Digital Libraries and Distance Education

Ana M B Pavani

Departamento de Engenharia Elétrica

Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro, Brasil,

Abstract: This chapter discusses the integration of digital libraries and Web based distance education systems. It shows how useful this integration can be in terms of storing, searching, sharing, maintaining and using courseware due to the consolidated library practices of managing information. Some technical aspects on the identification of the Learning Objects (LO's) are addressed as well as the basic functions of the system. Results of such an implementation are presented.

Keywords: Digital library; distance education; Web based education; sharing of courseware; metadata.


Since the Middle Ages universities and libraries have been closely related. There are important libraries that are not associated to universities, as for example the national libraries and the libraries affiliated to religious institutions. In these groups, some libraries can be mentioned - the Library of Congress in the United States, the Bibliothèque Nationale in France, the Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana in the Vatican City and the Biblioteca Nacional in Brazil.

It is a fact that excellence in an institution devoted to teaching and research cannot exist if a good library system is not one of its assets. All good educational institutions worldwide have good libraries whose collections have not only periodicals and text books but manuscripts, historical items, iconography, etc. Some examples may be cited - the University of California in Berkeley, Stanford University, the Imperial College of Science and Technology, and the University of Padova.

A visit to their Web sites shows the close relation of these universities to their libraries. For example, Yale University has 21 libraries and their collections range from the Africana and Judaica Collections to the Electronic Text Center and medieval manuscripts. At Yale University's homepage the menu options are presented as books on a shelf. The opening page of its library homepage is the beautiful image shown in figure 1. This image suggests that entering a library is like traveling the world (there is a map on the background) and through time (there is a medieval scene and a computer keyboard). The traveler is reading a book and the library is the guide. This is clearly stated in the bottom line: A GUIDE FOR YOUR JOURNEY.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the University of Padova, founded in 1222, shows its close ties to libraries on the opening page of its library system - Sistema Bibliotecario di Ateneo. The second paragraph on this page states that the "library is considered an essential service to the support of teaching and researching and it is, formally, defined as a pedagogical-scientific-cultural laboratory." This site can be visited at: The library system of the University of Padova has 75 libraries. Its collections hold 1,350,000 books, annual acquisitions of 30,000 new titles, 27,000 periodicals (11,000 are current).

These two examples illustrate that good and traditional learning institutions are closely related to good libraries. Many others all over the world can be cited.

Figure 1 - Image of the opening page of the Library System of Yale University -

Information technologies in general and computers in particular have increased their role in libraries as well as in schools since the sixties. In both cases, computers were initially used to fulfill administrative tasks and in libraries they had the additional mission of supporting the OPAC's (Online Public Access Catalogs).

The use of OPAC's lead the library community to establish standards to exchange catalog information (MARC Format - Machine Readable Catalog Format - ISO2709 - 1973) and to connect systems (ANSI Z39.50 - 1988). (Web sites at,, and

The use of computers in education, for non-administrative purposes, is newer and the education community is in the process of discussing the standards to connect WEB-based course servers, such as the IMS Project and the work of the IEEE Learning Technology Standards Committee. Further information is available at the following Web sites,, and Currently, there are proposals for metadata, functionality requirements and technology standards, similar to those discussed in chapters 4, 5 and 6 for digital libraries.

The creation of microcomputer networks and the Internet made available information and services that were previously only used by people who had access to corporate networks of mainframes. Technology is changing very fast and unpredictably; future solutions will create whole new ways of relating to information, as presented in IEEE Spectrum Special Issue on Technology - Analysis and Forecast (Eden 2000).

The evolution of information and communication technologies (ICT) for libraries and education, though based on the same platforms, has been differentiated as far as the end user applications are concerned. There are products for library automation, for digital libraries and for distance education. A concept that has not widely been explored is the integration of the ICT supported education and libraries.

The following sections present the basic concepts of this integration and comment on the results of such an implementation in the Maxwell system at PUC-Rio (

Basic concepts

In order to recreate the traditional coupling between schools/universities and libraries, some important aspects of these institutions and their digital emulation must be considered. This integration requires that characteristics from libraries and from educational systems be present, as well as all the administrative supporting functions for both. The characteristics relating to both distance education and digital libraries are:

  1. A library holds items that contain information like books, maps, magazines, etc. These items are the building blocks in the process of transforming information into knowledge during the learning process.

    In order to add items to a school/university library, faculty suggest the titles but the process of acquisition, technical processing, and so forth, are performed by the library staff. This assures the correct identification and storage of items. Faculty and students use the items once they are properly placed on the shelves. If the same principle is used in the digital library of a distance education system, the digital library is the support for courseware. In such a situation, library users can access the items and faculty members, other than the author, can use them in their courses. In both cases it is necessary to resolve issues regarding authors' rights.

    In the case of distance education, if courseware were stored in the professors' folders, searching and retrieving as well as sharing would be a difficult task.

  2. The items in the collection are represented by entities that allow them to be searched and retrieved; they are the catalog records of the items.

    This discipline is a part of library routine because libraries devote their efforts to make information available to their users. Since they deal with large numbers of items in all areas of knowledge, if representation of items did not exist, it would be very difficult for users to find the items they need. In the distance education environment, when the number of courses is large, there are many faculty members involved in the activities and the number of students may be large too. With many items and many users, it is necessary to identify items so they can be searched and retrieved in the digital library.

  3. The items in digital format can belong to the digital library of the institution offering the courses or to the digital library of any other institution, yielding a cooperative situation.

    Since the Internet connects machines all over the world, the learning objects can be stored in any other digital library belonging to an associate or partner institution. This function was addressed in the IMS Specifications (IMS Design Requirements,1997).

  4. Non-digital items can only have their location information (catalog records) in the digital library. This what happens in a traditional automated library situation.

    The digital library can host the information concerning the catalog record of the physical item to help the users in finding it in the traditional library. The call number or a database identification code can be the link between the digital library and the automated library system. One situation that may require this feature is that of a digital library of theses and dissertations (ETD's - Electronic Theses and Dissertations, see chapter 5), when the university has both the paper and the online electronic versions.

  5. Both digital and non-digital items are cataloged in the digital library so that search and retrieval mechanisms can be implemented to provide in-depth access.

    The integration of both catalogs helps search and retrieval. The example of ETD's can be mentioned again.

  6. Items in the digital library may occur in different electronic formats though the contents may be the same. For example, text material can be delivered in two ways; one in hypertext (with animations, interactive exercises, etc.) for online use and the other a regular text for printing and offline study.

    It is important that the two concepts be clearly understood because the first (content) identifies the logical attributes of the item while the second its physical implementation (instance). Access, control and sharing levels can be attributes of the instances to give the authors a more suitable control of their intellectual property.

  7. Electronic items can be made available outside the course environment similar to books and reference materials in the university library. The digital library manages this situation.

    This is a characteristic that allow students and faculty to use the distance education system not only for specific courseware or to take courses online, but to access information at large.

  8. The combination of the items in the digital library yields the reference material or the courseware to teach a course or a subject, even items that were exclusively developed for learning purposes can be managed by the digital library.

    It is interesting to note that an item can be part of a course for some but a reference to others. Thus, having all the learning objects in the digital library facilitates all user needs.

    Besides managing digital items, the digital library supports integration with other digital repositories through network connections making its functions more versatile than those of traditional libraries. The use of the digital library items and functions for courses is related to the following aspects:

  9. The teacher of the course selects the items to be used through programs available to do so. Additional topics can be requested from authors or produced by the teacher, as an author.

    The teacher can search the library for items to be used according to the specific needs of the course. Applications developed for the faculty allow him/her to add the object(s) to the courseware. Actually, the object identifications are added to database tables that hold the courseware. The objects are not moved only pointed to by programs for different purposes.

  10. Each course environment allows nonhierarchical and nonlinear connections to other learning environments (other courses, the digital library, etc.).

    The use of HTML allows these connections from courseware to courseware or to other learning environments.

  11. Each course environment allows connections to other sites so that the contents are not limited to the local repositories or to the items chosen by the teacher.

    Besides the possibility mentioned in item 10, the digital library can display information regarding selected sites, other libraries, other digital libraries, online periodicals, etc. The connections need not to be restricted to learning environments but may include other repositories of knowledge, from museums to research organizations.

    The integration of the digital library into a distance learning environment requires additional functionality to satisfy characteristics of the learning-teaching process:

  12. The process of teaching/learning is complemented by communication facilities for both synchronous and asynchronous situations.

    Since students and faculty seldom have the chance to meet face-to-face in distance education situations and remembering that the educational process requires interaction among all involved parties (students, students and faculty, and faculty members), communication tools must be available. ICT allows the implementation of both synchronous and asynchronous communication. It can be used for courses and for general communication.

  13. Bulletin boards are available to communicate with all users or sets of users belonging to specific classes (students of a course, teachers of a department, etc.).

    This is an additional way of communicating and it is structured - users expect special types of information in specific bulletin boards. The bulletin boards can be programmed so that only authorized persons can send notices to be posted.

  14. All the activities related to teaching/learning and library information are supported by a set of administrative systems that have functions for admissions and registration, assessment, technical processing of items, managerial information, etc. These systems should be compatible with the legacy administrative system of the institution and allow the identification of users, courses and items from different institutions.

    This is another of the items in the previously mentioned IMS Specifications. It is necessary because the users require access to all types of information in a single system and also because legacy systems are a fact and must be taken into consideration.

    All the functions to be implemented must focus on the digital extensions of the corresponding traditional ones of libraries and schools, and must be in accordance with the practices of these communities, at least initially.

Implementations in electronic formats require functions that protect intellectual property rights (Gladney, 1999) since courseware is available in ways that are easily copied and distributed. Electronic data is easily copied and the Internet is a fantastic distribution network. For this reason, additional characteristics of electronic implementations must be considered. These characteristics are:

  1. Authors have the right to decide if the contents they create are to be made public or accessed under different types of control.

    The system to support the digital library must offer different levels of access control so that the author may choose the type of public to retrieve the items.

  2. Authors have the right to decide if the contents they create can be used in couses they are not teaching.

    As before, the system must have the ability to allow different levels of sharing among authors, other faculty members and students.

When we think of digital objects as educational tools, we can state that:

  1. They can be divided into parts that have an educational purpose, in the same way a book is divided into chapters, each one covering a specific topic.

    This characteristic comes from the observation that many books have chapters in common. A good example is a chapter on Laplace Transforms that is a topic in books in Circuit Theory, Signals, etc. Though the objectives of the books are different, the chapters on Laplace Transforms have the same objective, i.e., to teach Laplace Transforms.

  2. There is no need to nor is it appropriate to duplicate an instance of a content. An instance of a content should exist only once and be stored in the digital library.

    It is a well known fact that duplication yields more use of storage space and also leads to problems of data integrity, not to mention more updating work and time.

  3. A content can be used in different courses.

    As mentioned previously, many topics are present in many books and also are taught in different courses. Laplace Transforms are a good example again. Many Math topics fall into this category.

  4. Contents are entities with characteristics which are inherent to them (their attributes) and not to the courses that use them.

    Though many topics can and should be taught taking into account specific examples, in general, they have a core that is independent of the application. This is the reason they can be shared among courses.

Digital libraries as managers of courseware

The daily operation of courseware and users is quite complex. We can think of users as: faculty members who may want to use courseware developed by different authors; students who must study the topics of courses they are taking; researchers who must retrieve items from the digital library; the digital librarians who operate the digital libraryand community users. Each class of users requires specific types of functions and controls.

The granularity of topics equivalent to book chapters yields a large number of contents which make up a one semester course, not to mention the various instances of each content and the many classes in some courses.

Digital libraries as the managers of courseware are suitable solutions because they allow the uniqueness of instances, sharing among faculty and courses, access control in different levels and functions, and control of versions and translations. This happens because, traditionally, libraries treat information from capture (acquisition) to distribution (circulation and access).

The library community has adopted the 15 metadata of the Dublin Core Metadata Element Set or DCMES (Dublin Core Metadata Initiative, 1999) as the minimum set of attributes to identify digital objects. In July 2000, DCMI published the Dublin Core Qualifiers (DCMI, 2000) to enhance the quality of digital object identification. The groups involved with learning technology (see: IEEE Learning Technology Standards Committee, EDUCAUSE and IMS Global Learning Consortium) have defined additional attributes to the DCMES so that the learning objects (LO's) are fully identified. Thus, identifying LO's in accordance with DCMES is supported but more attributes were included but none was dismissed.

Currently, most technology solutions to distance education consist of authoring tools - the instructor not only develops but manages the contents. As information technology becomes more popular as a support to learning, the number of LO's will grow larger and the collections of LO's will have to be managed by professional staff. This staff can be found in the library and the digital library is the technological environment to manage such collections.

Experience with the Maxwell System

The Maxwell System (Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro. Maxwell Project) is a product of LAMBDA - Laboratório de Automação de Museus, Bibliotecas Digitais e Arquivos ( It was developed taking into consideration the 20 items mentioned in section 2. It integrates a digital library, a learning environment and the administrative and technical functions that support them. It is multilingual since its database is neutral and can receive items in as may languages as desired. Currently it is implemented in Portuguese, Spanish and English. The Maxwell System is compatible with the university's administrative systems and can identify information coming from these.

The digital library portion contains all the programs to catalog and upload the LO's. No LO is used in the system if it is not included in the library. Authors are not allowed to upload objects into the system. The cataloging is done using more than 20 metadata; there are authors, publishers and languages tables. All metadata are stored in the system database and their generation occurrs prior to uploading the objects. The metadata related to the logical part are created when the content (the logical identification) is cataloged and the ones concerning the instance are written when the object (instance) is uploaded. There are five levels of access control and four levels for sharing control; the levels of both controls are stored in the database because they belong to the metadata set. There is control of versions and of translations.

When a digital instance of a physical object is cataloged, metadata describe the publisher, the ISO identification, the institution where it exists, the library system where the cataloguing was generated and the corresponding call number. This situation applies for instance to electronic theses and dissertations which were presented in paper before going digital.

The architecture of the system includes only one catalogue server but there can be as many object servers as necessary. Currently there are two object servers. The identification of the object servers are stored in the instance metadata. There is no object duplication. The use of more than one object server came from the requirement of MatMídia (Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro, Mathematics Department) a laboratory in the Math Department where learning objects devoted to teaching mathematics are developed. The MatMídia team wanted the LO's to be stored on their server. The concept and the implementation were developed to be general and include servers in any place.

The library has query and search/retrieve programs that allow the user to find the contents independently of the courses they are used in. There are searches by author, title and keywords, besides queries by type of content.

Since most authors allow the use of their courseware in courses that other faculty are teaching, the experience has shown that many contents are used by different instructors in the same courses or in different courses (Cardoso & Pavani, 2000). Sometimes the author uses the same content in different courses he/she is teaching. This is possible since the instances are stored in the digital library, course contents are discriminated in tables on the database by their number and the system retrieves them from the storage using programs.

Another positive experience with the digital library supporting the system is the effective maintenance of contents and storage space this provide. Both are consequence of the uniqueness of each instance in the system.


Currently the digital library has more than 1,200 contents (titles) and more than 1,500 instances. There are more than 5,000 users and courses from 17 different departments use the system. The implementation of the Maxwell System proved that the integration of a digital library, a learning environment and the technical and administrative functions that support them is possible and yields good results.


American National Standards Institute. Web site. [Online at]:

Cardoso, R. M., & Pavani, A. M. B. (2000). Sharing course contents: a case study. In Proceedings of the ICEE 2000 - International Conference on Engineering Education 2000, Taiwan.

Dublin Core Metadata Initiative. (1999). Dublin Core Metadata Element Set, Version 1.1: Reference Description; Issued: 1999-07-02. [Online at]:

Dublin Core Metadata Initiative. (2000). Dublin Core Qualifiers. [Online at]:

Eden, M. (2000). Engineering tomorrow: today's technology experts envision the next century. IEEE Spectrum, 37, 10-15; and the rest of this special issue on "Technology 2000".

EDUCAUSE. Web site. [Online at]:

Gladney, H. M. (1999). Digital dilemma: Intellectual property. Synopsis and views on the study by the National Academies' Committee on Intellectual Property Rights and the Emerging Information Infrastructure. D-Lib Magazine, 15(12). [Online at]:

IEEE Learning Technology Standards Committee (LTSC). Web site. [Online at]:

IMS Global Learning Consortium, Inc., Web page. [Online at]:

IMS Global Learning Consortium(1997). Design Requirements (1997, December 19). [Online at]:

International Organization for Standardization.Web site. [Online at]:

Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro. Maxwell Project Web page. [Online at]: and

Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro. Mathematics Department. MatMidia Laboratory Web site. [Online at]:

U.S. Library of Congress. Web site. [Online at]:

Useful links

Alexandria Digital Library -

American Library Association -

Council on Library and Information Resources -

Digital Library Federation -

International Federation of Library Associations -

Library of Congress -

National Information Standards Organization - Z39 -

National Institute of Standards in Technology -

National Library of Canada Electronic Collection -

Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards -

Online Catalog Library Center -

Scientific Library Online -

Virginia Tech Digital Library and Archives -

World Wide Web Consortium -