New Center at Columbia University for Digital Library Research

Fostering Interdisciplinary Research and Bridging Cultural Clashes

Judith L. Klavans
Director, Center for Research on Information Access
Columbia University

D-Lib Magazine, March 1996

ISSN 1082-9873

Goals of the Center for Research on Information Access

The Center for Research on Information Access (CRIA) at Columbia University was founded in January 1995 with the goals of providing an integrating function for ongoing digital library projects, both within the university itself, and between the university and industry, educational, and foundation partners. The new center has been actively involved in building further integration among existing digital library projects already underway throughout Columbia University and in initiating new interdisciplinary projects reaching both within and outside Columbia University. Participants represent the University Libraries, the Academic Computing division, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, the Office of the Provost, the Institute for Learning Technologies in Teacher's College, and several Academic departments. We are currently establishing corporate partners, as well as seeking government and foundation funding. The Center for Research on Information Access (CRIA) is initially funded through the Columbia University Provost's Investment Fund and the Strategic Initiative Fund as a university-wide resource to establish collaborations between departments and divisions working on similar projects.

The Center for Research on Information Access is committed to facilitating connections between projects for improving instruction, for developing new electronically available resources, and for exploring new technologies. CRIA is housed within the Columbia University Libraries with close links to the Computer Science Department.

Why Establish a New Center?

One of the most fundamental problems inhibiting the deployment of digital libraries is lack of integration. This problem is not surprising, given the fact that a successful digital library must reach across established disciplines representing different cultures that have not traditionally been partners. This problem is not a secret; in fact, it is a well-known although often unacknowledged issue. Indeed, the keynote address at the 1995 Annual ACM SIGIR conference on Research and Development in Information Retrieval featured a provocative and controversial keynote address by Professor Terry Winograd, from Stanford University's Department of Computer Science, entitled ``Digital vs. Libraries: Bridging the Two Cultures'' addressing some of these points. Some of the controversy, as Winograd suggests, is embodied in dispute underway in the URC/URN community and the libraries standardization community. But some of the controversy runs deeper, involving deeply-rooted and often discrepant attitudes toward the organization of information, the presentation of information, the development and use of ontologies and other classification schemata, and the role of the human in the information access process.

A realistic look towards successful digital library projects reflects this rift. Certain projects have moved forth from communities functioning independently of the knowledge and resources of other disciplines, and the result is a narrowly successful project. This is not the place to list the successes and failures, since most of us working within the digital library community could easily create a list for ourselves. Rather, the purpose is to highlight the fact that the collaborations are, as Winograd stated (op cit p. 2) ``fruitful and also at times frustrating.''

The key question to ask is whether such differences are unfathomable. If so, then there may be no hope of achieving the goal of making as much digital information available to as many people as possible, with effective user interfaces, useful access tools, acceptable networking speed, and so on. But if such differences are surmountable, then with some effort at integration between researchers and practitioners, there is promise of achieving these goals.

The premise of CRIA is that integration between projects, across cultures, is essential to success. The objectives of CRIA are to enable seamless coordination, and to minimize cultural differences, for the purpose of achieving the common goal. As such, CRIA is organized with four related committees:

Digital Library Projects at Columbia University

Columbia University houses a range of digital library projects throughout the university. The University Libraries and the Academic Computing division has a working digital collection and has sets of production services integrated within the university. Columbia has a significant operational effort, and is advancing the technology and applications with a set of digital library research projects; indeed, this is the function of CRIA within the information services division of the University. The School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has also research in new technologies necessary to achieve the digital library. Projects span natural language generation for summarization, feature-based image and video search and retrieval, visualization of complex data, and improved search and retrieval algorithms. CRIA has taken an active role in initiating new projects linking key research in the School of Engineering with ongoing operations oriented research throughout the University. Relevant URL's include: Projects abound in numerous academic departments, which can be found on the the above pages.

CRIA and Digital Library Projects

Since CRIA is an integrating organization, our role is to ensure interdisciplinary involvement both between ongoing projects, as well as newly initiated projects. CRIA has been involved in a wide range of new and ongoing research and development projects, many of which bridge the various cultures that come together in achieving successful digital libraries. Some of the projects CRIA has taken an active role in initiating include:

Although Columbia University has always enjoyed strong ties between disciplines and divisions, the unique challenge presented by the digital library has been effectively addressed by having established a unifying Research Center. For more information, see our web pages at

For more information, please contact Judith Klavans at

Copyright © 1996 Judith L. Klavans

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