Issues in International Cooperation on Digital Libraries

J. Alfredo Sánchez
Associate Professor, Department of Computer Systems Engineering
Director, Laboratory of Interactive and Cooperative Technologies
Universidad de las Américas-Puebla
Cholula, Puebla 72820 México

Knowledge tends to distribution. The ideal of globally accessible digital libraries comprising widely distributed information repositories and services leads naturally to an even higher distribution of knowledge than we have nowadays. Even with today's limited bandwidth and networked resources, it is possible for scientists around the world to cooperate in the development of large-scale, multi-national projects and to increase the rate at which knowledge is being recorded and extended.

In spite of this progress, international cooperation is needed to address a host of issues that are starting to appear and that may prevent the ideal of  coherent, fully interconnected digital libraries from becoming a reality.

1. International issues

Many issues will become evident only as digital libraries become available.  At present, I consider the following a set of crucial issues that would benefit greatly from international cooperation:

1.1 Dissemination

Even though much has been said about the identification of digital libraries as one of the grand national challenges in the United States, and digital library initiatives exist from Europe to Asia to Oceania, in some countries much of the philosophy and ongoing work on digital libraries remains unknown to a large number of people inside and outside of the computer science and information systems realms. Only very few project proposals related to the area are being submitted by researchers to funding agencies. People who make decisions on what projects to finance are often not aware of the meaning and importance of digital libraries as a factor of international competitiveness.

For  example, for an upcoming bi-national workshop in which I am participating (see below), digital libraries (among 4 other areas) is included as one of the potential areas for collaboration. This will very likely contribute to raise the awareness about the importance of digital libraries in my country. Other means to spread the word need to be explored.

Indeed, disseminating advances and project results should leverage international cooperation and reduce redundancy in the development of solutions to the many problems that are common in the construction of digital libraries in multiple countries.

1.2 Language

Regardless of how complete and fully interconnected digital libraries might be, they will not be of much use for students and researchers around the world who cannot communicate effectively in the language in which the library materials and services are made available. Although English has become the lingua franca for researchers in many disciplines, making knowledge widely available necessarily implies constructing multi-lingual digital libraries. Moreover, much original work potentially interesting for inclusion in digital libraries exists only in languages other than English.

Orchestrated efforts involving researchers in various countries need to be undertaken to produce digital library materials in languages accessible to wider audiences. Although the challenges are enormous, much can be accomplished if this issue is taken into account as digital libraries are built.

1.3 Internationalization

Indeed, language is but one facet of the more complex issue of internationalization. Real-time and asynchronous collaboration in digital libraries can be impaired not only by differences in language or time zones, but also by a limited knowledge of cultural differences among users.  Differences among countries in culture, needs, available resources, and attitudes towards information technologies impacting the development of digital libraries can only be explored via international cooperation.

1.4 Intellectual property

Establishing clear and enforceable rules for guaranteeing intellectual property rights in the context of digital libraries is proving a formidable challenge at the national level. Naturally, the complexity increases as multiple sets of rules from various countries need to be taken into account.

Only through international cooperation can the different views on this issue start to be known and, hopefully, reconciled. Experiences with ongoing cooperative efforts can enrich the discussion and perhaps provide the basis for template cooperative agreements.

1.5 Technology transfer

Deploying effective digital libraries assumes radical advances will be produced in the underlying information and communication technologies. While universities and corporations in the United States are engaged in initiatives such as Internet 2 and the Next Generation Internet to address shortcomings of the Internet, many organizations around the world are still struggling to gain access to currently available network resources. Mechanisms are needed to facilitate the rapid transfer of newly developed technologies from research environments to production environments in multiple countries.

1.6 Cooperation schemes

Whereas in some countries there are well-established programs to support research and development in the digital libraries arena, in others there are only isolated efforts from institutions and individuals. Defining effective cooperation schemes in this context becomes a difficult task and should be the subject of further discussion.

There are areas in which global digital libraries can only be developed through international cooperation. One such area is the study of Planet Earth's biodiversity. Others include history, geography, anthropology, and languages. Identifying key areas for cooperation and motivating the involvement of all interested parties (governments, universities, corporations, non-governmental organizations, etc.) is a much needed first step towards the development of specific cooperation schemes.

2. Personal experience

I have witnessed the evolution of Digital Libraries as a multi-disciplinary field. I was working on my PhD research at Texas A&M University when the Digital Libraries Initiative was launched in the United States. I participated in the First Digital Libraries Conference (DL'94) held in College Station in 1994 [1], and  I have been active in the area through research and development on architectures, interfaces and work environments [2, 3, 4, 5, 6].

Since 1996, I am participating in the Floristic Digital Library Initiative (FDL), a project involving scientists from countries in North America, Europe and Asia, and led by the Missouri Botanical Garden (MBG).

Currently, I am director of the Laboratory of Interactive and Cooperative Technologies, which I founded in 1997 at the Universidad de las Américas-Puebla, México. That year we established a cooperative agreement with MBG's Center for Botanical Informatics for the architectural design of the FDL and the development of various of its components. Since then, my group in Mexico has been actively working in the definition of both underlying storage structures and user interfaces for massive data entry, information retrieval and visualization, and support for collaborative work. The cooperative agreement between our two institutions in different countries raised interesting issues including the technologies used for remote communication and collaboration, the resources contributed by each of the involved parties, and the mechanisms to insure the protection of intellectual property rights on our joint projects' outcomes.

During the upcoming week (June 10-12), my university and research center will host the Third NSF-Conacyt Computer Science Workshop ( Conacyt is the principal government agency in science and technology in Mexico. This series of workshops has been organized to strengthen and extend cooperative efforts in the context of the NSF-Conacyt Collaborative Research Opportunities program, established in 1994 [7]. This year, five major potential areas for bi-national collaboration will be discussed: web-based education, agent technologies, digital libraries, human-computer interaction, and image processing. I will be a panelist in the digital libraries working group. Some of the issues to be discussed at this workshop are directly related to the theme of the First Summit on International Cooperation on Digital Libraries.

3. Personal commitment

I am currently chairing a special interest group of the Mexican Computer Science Society in Computer-Mediated Interaction ( In recent weeks a subgroup has formed which is working in the area of Digital Libraries, with researchers from 3 Mexican states involved in various funded initiatives in the area. I will be coordinating our group's national and international cooperative efforts. We are very optimistic about the prospects of international cooperation and its impact on the development of truly global digital libraries.


  1. Sánchez, J. A. 1994. User agents in the interface to digital libraries. In Proceedings of Digital Libraries '94 (College Station, TX, June), pp. 217-218.
  2. Sánchez, J. A. and Leggett, J. A. 1997. Agent services for users of digital libraries. Journal of Networks and Computer Applications 20, 1, 45-58.
  3. Schnase, J. L., Kama, D. L., Tomlinson, K. L., Sánchez, J. A., Cunnius, E. L., and Morin, N. R. 1997. The Flora of North America digital library: A case study in biodiversity database publishing. Journal of Networks and Computer Applications 20, 1, 87-103.
  4. Sánchez, J. A., Leggett, J. J., and Schnase, J. L. 1997. AGS: Introducing agents as services provided by digital libraries. In Proceedings of the Second ACM International Conference on Digital Libraries (Philadelphia, PA., July), pp. 75-82.
  5. Sánchez, J. A., López, C. A., and Schnase, J. L. 1998. An agent-based approach to the construction of floristic digital libraries. In Proceedings of the Third ACM International Conference on Digital Libraries (DL'98, Pittsburgh, PA., July). forthcoming.
  6. Sánchez, J. A., Fernandez, L., and Schnase, J. L. 1998. Agora: Enhancing group awareness and collaboration in floristic digital libraries (submitted to 4th CYTED-RITOS International Workshop on Groupware, CRIWG'98, Rio de Janeiro, September).
  7. Rios, H., Loyo, C., Bernat, A., and Engel, G. 1996. Final Report of the Workshop on Mexico-U.S. Cooperation in Computer and Information Science and Engineering Education. Available from NSF, Conacyt, and

 June 4, 1998.