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Virtual Libraries : Definition, Architecture Services and Standardization

Virtual Libraries

Much of the explanation surrounding the emerging 21st century library is based on the opportunities provided by enhanced access to information resources through the use of networked information technologies. Existing libraries are a product of an intersection and an interaction of people, resources, and procedures.
The delivery of services to patrons and other users, including library staff, is built upon the collective personnel, information, and technological resources that constitute the library. Library professionals (experts) are accepting the potential and practicality of virtual libraries to better serve users by providing access to a broader range of information than available locally and by supporting traditional resource sharing among libraries.

A) Definition of Virtual Library

“A Virtual Library is a selected organised collection of units (nodes) of documentary resources
• Spread everywhere (space);
• Accessible always (time);
Where individuals and groups as
• Authors (producers of documents);
• Publishers (editors of documents);
• Readers (users of documents)
Are linked across the global electronic network and related in different ways to documents that are:
• Fast and easily obtainable
• Available in their full version.
In view of satisfying multiple cultural exigencies (information, learning and entertainment, etc.).”
But, according to Allan Powell “the virtual library can have many definitions, including: A library with little or no physical plant of books, periodicals, reading space, or support staff, but one that disseminates selective information directly to distributed library customers, usually electronically. A more traditional library that has transformed some significant portions of its information delivery channels into electronic format, so that many or most of its customers do not need to visit the library to obtain information. A library that operates as a nexus of selected information management activities
within the organisation, some of them centralised, but most of which happen through the efforts of decentralised staff, resources, systems, and even outside suppliers, who are accessible and dispersed through out the organisation”.
“The key characteristics of a true virtual library are:
• There is no corresponding physical collection,
• Documents will be available in electronic formats,
• Documents are not stored in any one location,
• Documents can be accessed from any workstation,
• Documents are retrieved and delivered as and when required, and
• Effective search and browse facilities are available” (Sherwell, 1997).
The realisation that convergence of communications and computing technologies offer opportunities for extending the reach and the range of the traditional library is driving the acceptance of the virtual library concept.
The Internet, the Web, and digital collections provide a context for making the idea of a virtual library real.

B) Virtual Library Design

A pragmatic approach for designing virtual libraries is to focus on services rather than on technology. A service-based architecture for a virtual library is essential and provides the framework to accommodate both digital resources and the collections that will not be transformed into bits and bytes.

C) Service-Based Architecture

Since the library, by its nature, is primarily a service institution, a service philosophy should guide the virtual library. A library collects books and other materials, and appoints qualified staff with a view to provide services to its users. The following components must be taken into consideration while building a virtual library:
• Users,
• Services,
• Resources,
• Technology,
• Management,
• Policy,
• Funding.
If we consider services as the output of the virtual library, the other components should serve as infrastructure for the creation and delivery of services to users.

Types of Libraries It may be emphasised that user needs define and shape appropriate services, which are based on available resources, including staff and information. Technology, in the form of many different tools, supports the delivery of services. Of course, the management identifies and prioritises the services and formulates overall policy. Management also acquires and allocates the funding necessary for the infrastructure, services and the infrastructure needed for their delivery (resource and technology). Service-based architecture not only identifies components of the virtual library and indicates where funds to be allocated, it also allows the development of service quality benchmarks.
For any service, we need to indicate the goals and objectives of the service, and then propose performance metrics by which to assess the utility of a service and ultimately, the value of the service to users.

D) Virtual Library: Services for Users

Though demographic characteristics play an important role in deciding users of virtual library, the boundaries can be wider and more inclusive. Focusing on services allows us to think about the types and levels of services we are going to provide to a variety of user groups. Defining the services for any
group directs us to the technologies appropriate to those groups. The types of services provided by a virtual library comprise the following:
• Resource discovery services,
• Access services,
• Reference services,
• Instruction service, and
• Patron account service.

Resource discovery service: 

This service provides users with a variety of tools and approaches for discovering the existence of appropriate resources. Typically, a user will search one or more repositories of metadata, full text,
or images to identify and select resources. Three types of searches are possible:
i) Single Database Searching, 
ii) Broadcast Searching, and 
iii) Integrative Searching.

Access service: 

Once the user has discovered the resources, the access service addresses getting the information to the user. It depends on the users’ paying capacity.

Reference service: 

Both cost and quality of service are important considerations for establishing reference service. With the limited resources made available for reference service the library must consider priority of serving various user groups.

Instruction service: 

This service focuses on appropriate training and instruction activities to assist users. Users will need to know how to use the new and emerging technologies. But, more importantly they may need help
in understanding what resources are available, their costs, and their authenticity.

Patron (user) account service: 

This service area addresses user activities including accessing account information through the network, use the service to order materials, or pay for the resources. The above list of services is illustrative and not comprehensive. These five services are intended to provide a point of departure for discussing what the virtual library might provide.

E) Standards and Interoperability for Virtual Library

The virtual library is a focus for collaboration and collaborative services. In the network environment, there is an assumption that systems and organisations interoperate. Definitions of interoperability reveal common themes: working together, exchanging information, interacting without special effort on the part of the user, or operating together effectively. Usually the content of the interoperability is focussed on technical interoperability between information systems. For example, a system-centric definition of
interoperability might be the ability of two or more systems or components to exchange information and use the exchanged information without special effort on the part of either system. In service-based virtual library, a focus on users should inform the concept of interoperability so that the users may
successfully search and retrieve information from two or more systems in a meaningful way with confidence.
The implementation of standards such as Z39.50 enables interoperability among systems. But,  implementing such technologies and offering services based on interoperable systems require a clear understanding of the information access and use issues.
Collaboration among libraries has always been manifested in resource sharing programmes. Opportunities for resource sharing increase with a virtual library as the research of librarians and users extend to a broader and more comprehensive range of resources. Many different groups can benefit from a virtual library. The challenge is to ensure that the various groups have opportunities to participate in the design, development and governance of the virtual library. Indeed the virtual library offers a new context for taking traditional library collaboration forward.

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