The following article was written by and is copyright 2005 by Douglas Dunks:
Digital libraries are the most exciting thing I've seen in research since the invention of the Xerox® machine in 1964. In the researching of my ancestors, I turned up a treasure trove of data in minutes, which would have taken me months to find using traditional methods.
The Digital Library Federation is a consortium of libraries and related agencies that are pioneering the use of electronic information technologies to extend their collections and services (http://www.diglib.org). Although numerous colleges and universities are digitizing their collections, the focus of this article will be on the University of Michigan Digital Library Text Collection (http://www.hti.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx).
The University of Michigan Digital Library Text Collection consists of 31,926 texts, all fully searchable by the author's last name, a title, a subject heading, or a specific year. But there's more; you can search for words or combinations of words throughout the 41 collections. The most significant collections for genealogists are the eight collections of Nineteenth Century American Publishing, the two collections of The Making of America, and the two collections of the Michigan Quarterly Review.
A simple search for my surname within the Nineteenth Century American Publishing Collection returned 36 records, consisting of 72 instances. The search results allow you to view the result detail, list all pages, view the first page, or add to your bookbag.
Select the "results details," and you will be provided with the Title of the Publication, the Publication Year, and the collection containing the publication. Most importantly, you will be provided with a listing of the individual pages containing your search result.
Selecting "list of all pages," gives you just that: it provides you with a listing of every page within the publication. If the publication is available for reprint, you can order it from this page. Alternately, selecting view the first page, takes you to the first page of the book, often an actual cover image.
Viewing of the pages is exciting. Not only can you view the actual scanned image of the page, but you can also view it as a PDF or an OCR text document. Each page has a link that lets you either print the page or download the page, using the "save as" function of your browser.
The "add to bookbag" function will assist you in documenting your research. It provides you with complete bibliographical data on the publication, which you can download or email to yourself.
This is what I assumed the future of libraries would be. But to be quite honest, I never believed I would live to see so much of the past put online in such an accessible form - a genuine electronic library. The ability to search and then read the originals is quite phenomenal.