Digital libraries were not an explicit subject of research until the 1990s. The initiative that really established digital libraries as a distinct field of research came in 1994, when in the United States NSF, DARPA, and NASA created the Digital Library Initiative (DLI). This initiative focused international attention on the field of digital libraries. Beyond the specific work that it funded, the programme gave shape to an emerging discipline. The Digital Library Initiative highlighted digital libraries as a challenging and rewarding field of research. The US thus exercised early and significant leadership in the development of digital library technologies thanks to DLI Phase I (1994) and Phase II (1999)). DLI is, currently, funded at about $11 million per year.
In Europe, partly stimulated by the US activities, the digital libraries field started to emerge as a distinct area of research in the middle of the nineties with the funding of some important national initiatives (for example, the eLib programme - UK, the Medoc project - Germany). In addition, the role played by the Fifth Framework Programme (FP5) of the European Commission in the emergence of digital libraries as a research discipline has been particularly important as it has funded a large number of European digital library projects. In particular, the EC recognized the need to stimulate the creation of an integrated European digital library research community and, for this reason, from 1997 on, supported first a working group and then a fully fledged FP5 Network of Excellence on Digital Libraries: DELOS.
DELOS has had considerable success in stimulating European research activities and promoting the building up of expertise in DL-related fields in order o maintain European R&D in this important area at a globally competitive level. It is thus crucial that, with the end of FP5, Europe does not loose momentum, allowing the United States and Asia to move ahead in terms of scientific and technological competitiveness. In order to avoid this, we must find ways to ensure that European digital library research does not continue in a fragmented fashion; we need to create the conditions that will guarantee the growth and advancement of European research activities in a coordinated way.
For these reasons, we feel that there is a clear need for a large digital library initiative in Europe which can become the point of reference and center of excellence for all European research activities in this field, and which can prepare research plans and roadmaps indicating the directions for future actions and recommending the areas for priority interventions. The Network of Excellence on Digital Libraries would greatly contribute to strengthening the scientific and technological excellence on digital libraries acquired so far in Europe. It would integrate, around a joint programme of activities, the critical mass of expertise needed to bridge the existing scientific gap between the European and US Digital Library research communities and would permit European research in the field to become a world force.