application domain (botany). We have termed this initiative U-DL-A (University Digital Libraries for All).

1.1 The U-DL-A Digital Library Architecture

The architecture for the U-DL-A Initiative is an evolution of the system architecture presented  by Sánchez [1996], Sánchez and Leggett [1997], and Sánchez et al. [1997]. In this architecture, library services are built on top of a distributed object repository comprising a rich mix of electronic documents such as textual descriptions, bibliographic references, maps, illustrations and other multimedia objects, which together provide a comprehensive knowledge base of the current understanding of a given knowledge area. Interfaces to services place the collection's wealth at the user's disposal. Practically from anywhere in the global network, patrons have access to library services that allow them to conduct a wide range of individual and group research activities, from recording  and sharing newly discovered information, to keeping track of changes in data or metadata of interest, to discussing with experts about objects in the collection and the ways they are organized. In our digital library architecture, there can be server nodes where collections and general services reside; patron nodes, from which users have access to services via specialized interfaces and environments; and administration nodes, from which librarians facilitate access to existing services and make new services available to users.  Interactions among library components can be rather complex when several nodes of each type are considered.

We have designed and prototyped the communication infrastructure that will enable the distributed operation of the U-DL-A digital library. The current version of this distributed framework, which is based on the KQML agent-communication language [Finin et al. 1995] and CORBA [Otte et al. 1996], has been termed MICK and is described in detail by Barceinas [1998] and Barceinas et al. [1998].

1.2 U-DL-A Services and Interfaces

Services provided by  U-DL-A  servers include information retrieval mechanisms, textual image processing, annotation facilities, recommendation services and agent administration. For the specific instance of a botanical knowledge domain, we have developed taxonomic navigation engines, mechanisms for extracting structure from textual botanical descriptions and parallelized OCR services [Abascal and Sánchez 1999; Dircio 1998].  In this context, users include scientists who author library materials, editorial committees that review the authors' work from multiple viewpoints, artists who provide graphical renderings of plants, botanical researchers and teachers, and the general public. Specialized interfaces are provided for each type of user and for each of the activities the library supports. Among the interfaces we have developed are role-based views [Tomlinson et al. 1998] , agent-assisted construction of digital collections [Schnase et al. 1997; Sánchez et al. 1998b, 1999], agent-guided multi-taxonomic browsing [Flores 1997; Sánchez et al. 1999], agent-based personalized information retrieval [Cabrera 1997; Pérez 1998], recommendation facilities and virtual group generation environments [Fernández 1998; Sánchez et al. 1998a, Sánchez 1998], querying of textual images [Dircio 1998], and videoconferencing applications [Morales 1999].

2. Proposed Work

We propose the development of basic infrastructure and user interfaces to enable collaboration among users of distributed digital collections.

Major repositories to be used as testbeds for these developments include the Digital Theses Collection, currently in progress at the Library of the Universidad de las Américas, as well as the Digital Publications Archive (comprising all the publications produced by the university) and the Franciscan Documentation Center, both on schedule to be developed as part of our digital libraries activities for the following years.

In the area of basic infrastructure, we propose to continue the work initiated with the MICK framework. The resulting environment will provide the means for communication among digital library components, including services, end-user applications and agents. Interface specifications will allow programmers to adhere to an open protocol to interact with library services and abstractions, regardless of programming languages, operating systems or hardware platforms used. This will be accomplished by providing a robust, complete and well-documented CORBA-based communication framework. U-DL-A will participate in major international cooperation efforts, such as the NDLTD federation of digital theses and dissertations [Fox et al. 1997].

As for user interfaces, we will focus on the development of an integrated environment that supports collaboration among library users. In order to achieve this, we will continue and refine our current work on recommendation services, agent-based personalized information retrieval, alternative information visualization mechanisms and videoconferencing facilities. Existing prototypical applications will be incorporated into the U-DL-A Library and thoroughly tested with real user communities.

3. Participants

Universidad de las Américas-Puebla (UDLA) is committed to support the development of digital collections and services that can effectively support learning and research activities of wide user communities. Participants in the work described here include:

We have been working with fellow researchers from the United States in various areas. Ongoing and potential collaborations include joint projects with: References