Web 2.0: Virtual Libraries: The Library Has Left the Building

Note: This post was created for a graduate level class at the University of Alberta: EDES 501 Web 2.0 for Libraries.

"In the library of the future, they say, librarians will take on new roles, space will be reconfigured to reflect new and broader purposes, and the ongoing digital revolution will birth a new kind of public institution that is no longer bound by bricks and mortar." (Dremann, 2009)

The future is now...

What are virtual libraries?
Essentially, virtual libraries "are organized collections of digital information" (Gunn, 2002). Virtual libraries may be defined as a collection of digitized primary sources (Project Naming), a portal for subscription database access (Energy Science and Technology Virtual Library) and/or a group of websites (Librarian's Internet Index) that extend resources beyond the libraries walls (Schrock, 2002). A virtual library may also be called a "library without walls," "electronic library," or "digital library", as they change our concept of time and space within the online realm (Saunders, 1999).

Virtual libraries are constructed with particular users in mind, and include content to support their users' particular needs (Gunn, 2002). Content may include text, images, audio and video. They allow librarians and other information providers to filter good information to their users (eg. Alabama Virtual Library), thus bypassing the many discreditable websites Google might display. This aspect is especially good for students and young people who have not yet learned searching, website evaluation or information literacy skills.

Examples of Virtual Libraries:
Academic: Academic Info

My Quick Search Using a Virtual Library
I have never really used a formal virtual library, thus I chose to do a bit of searching on the Virtual Reference Library. Like many people, I am a Google searcher, and automatically started searching by keyword within the search box, which did have a prominent space on the VRL homepage. However, unlike Google, I found this frustrating as no matter what I searched, no results were returned. I then had to rethink my search, and go through the subject directory. I think clicking through a subject directory is a good way to browse, but a lousy way to try to find a specific answer to a specific question. I could not even find a category for my query, and thus had to abandon a particular train of thought. Once I got over this specific search, and just browsed through the directory, I did find a lot of useful information for a variety of topics. Each link is given a short abstract and a language determiner, which would be helpful to certain users. All the links I tried were live, and the information contained in them did seem to be of a high quality. I also found the VRL Quick Link section to be quite helpful, as it led to authoritative information for a variety of common topics such as weather, but also provided links to dictionaries, maps and other reference tools.

I found that using VRL took more time than a specific Google search, and thus this virtual library did not work for me. Perhaps someone who is not proficient at using a search engine would appreciate this resource. And of course not all virtual libraries are structured the same way. I can also see how children's virtual libraries would be very useful to learning, and would be a good way for young people to develop researching skills, while being exposed to high quality information. The International Children's Digital Library is a brilliant children's resource. The book searching interface is very visual, even allowing children to search books by the colour of the cover! I also thought the Springfield Township High School Virtual Library was very effective. It contained tons of information that would be useful to students and teachers, and was very visually pleasing to look at. So while virtual libraries may not always work for the way I search or use the internet, I do believe the can be very useful resources for other types of users with different needs.

Best Practice Examples
The following are best practice examples of virtual libraries which are operated for particular purposes to meet the needs of particular users.

Providing Access to Nomadic Patrons
The US Navy Medical Department Virtual Navy Hospital was created to the US Navy and Marine Corp, members of which often lead nomadic lifestyles as they spend time at home, at sea and in the field (D'Alessandro et al. 2007). The main goal of the Virtual Navy Hospital is to provide digital health sciences reference information for naval primary care providers where and when they need it to help take better care of patients. The library also promotes health information to sailors and marines so they can make appropriate choices in order to live healthier lives. As these types or users do not have a consistent location, providing digital information which they can access at their point of need was seen as an essential tool. Access to the internet is often intermittent, and thus the interface is very simple, as it requires little time to load and can be easily accessed even if computer software is not up to date. Users could be assured that no matter where they were, resources were available in an easily accessed and organized collection of high quality information that was specialized for their particular need. Unfortunately, funding was cut in 2006 and this virtual library is not often updated. However, it does provide a good example of how a virtual library can provide specialized information to patrons who may move around or not have a determined location.

Bridging the Digital Divide: Global Information Sharing
The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) Virtual Library is a powerful example of how virtual libraries can bridge not only geographical limitations, but the digital divide as well. Alvare et al (2007) note that improving access to and sharing information and knowledge with developing countries is an international responsibility, and a necessary element for aid and worldwide progress. CGIAR has created a virtual library containing global agricultural research information, and provides researchers with access to up to date, high calibre research. As these researchers often come from and are located in developing countries, this access will help them keep up with the rapidly changing digital environment, and will prevent them from falling behind the developed nations. Because researchers might not have access to academic institutions, the virtual library allows the organization to share information with users in a common readable format, independent of time or geography, which in turn allows the researcher to better influence their local area. The CGIAR database has seen widespread use, mostly from users in developing countries (Alvare et al., 2007). Though it is often not possible to provide everything in full text format, users can choose to search open access materials only. The simple searching interface includes many other sourcing options as well. The homepage is visual and contains useful information about the library, as well as links to other libraries where materials might be available. It is an excellent example of a virtual library that has a global reach, and shows how virtual libraries can be used to bridge the digital divide between the developed and developing countries around the world.

Virtual Pathfinders
Schrock (2002) translates the idea of a virtual library into virtual pathfinders like Website Evaluation Schrock Guide. These virtual pathfinders link teachers and students to local and other information in an online format, to be access at the library, school, or at home. Content includes moderated links to resources on particular topics, lists of books available in the collection, or links to patron created content. These pathfinders may pertain to particular topics (perhaps curriculum), and are joined together by a portal and thus become a virtual reference library. This format, especially when used within a school setting, encourages sharing and collaboration between student and teacher, as well as across boundary lines because information may be shared within a district, state or nationally to support similar educational outcomes (Schrock, 2002). Thus these virtual pathfinders not only provide online access to quality resources, but are also efficient and prevent wasted time taken to 'reinventing the wheel'. With regards to school use of virtual libraries, Saunders (1999) also mentions the problem of filtering content, a sensitive issue regarding children and their use of the internet.

Providing Access to Users With Disabilities
Human rights laws dictate that everyone has the right to access to information and knowledge. Tank et al. (2007) discusses the possible implementation of a global virtual library of talking books, as spearheaded by the DAISY Consortium. Talking books differ from audio books as talking books allow patrons to skip ahead or back sections or chapters, to speed up or slow down audio, and to bookmark where they left off for next time. Patrons usually require a DAISY reader to read specially formatted talking books. However, now talking books are being converted from analog to digital format, which opens up the possibility of online access. The DAISY consortium is trying to establish a digital talking book library service to give all countries and all people with hearing impairments access to content thus transcending geographic, linguistic and cultural boundaries by using technology to it's maximum potential. Tank et al., 2007 cites the example of the Danish National Library for the Blind Virtual Library, where patrons can not only access talking books online, but also interact via virtual bulletin boards. This desired global library creates issues of copyright, especially in the case of global trade politics and open access licensing, but would be immensely useful for global patrons with special needs.

Implications for Libraries
Virtual libraries can be costly. To access one, a user needs the necessary technology, good internet access, and knowledge of how to navigate online. This may contribute to the digital divide by widening the knowledge gap between those who have online access and those who do not. Alvare et al. (2007) cites the issue of open access versus copyright content, and the necessity to have full text capabilities. Providing a link to information is useless if that information turns out to be unavailable.

They also alter our definition of community. Diaz & Fields (2007) note that people learn and take in information by interacting with others, regardless of if they are in a building, or online in a virtual space. Librarians need to support this interaction in virtual spaces, and continue to create community, even though they may not have direct interactions with patrons. Creating a community space on the sometimes faceless world wide web is a difficult task for information providers. Dremann (2009) maintains that if libraries are digital, they still need a human element: they still need someone to sit on a virtual reference desk, someone to put individual touches on a website, and someone to organize the activities of the community, whether they be online or actually in a public space.

The DAISY example also highlights the necessity of having a barrier-free, accessible library website. Sometimes using adaptive technology or adjusting browser settings may promote accessibility, but accessibility must also be considered when designing the HTML code and structural mark up of a website (Casey, 1999). Ideally, anything that is represented in visual or audio format, whether it be photographs, illustrations, page dividers, image maps, videos, or sound clips needs to have alternative text within its HTML markup, and descriptive tags for hyperlinks (Casey, 1999). A text virtual library is also not always accessible, and thus audio and video content should be included to appeal to patrons with other types of needs. As technology progresses, and the use of mobile devices grows, websites may also need to be designed for mobile programs and with mobile based interfaces for easy reading on cell phones. Thus virtual libraries can be incredibly time consuming, and require some specialized knowledge to put together.
D'Alessandro et al. (2007) offer some suggestions for the implementation of virtual libraries. First, a needs assessment should be performed in order to determine if indeed a user community needs a virtual library, and if so what do they need included. As mentioned above, virtual libraries must incorporate principles of user centered web design and use simple web technology to ensure all can access the content, regardless of type of internet access or special need. Also, a virtual library needs people behind the scenes to interact with patrons and information in order to make access and content more effective.

Finally, librarians must solicit and act on patron feedback regarding the service.
Though virtual libraries do require effort to create and maintain, as evident from the examples above, they can be quality resources which support different user groups who may not have access to traditional library resources. Thus they are powerful learning tools that should be embraced by librarians.

I still do not 'really' know what virtual libraries are. Do they have to be tied to a library? If not, does that mean links lists are classified as virtual libraries? What about archives or news or sports? Is YouTube a virtual library? iTunes? What about the University of Alberta's subject guides? Are digitized collections virtual libraries? Can databases be called virtual libraries?

Tenuous definitions aside, I do believe it is important for libraries and librarians to be involved in collecting and organizing digital content for patrons. Whether this takes the form of subject guides, link list or full blown virtual libraries, we need to serve our diverse patrons, patrons who come from different background, live in different places, and have different needs. In this way, we can not only serve our specific community, but also the global community in general. I believe the real function of the world wide web is to bring people and information from around the world together, and virtual libraries do accomplish this.

Alvaré, L. M., Shelton, P., Ramos, M. M., Ferreyra, C., & Walczak, N. (2007). Enhancing access to global agricultural research information: The CGIAR virtual library project. Quarterly Bulletin of the International Association of Agricultural Information Specialists, 52(3), 83-90.
Casey, C. (1999, March). Accessibility in the virtual library: Creating equal opportunity Web sites. Information Technology & Libraries, 18(1), 22.
D'Alessandro, M. P., D'Alessandro, D. M., Bakalar, C. R. S., Ashley, L. D. E., & Hendrix, M. J. C. (2005). The virtual naval hospital: The digital library as knowledge management tool for nomadic patrons. Journal of the Medical Library Association, 93(1), 16-20.
Diaz, Karen, & Fields, Anne M. (2007). "Digital storytelling, libraries and community." In Nancy Courtney (Ed.), Library 2.0 and beyond: Innovative technologies and tomorrow's user, (pp.129-139). Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.
Dremann, Sue. (2009). The 'library of the future' begins to emerge. Palo Alto News .
Gunn, Holly. (2002). Virtual libraries support student learning. .
Saunders, L. (1999, Spring). The human element in the virtual library. Library Trends, 47(4), 771.
Schrock, K. (2002). The "new" virtual library the virtual pathfinder. Book Report, 21(2), 8.
Tank, E., & Frederiksen, C. (2007). The DAISY standard: Entering the global virtual library. Library Trends, 55(4), 932-949.
Westbrook, B. D. (2002). Prospecting virtual collections. Journal of Archival Organization, 1(1), 73-80.


  1. It's great that you mentioned mobile device access to virtual libraries. It had totally slipped my mind. Right now the University of Calgary and the Edmonton Public Library have very active projects to provide "mlibraries" (mobile libraries). I think the University of Alberta is also hoping to have some kind of mobile application for their libraries but I'm not sure what that is yet.

    I think that the best approach to providing people with mobile access to library resource is via individual applications, and not through the traditional "virtual library" approach. The problem is that there are so many different mobile platforms with very different technologies. Some libraries are aiming at iPhone but that's a losing proposition (the assumption that "everyone" has an iPhone is unfounded and dangerous despite the popularity of that platform). I you come up with the concept and design for a single application that does one thing well, you can then figure out how to implement it for several platforms (Google android, iPhone/iPod, Palm, PocketPC, Blackberry, mobile Java etc.).

    Your right, mobile is going to take a lot of time and money.


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