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Fact Sheet

Digital Libraries

November 11, 2002

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.


Access to Human Knowledge

The notion of a "digital library" is a metaphor for thinking about data collections in a networked world. Digital libraries may take many forms, but they all share some common infrastructure and goals. For starters, digital libraries build upon collections of digital or digitized data and rely on the Internet for accessing and sharing these collections. Common goals include preserving the data over time for interested communities and helping transform the data into information and knowledge.


According to a University of California, Berkeley, report, humanity produces about 250 megabytes of data (roughly the text in 250 books) each year for every person on the planet. Only 0.003 percent of this annual output is in printed form; most is in the form of images, sound and numeric data, with more than 90 percent stored digitally. In the face of this data onslaught, digital library research approaches the problem on three fronts. Meaningful collections from all facets of society must be compiled, structured and preserved. Increasing computational power and network bandwidth must be applied to make these collections accessible, usable and interoperable. And interfaces to these collections must be designed to be appropriate, clear, flexible and scalable.


Digital libraries add value to their collections through services that allow scientists, teachers and students to access, explore, search and interact with the data, as well as connect to information in other collections. They add context to data that might otherwise languish as disconnected content. NSF-supported research spans collections from archeology to oral history.

  • International Children's Digital Library. Funded in part by a five-year, $3 million NSF award, the University of Maryland, The Internet Archive, and their partners plan to build a library of 10,000 children's books from 100 cultures as part of a research project to develop new technology to serve young readers. The International Children's Digital Library will serve children aged 3 to 13 years worldwide. See

  • Informedia Video Digital Library. Initiated in 1994, this project at Carnegie Mellon University has pioneered new approaches for full-content search and retrieval of TV and radio news and documentary broadcasts. The current library consists of a 1,500-hour, one-terabyte library of daily news captured over the past two years and documentaries produced for public television and government agencies. See

  • Archeological Sites and Relics. Researchers at UCLA are putting online a real-time computer model of the Roman Forum as it appeared in late antiquity. Another group at UCLA, with collaborators at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, in Berlin, is providing scholars with access to a database of tens of thousands of cuneiform tablets and inscriptions. See and

  • National Gallery of the Spoken Word. Michigan State University and partner organizations are creating a spoken word collection spanning the 20th century. From Thomas Edison's first cylinder recordings to Neil Armstrong's "one small step for man," this project is addressing challenges such as digital watermarking, compression strategies, audio searches, and user-selectable speech enhancement. See

  • New Forms of Access. The University of California, Berkeley, Digital Library and the Alexandria Digital Library at the University of California, Santa Barbara, both established in 1994, are researching how digital formats open up new ways to access data. At Berkeley, researchers are exploring how the digital form expands the definition of "documents," especially scholarly publications. The Alexandria Digital Library is building a map collection along with novel tools to access geographically referenced data. See and

  • E-Specimens. Two projects at the University of Texas at Austin provide access to libraries of biological specimens. The DigiMorph library is an archive of X-ray computed tomography of biological specimens. The site's animations and details are in use in classrooms and research labs around the world. The e-Skeletons Project lets users examine the bones of a human, gorilla and baboon and information about them in an osteology database. See and

  • Dolphin Photo-identification. DARWIN, a system developed by undergraduates at Eckerd College in Florida, assists marine scientists in the study of bottlenose dolphins. The software provides access to a collection of dorsal fin images along with information and sighting data on individuals.

    Among other features, users may query the system with an image of an unidentified dolphin's dorsal fin. See

A Decade of NSF Support

From 1994 to 1998, NSF, DARPA, and NASA funded six digital library projects in the $30 million Phase 1 of the Digital Libraries Initiative. In 1999, the $55 million Phase 2 (DLI-2) included 36 projects supported by NSF, DARPA, the National Library of Medicine, the Library of Congress, NASA, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, with participation from the National Archives and the Smithsonian Institution, to extend and develop innovative digital library technologies and applications. For more details, see

Today, NSF continues to support digital libraries research in programs through several directorates. DLI-2 and an International Digital Libraries Collaborative Research program are administered within the Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE). NSF's Information Technology Research program also supports several digital library research projects. NSF's Directorate for Education and Human Resources (EHR) administers the National Science Digital Library (NSDL), which builds on earlier DLI-2 projects and aims to establish a network of learning environments and resources for science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. See

NSF's Geosciences and EHR directorates administer the Digital Library for Earth System Education (DLESE). DLESE is a grassroots effort, affiliated with NSDL, that involves teachers, students and scientists. DLESE encompasses electronic materials such as lesson plans, maps, images, data sets, visualizations, assessment activities, curriculum and online courses. See


Media Contacts
David Hart, NSF, (703) 292-8070, email:

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2023 budget of $9.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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