Introducing the digital domain
The digital birth of cultural content and conversion of analogue originals into bits and bytes has opened new vistas and extended horizons in every direction, providing access and opportunities for new audiences, enlightenment, entertainment and education in ways unimaginable a mere 15 years ago. Digital libraries have a major function to enhance our appreciation of or engagement with culture and often lead the way in this new digital domain we find ourselves immersed within. The underlying information and communication technologies are still generally referred to as ‘new’ or ‘high’ technologies – they remain highly visible, and have not yet, despite their pervasiveness, become part of the natural infrastructure of society. ‘Technology’, as the computer scientist Bran Ferren memorably defined it, is ‘stuff that doesn't work yet’ (Adams, 1999).
The need to deliver cultural resources, especially from major cultural organizations such as museums or national libraries, has become an imperative closely associated with the core mission of these organizations to educate and elucidate, to promote and disseminate and to preserve culture. These attempts to reach out to new audiences and to refresh current audiences are major driving factors behind many digitization programmes and the shift towards digital repositories. The justifications for delivering cultural resources digitally can rarely be made on purely financial grounds as the fiscal returns on investment are relatively small, but the returns for culture, education and prestige are high (Tanner, 2004).
With the digital revolution, data and information can now be transmitted to all corners of the world. Some predict that we are reaching a period of cheap access for all, but the reality is that there are still political, cultural and financial issues which prevent low-cost access in certain strata of society and many parts of the world. The digital divide exists and could further disadvantage the poor, the undereducated and those in developing countries as the better-off, the better-educated and the economically developed forge ahead into the digital domain.