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Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations


"Perhaps no technological development in recent years has so energized the academic community as electronic theses and dissertations (ETDs)."
G.J. Soete, 19981

Since the early days of computing, tools have supported the creation of documents as well as access to ever-growing collections of electronic information. This situation has become widely understood as a result of word-processing programs - such as Microsoft Word - and the Web, respectively. The Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations (NDLTD) is an initiative aiming at harnessing these trends to promote education and research and to change the future of scholarly publishing.

In the next section I present scenarios that many involved in NDLTD believe will become reality. In subsequent sections I report on one perspective regarding the emergence of electronic theses and dissertations as a genre and the growth of international collaboration in this domain. Although based on many experiences since 1987, the events that have occurred at Virginia Tech and discussions with people from hundreds of universities and other organizations, the remarks made are solely my own.

In the future
I believe that in the not too distant future, all theses and dissertations will be prepared and submitted in electronic form by their authors to their universities over networks. Digital libraries2-5 can help to ensure that access to these works is facilitated by powerful tools for searching and browsing, while enforcing any restrictions required by authors, faculty, publishers or other institutions involved. For example, in select cases only the dissertation committee will be allowed access while patent protection is sought.

Databases can keep track of citations to these works and can record the large numbers of references from theses to other parts of the scholarly literature. Scholars can explore the findings of recent graduates within weeks of completion of their dissertations, and can delve into the details of methodology, data and analysis. Some data sets, visualizations, programs, videos and other accompanying materials from research projects can be directly linked to theses, allowing scientific experiments to be replicated, discussed in classes and extended in new directions. Libraries can ensure that the work of graduate alumni is archived and preserved in electronic form.

Building on their exposure to digital library methods from working with ETDs, universities can expand their use of these technologies to handle courseware and other records. Most importantly, scholars, having submitted their own theses and dissertations when they were graduate students, can become comfortable with and knowledgeable about digital libraries and electronic publishing, allowing a broadening of the Information Age so more people are involved, and their involvement is more serious.

Past and present
In 1987, University Microfilm International (UMI) hosted a meeting in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA, to consider how a new standard, SGML - an international standard that is the 'parent' of HTML - might affect the handling of dissertations. In 1988, Virginia Tech and SoftQuad developed the first SGML specification for dissertations. Work at Virginia Tech has continued, leading to a local collection of over 2000 ETDs by the middle of 1999. This collection includes colour images, virtual-reality descriptions of chemical structures, audio files that capture bird calls, video files that illustrate life in a Turkish coffee house, and hypermedia demonstrations such as an AuthorWare tutorial. Since January 1997, submission of ETDs has been required at Virginia Tech. No paper versions are accepted by the Library, which catalogues and archives the collection. A requirement for ETDs also is in place at West Virginia University; other members of the NDLTD (see will initiate the same requirements in the future.

With over 60 members, NDLTD is growing rapidly in the United States and around the world. NDLTD was first funded as the National Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations6. The US Department of Education's grant of September 1996 established a national programme. By early 1997, international demand broadened the scope into a global effort (hence 'Networked' instead of 'National'), made possible by a friendly federation among universities7. Now NDLTD's federated digital library8 supports multilingual distributed searching ( of all sites that provide suitable access. This is through WWW searching or through ANSI standard Z39.50. Z39.50 is sometimes called the 'information retrieval protocol.' It supports client-server access to bibliographic and text collections. It was also the basis for the Wide Area Information Service, WAIS, that was popular in the early 1990s.

Solutions to controversies
Although switching from paper to electronic documents for theses and dissertations can save copying charges for students, shelf space in libraries, and shipping and handling expenses in universities, not everyone who has heard of the idea has been immediately amenable to this innovation. Although the greatest barriers to change are often fear, inertia and tradition, some universities considering the growing ETD initiative have hesitated primarily because of the real problem of the long-term accessibility of electronic documents9. But many university libraries, organizations involved in information processing and government agencies - such as the USA National Archives and Records Administration - have programmes for the preservation of digital documents. These involve automatic copying to new storage media and conversion to new standard formats.

This problem is generally more one of will than way. But it might be wise for universities to solve this important requirement on a small scale with ETDs, in preparation for solving the problem on the large scale for their many other electronic documents. The broader problem should become easier to solve as new technologies facilitate the development of complex documents in non-proprietary standard formats such as XML. XML (eXtensible Markup Language) is a derivative of SGML supported by the World Wide Web Consortium. See the Web Matters article on XML.

Another controversy about ETDs concerns the relation between theses and dissertations and other types of scholarly work. Some believe that theses are poorly written and not worth sharing; others argue that students and faculty need to improve the quality of theses, and use multimedia to make them more expressive, and that their literature reviews, bibliographies, and rich detail make them a unique and important genre10. Some say that people should read journal papers instead of theses; others argue that we can have both, each with a different type of use, and that the rising costs of journals make theses of particular value, especially internationally. Some say that making ETDs available will hurt the careers of young scholars. However, digital library technology, coupled with flexible university policies, allows some or all of an ETD to have access limited to the originating campus, so that publishers will not view subsequent journal submissions to have been previously 'published'.

Education affords a sustainable economic and social model
Ultimately it is the leadership of university personnel involved in graduate affairs, library administration and computing that makes it possible for a programme of ETDs to be launched. Energetic students, seeing the potential for using electronic media, have also had an important role11. Local policies must address the provision of training and support for graduate students to be able to create their own ETDs and place them in the university digital library, even though this is a rather simple process. At Virginia Tech the initiative was viewed as an educational priority, so that those receiving graduate degrees would be suitably prepared for their future scholarly and professional activities.

Although there is some startup cost to launching such a programme, the training materials, software, automated workflow system and other support infrastructure ( provided through NDLTD makes the actual investment small. Once a requirement is in place, a fully electronic process is less expensive than the old paper-based system. In short, as long as universities have their students create theses and dissertations as part of their educational programmes, making them prepare ETDs and load them into a local digital library is a minor and improved variation on the normal process that quickly becomes habitual and financially appealing.

Support turns potential into reality
Moving towards ETDs has become feasible as the result of standards, computing and networking infrastructure, and the support of a growing number of organizations. The Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) helped demonstrate the viability of a project in 1992, working with the Council of Graduate Schools, UMI and Virginia Tech. CNI and the Association for Research Libraries serve on the NDLTD steering committee and host its meetings in Washington each April and September. Member organizations of the steering committee that provided funds or donated hardware or software include Adobe, IBM, Microsoft, OCLC and the Southeastern Universities Research Association.

Other organizations that have participated on the steering committee include Dissertations Online (representing German members), National Agricultural Library, National Library of Canada, National Science Foundation, Organization of American States, Southeastern Library Network, UNESCO, University Thesis Online Group (representing the UK), US Department of Education and the World Bank. There are funded national projects in Australia and Germany. The National Library of Portugal plans to handle submissions for all universities in that nation. It has been suggested that mirror sites be established in connection with NDLTD sites in places such as India, South Africa and the UK. There also are NDLTD members in Hong Kong, Italy, Mexico, Russia, Singapore, South Korea and Spain. Invited presentations have been or will be given in many other nations, including Croatia, Japan and Taipei.

Important endorsements have been provided by publishers. The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Computer Society (IEEE-CS), the largest computer professional societies, along with American Chemical Society (ACS) and Elsevier have all provided supportive policy statements available at the NDLTD Web site. Although ACS requires that publication in their journals precedes the worldwide release of a related ETD, the other three mentioned allow the worldwide release of related ETDs without any timing constraint. Additional publishers, editors and editorial board members will no doubt issue their own clear policy statements soon. Encouraged by the support of publishers, we hope that students preparing their ETDs will make their work freely available worldwide, as often and as soon as possible.

Interest in the growing ETD collection ( has been phenomenal. Statistics about downloads of ETDs indicate that, in contrast with an average paper document circulation of two to six times per year (observed by Virginia Tech Libraries), typical electronic theses are downloaded hundreds or thousands of times, from tens of thousands of sites around the world.

Those interested in ETDs, which in the future could be submitted in numbers exceeding 100,000 each year, should encourage participation in the ETD initiative. Membership of NDLTD is open, free of charge, to all colleges and universities, as well as other organizations wishing to offer support.

Edward A. Fox
NDLTD Director, Department of Computer Science,
Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia 24061, USA


  1. Soete, G.J. Electronic theses and dissertations. In Transforming Libraries, issue 7, October 1998, ISSN 0160-3582, Spec Kit 236, Association of Research Libraries, Washington, D.C.
  2. Fox, E.A. Digital Libraries: Virginia Tech Courseware.
  3. Fox, E. & Marchionini, G. Toward a worldwide digital library. Guest Editors' Introduction to special section on Digital Libraries: Global Scope, Unlimited Access. Communications of the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery), April 1998, 41(4), 28-32.
  4. Fox, E. & Sornil, O. Digital libraries. In Modern Information Retrieval (eds Baeza-Yates, R. & Ribeiro-Neto, B.) Ch. 15 (ACM Press and AWL, Harlow, England, 1999).
  5. Lesk, M. Practical Digital Libraries: Books, Bytes and Bucks. (Morgan Kaufmann, San Francisco, 1997).
  6. Fox, E.A., Eaton, J.L., McMillan, G., Kipp, N.A., Weiss, L., Arce, E. & Guyer, S. National Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations: a scalable and sustainable approach to unlock university resources. D-Lib Mag., September 1996.
  7. Fox, E.A., Eaton, J.L., McMillan, G., Kipp, N.A., Mather, P., McGonigle, T., Schweiker, W. & Devane, B. Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations: an international effort unlocking university resources. D-Lib Mag., September 1997.
  8. Powell, J. & Fox, E.A. Multilingual federated searching across heterogeneous collections. D-Lib Mag., September 1998.
  9. Sanders, T. & MacNeil, R. Into the Future: on the Preservation of Knowledge in the Electronic Age. A production of American Film Foundation and Sanders & Mock Productions in association with Commission on Preservation and Access (a programme of the Council on Library and Information Resources) and American Council of Learned Societies. Videocassette (60 min.) (1997).
  10. Fox, E.A., McMillan, G. & Eaton, J.L. The evolving genre of electronic theses and dissertations. In Proceedings of the 32nd Hawaii International Conference on Systems Sciences (HICSS-32), January 5-8, 1999, Maui, Hawaii (CD-ROM). The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc.
  11. Kirschenbaum, M.G. & Fox, E.A. Electronic theses and dissertations in the humanities. In Proc. ACHALLC'97, Joint Annual Conference of the Association for Computers and the Humanities and the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing, June 3-7, 1997 (eds Lessard, G and Levison, M Queen's Univ., Kingston, Ontario, 1997)

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