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Number: 71
Year: 2002
Author: Johann Van Reenen, Editor
Title: Digital Libraries and Virtual Workplaces. Important Initiatives for Latin America in the Information Age

1. Introduction

Definition of electronic theses and dissertations (ETDs)

      Joining and participating in the Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations, NDLTD (Fox 2000) is one of the best ways to understand the concepts regarding digital libraries. It directly involves students pursuing graduate education by having them develop their theses or dissertations (TDs) as electronic documents, that is, as electronic theses or dissertations.

      The ETD is a new genre of document. With thousands of students each year preparing ETDs, the creativity of the newest generation of scholars is being expressed continuously as they work to present their research results using the most appropriate form, structure, and content. While conforming as needed to requirements of their institution, department, and discipline, students should develop and apply skills that will prepare them best for their future careers and lead to the most expressive rendering possible of their discoveries and ideas. Thus, ETDs are a new genre of documents, continuously re-defined as technology and student knowledge evolve.

Purpose, goals, objectives of ETD activities

      The underlying purpose of ETD activities is to prepare the next generation of scholars to function effectively as knowledge workers in the Information Age. By institutionalizing this in a worldwide program, progress can be made toward tripartite goals of enhancing graduate education, promoting sharing of research, and supporting university collaboration. Particular objectives include:
  • students knowing how to contribute to and use digital libraries;
  • universities developing digital library services and infrastructure;
  • enhanced sharing of university research results; and
  • ETDs having higher quality and becoming more expressive of student findings.
Brief history of ETD activities: 1987-2000

      The first real activity directed toward ETDs was a meeting convened by Nick Altair of UMI in Ann Arbor, Michigan during the fall of 1987 involving participants from Virginia Tech, ArborText, SoftQuad, and University of Michigan. Discussion focussed on the latest approaches to electronic publishing and the idea of applying the Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) to the preparation of dissertations, possibly as an extension of the Electronic Manuscript Project. SGML is a standard approved in 1985 by the International Standards Association (ISO). In 1988, Yuri Rubinsky of SoftQuad™ was funded by Virginia Tech to help develop the first Document Type Definition (DTD) to specify the structure of ETDs using SGML. Pilot studies continued using SoftQuad’s AuthorEditor tool, but only with the appearance of Adobe’s Acrobat software and Portable Document Format (PDF) in the early 1990s did it become clear that students could easily prepare their own ETDs. In 1992 Virginia Tech joined with the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI), the Council of Graduate Schools, and University Microfilm Inc. (UMI), to invite ten other universities to select three representatives each, from their library, graduate school/program, and computing/information technology groups. This meeting in Washington, D.C. demonstrated the strong interest in and feasibility of ETD activities among US and Canadian universities. In 1993, the Southeastern Universities Research Association (SURA) and Southeastern Library Network (Solinet) decided to include ETD efforts in regional electronic library plans. Virginia Tech hosted another meeting involving multiple universities in Blacksburg, VA in 1994 to develop specific plans regarding ETD projects. On the technical side, the decision was made that whenever feasible, students should prepare ETDs using appropriate multimedia standards in addition to both a descriptive (e.g., SGML) and rendered (e.g., PDF) form for the main work.

      Then, in 1996, the pace of ETD activities sped up. SURA funded a project led by Virginia Tech to spread the concept around the southeastern US. Starting in September 1996, the US Department of Education funded a three-year effort to spread the concept around the US (Fox, 1996). The pilot project that had proceeded at Virginia Tech led to a mandatory requirement for all theses and dissertations submitted after 1996 to be submitted (only) in electronic form. International interest spread the concept to Canada, UK, Germany, and other countries. To coordinate all these efforts, the free, voluntary federation called NDLTD (Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations) was established and quickly began to expand (Fox, 1997a). Annual meetings began in the spring of 1998 with about 20 people gathering in Memphis, TN. In 1999 about 70 came to Blacksburg, VA while in 2000 about 225 were in St. Petersburg, FL for the third annual conference.

Global cooperation in ETD activities

      There continues to be rapid growth and development of ETD activities around the world. Whether such efforts arise spontaneously or as extensions of existing efforts, it is hoped that all will proceed in cooperative fashion, so universities can help each other in a global collaboration (Fox, 1997b), passing on lessons learned as well as useful tools and information. The mission of NDLTD is to facilitate such progress in a supportive rather than prescriptive manner. Over 100 members joined NDLTD by 2000, including over 80 universities, in addition to national and regional project efforts; international, national, and regional organizations; and interested companies and associations. The only requirement for joining NDLTD is interest in advancing ETD activities, so it is hoped this will help ensure global cooperation.

Benefits for Developing Countries

      A number of groups involved in NDLTD are particularly interested in supporting efforts in developing countries. The sharing of research results through ETDs is one of the fastest ways for scholars working in developing countries to become known and have impact on the advance of knowledge. It also is one of the easiest and least costly ways for universities in developing countries to become involved in digital library activities and to become known for their astute deployment of relevant and helpful technologies. The Organization of American States, UNESCO, and other groups are playing a most supportive role in facilitating this process.

      Subsequent sections of this chapter explain further about ETD activities. Section 2 presents the topic for students. Section 3 discusses issues for university decision makers and implementers of projects on campuses. Section 4 deals with further technical details. Section 5 takes a broader view, raising the level to issues related to launching campus initiatives and training those who may train students. Finally, Section 6 provides a glimpse of future directions.