Why are so many countries building 'national' digital libraries?

There have been a lot of announcements lately about the development of national and regional digital libraries. Most recently, the online Chinese newspaper, Xinhuanet, reported that China has plans to “build a nationwide digital library network with the National Digital Library of China at the center”. In the US, the notion of a Digital Public Library of America is being spearheaded by the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard University, and has the support of a diverse group of individuals and organizations. And, of course, in Europe there is Europeana which provides a single access point to EU members' national digital library collections.

These types of regional digital libraries adhere to a variety of technical and organizational models, but the vast majority are very distributed, and involve aggregating the collections of digitized content from libraries, archives and other heritage so that they can be accessed through a single location.

Why are some countries investing resources in developing this type of infrastructure when we already have Google, or any other powerful search engines?

For a number of reasons:

For one thing, many digitized collections are NOT accessible via general search engines. They cannot index many full text digitized objects, and the metadata associated with these items are are often limited or incomplete. In addition, some digitized collections are often contained in databases that cannot be penetrated by search engines.

Secondly, and equally critical, is because a national digital library is much more than simply a portal or a specialized search engine. It provides invaluable context information and curation services for the content made available through the library, it is a forum for sharing best practices and experiences about digitization and digital preservation, and it can be a a body that advocates for digitization with governments and other stakeholders.

Thirdly, a national digital library increases the visibility, promotes the culture of a given country on the global internet, and is considered to be a key aspect to a country's digital strategy.

In a recent article published by The Mark, Keith Walker, president of CLA argues that Canada should create a national digital library. “There would be great value in a national digital library: Researchers from across the country could access materials when they need them; students could find reliable and reputable resources easily; the public would have access to an amazing wealth of information; and government and business leaders could find information to help them with decision-making.”

The government of Canada has not yet identified a national digital library as a priority. Canadiana.org, a collaborative initiative funded through the library community, is the closest thing that Canada has to a national digital library. However, as the federal government further develops its digital economy strategy, it should not overlook the importance of a Canadian digital library both for Canadians and for our digital presence in the global networked world.