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Digital Libraries in Portugal
The digital yellow brick road: Portuguese libraries’ journey

The Portuguese National Library was the pioneer of digital libraries in Portugal. In less than two decades, its digital library evolved from a small digital collection to a large network and content aggregator - setting the standard for other libraries in the country.

By Rita Margarida Oliveira Aleixo

The digital tornado that ushered in the new millennium set out a new path for libraries and librarians everywhere. This decade shaped our contemporary world with the introduction of social networks like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, smartphones – the birth decade of the iPhone and Android (Gewirtz, 2018) – and a new approach to the web. These new tools challenged libraries to reflect upon the right and freedom of access to information, with the Internet Manifesto by IFLA stressing the need to build a national information infrastructure capable of providing Internet access for everyone. Furthermore, it invites the library community worldwide ‘to develop strategies, policies, and plans that implement the principles’ discussed in the Manifesto, to uphold the freedom of access to information (IFLA, 2002).


[T]he ultimate goal was to create another National Library, with relevant written content available everywhere.

On 1 February 2002, the Portuguese National Library began its journey towards digital innovation[1], while also setting a standard for Portuguese libraries. The BN Digital (Digital National Library) was presented to the public as a digital service created to bring the remote user closer to the information they need, allowing the customisation of their digital library, and online contact between the National Library and the user. As Fernanda Maria Campos states in 2002, the ultimate goal was to create another National Library, with relevant written content available everywhere, which also serves the library’s goal of preserving information (Campos, 2002).

In 2005, Campos – then assistant director at the National Library – wrote an article about the experiences of BN Digital and the challenges it still faced. The author briefly described the collections and exhibitions available until that point – 2,800 works available online – and the selection process and metadata creation behind it. The article’s most important paragraphs describe the challenges still to be overcome. Campos divided these into different topics: governmental recognition and accountability of digital libraries; from theory to practice; national and international coordination; legal aspects; and financial aspects. The author concluded that there is an urgent need to acknowledge the National Library as a reference point for digitisation and digital preservation; to collaborate with international programmes, especially with other European countries and CPLP countries; to build collections that are relevant to the user; and to maintain the financial and technical resources of the National Library, through partnerships, EU funds, and other funding models (Campos, 2005).

As of 2020, the BN Digital has around 35,000 documents available and works with multiple partners to disseminate the digital information it produces and to finance its digitisation efforts, such as Europeana and the RNOD (National Registry of Digital Objects). The National Library founded the RNOD[2] in 2011[3], and the RNOFA[4] (National Repository of Objects in Alternative Formats), dedicated to braille and audio resources, was launched in 2018[5]. The RNOD is a digital content aggregator, with nearly 150,000 digital resources available online. It partners with forty-three library and archive services, including the National Parliament’s Library, where I currently work.

Since the creation of BN digital, the Portuguese library community has been digitising its collections. Local digital libraries include BibRia[6], the digital library of Ria’s municipalities, launched in 2004; and the digital library of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities of the University of Porto (FLUP)[7], launched in 2006. The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation’s Art Library is a private library specialising in art who have been digitising and enabling access to their digital collections since 2000, ‘either through the online catalogue or on Flickr’[8].

The library user now expects libraries to have content readily accessible from home with just a click. As lockdown measures increased due to the pandemic, libraries offered alternatives to physical attendance. As an example, the Évora Public Library promoted a series of Zoom conferences about books[9], and asked users to share their thoughts on each session. This feels like new territory for Portuguese libraries, even though Alvim pointed to the ever-growing presence of public and academic libraries on Facebook in 2010. In October 2010, forty-eight Portuguese public libraries had a Facebook profile, and sixteen academic libraries opened accounts (Alvim, 2011). In ten years, a lot has changed, and Portuguese libraries are committed to making information available and accessible everywhere. Challenges persist, especially in human and technological resources, but the progress made is truly astonishing and of great value to our users.


Alvim, L. (2011). Impossível não estar no Facebook!: o nascimento das bibliotecas portuguesas na redesocial. Cadernos BAD(1/2), pp. 14-26. Obtido em25 de 08 de 2020, dehttps://www.bad.pt/publicacoes/index.php/cadernos/article/view/737

Campos, F. M. (2002). Direito à informação e acesso ao conhecimento: um novo desafio para asbibliotecas nacionais. Cadernos BAD(1), pp. 34-45. Obtido em 25 de 08 de 2020, dehttps://www.bad.pt/publicacoes/index.php/cadernos/article/view/874

Campos, F. M. (2005). A Biblioteca Nacional e amemória digital do património bibliográfico português :a experiência da Biblioteca Nacional Digital.Cadernos BAD(2), pp. 19-32. Obtido em 25 de 08de 2020, de https://www.bad.pt/publicacoes/index.php/cadernos/article/view/811

Gewirtz, D. (29 de May de 2018).Technology that changed us: The 2000s, from iPhone to Twitter.Obtido em 02 de September de 2020, de https://www.zdnet.com/article/technology-that-changed-us-the-2000s/

IFLA. (2002).The IFLA Internet Manifesto.Obtido em 01 de 09 de2020, dehttps://www.ifla.org/files/assets/faife/publications/policy-documents/internet-manifesto-en.pdf


[1] Online report about the launch of BN Digital in Público, a Portuguese newspaper: https://www.publico.pt/2002/01/18/culturaipsilon/noticia/biblioteca-nacional-digital-e-apresentada-hoje-59302

[2] http://rnod.bnportugal.gov.pt/rnod/

[3] Announcement of the RNOD launch on the National Library website: http://www.bnportugal.gov.pt/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=609%3Asessao-de-lancamento-rnod-registo-nacional-de-objectos-digitais&catid=157%3A2011&Itemid=649&lang=en

[4] http://rnofa.bnportugal.gov.pt/opac/default.aspx?ContentAreaControl=palavra.ascx

[5] Announcement of RNOFA launch on the National Library website: http://www.bnportugal.gov.pt/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1352%3Alancamento-rnofa-repositorio-nacional-de-objetos-em-formatos-alternativos-2-jul-18-18h00&catid=169%3A2018&Itemid=1362&lang=pt

[6] http://bibria.cm-aveiro.pt/Catalog/winlib.aspx?skey=0F237FD2F824483B81596AFA7FBBF1A1

[7] https://ler.letras.up.pt/site/geral.aspx?id=1&tit=Apresenta%C3%A7%C3%A3o

[8] https://gulbenkian.pt/biblioteca-arte/en/collections/digital-collections/

[9] Image for the Évora Public Library Zoom conference on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/BPEVORA/posts/10158574683240746