R.D. Shelton


Americans like to think that their nation is leading in all fields of science and technology. Indeed, President Clinton has charged the nation's science agencies with maintaining that lead. Those who assess the quality of research abroad, though, often find centers of excellence that challenge American science leadership.

So it is with digital libraries and their supporting technologies. Few here question U.S. leadership in most fields of information technology, despite decades of well-financed challenges abroad. In systems like digital libraries, the Library of Congress has pioneered electronic access to collections for decades, and the National Science Foundation/Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency/National Aeronautics and Space Agency Digital Libraries I initiative has recently produced highly visible results. It is easy for Americans to have the impression that other nations are merely following developments here. Because of the bad economic news from Asia, some believe that Japan is no longer challenging the United States for high technology leadership. As with other recent WTEC studies (Shelton and Holdridge 1997), however, this panel of American experts found in Japan exciting research and development projects and dazzling, complete systems in this field.

At a printing company in Tokyo, panelists were treated to a virtual reality tour of the Sistine Chapel, with closer views than any tourist can see in Rome. At a financial services company, the WTEC team saw a large firm totally integrated with electronic commerce, from data acquisition to delivery of products. At a new graduate school with model facilities and equipment, panelists saw a totally digital library; hardcopy acquisitions were discarded after scanning. At large companies that were developing enabling technologies, they saw many projects that were indeed following the American lead, but others that had unsurpassed technologies, particularly in fast text searches, image displays, and in three-dimensional image capture. Many other interesting examples can be found in this report.

In most fields, and particularly this one, the real question is not as much who wins as how well they play the game. Implementing Raj Reddy's vision of worldwide access to all authored works needs all the teamwork that can be mustered; everyone who wishes can be in the front lines of this revolution. Read on to find how the Japanese can help.

Published: February 1999; WTEC Hyper-Librarian