Digital Libraries vs. Physical Libraries, Essay Example

According to Christine L. Borgman of the Department of Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, the best scholarly definition of a digital library is an electronic or computer-based collection that contains “richer content and fuller capabilities” than a traditional database or “information retrieval system” (1999, p. 231). However, a more broad and comprehensive definition proposed by Borgman in 1992 when Internet access and computer use in public and academic libraries was relatively limited runs as thus–“a set of information resources, databases of text, numbers, graphics, sound, video, and a set of tools and capabilities to locate, retrieve and utilize the information resources available” (1999, p. 233).

In simplest terms, a digital library, sometimes housed in a traditional brick and mortar library, contains materials that have been digitally transferred from conventional “hard copies” like books, magazines, academic journals, newspapers, and other print sources; this may also include artwork, graphics, and audio/visual material. In some instances, materials have been transferred to what is known as microfiche which can be viewed with special devices similar in nature to the now outdated microfilm storage system. A prime example is the Internet Archive or Internet Library which contains mostly “historical collections that exist in digital format,” along with audio, moving images, software, and archived web pages that can be accessed free of charge by students, researchers, historians, and academic scholars (Internet Archive, 2013).

In addition, a digital library can be a specialized collection of information and data designed for a specific group of users or a community. As Borgman explains it, this type of digital library provides “functional capabilities (that) support the information needs and uses of that community.” In many instances, this specialized digital library allows “individuals and groups (to) interact with each other” via the use of data, information, and knowledge resources and systems” (1999, p. 234).

For example, museum curators and archivists can access information and data on historical objects, artwork, and their provenance or history of ownership; also, police organizations can access special collections that contain criminal records held by state-based law enforcement organizations and of course the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Justice.

In contrast to a digital library, the traditional physical library or brick and mortar institution holds collections made up of “hard copies” like books, magazines, academic journals, newspapers, and audio/visual materials stored on magnetic tape, microfilm, and microfiche. A good example is the traditional university library which provides access to materials for students and instructors. However, as pointed out by J. Pomerantz, the services provided by a traditional physical library are somewhat limited when compared to a true digital library. Although both of these entities or environments provide needed services to users, the recent “development of DLs has enabled the realization of services both like and unlike those traditionally provided” by a library that occupies a physical space (2008, p. 2). Perhaps the most important difference between a physical library and a digital library is that the first, in relation to service, is provided by a human being (a librarian), while a digital library is served by a search engine or electronic database which when compared to a person allows rapid access. Thus, as time and technology progresses, the day may arrive when physical libraries become non-existent and redundant.


Borgman, C.L. (1999). What are digital libraries? Competing visions. Information Processing and Management 35, 227-243.

Internet Archive. (2013). Retrieved from

Pomerantz, J. (2008). Digital (library services) and (digital library) services. Texas Digital Library. Retrieved from