Nate Hill’s three C’s for digital public libraries—and my thoughts on publibs’ real needs vs. the chaos of the ‘big tent’

imageShould America’s public libraries live in a “big tent” with the academic libraries, as some well-meaning people have called for? Not my favorite image, alas. Makes me think of Barnum & Bailey or life in post-Katrina shelters.

The big-tent sentiment is noble—I once felt that way myself—and, yes, all libraries should work closely on common projects. But we truly need separate publib and academic digital systems. That was clearer than ever to me when I advocated one national system in the Chronicle of Higher Education and got flamed by academics with little understanding of the needs of public library users, especially in low-income rural areas. Too many campus librarians and friends have trouble imagining life in small towns where the rack at Walmart may be the closest thing to a bookstore.

imageAnother kind of focus, however, is also a “must” at the publib level, the geographical variety. I’ll write here about the nuts and bolts of achieving geo-focus, while I also make yet another pitch for a dual-system approach. The F word, this one fit for family consumption, is the bridge between the two ideas.

Geo-focus—letting the local public libraries customize the contents of a national digital library system to serve their own patrons—figured prominently in a thoughtful post by Nate Hill, a San Jose librarian who writes for the blog of the Public Library Association.

Like me, Nate disagrees with the suggestion of Seth Godin, a marketing guru, for libraries to back off from their roles as book warehouses. They should do warehouses and more. Nate wants public libraries to care about “(1) collections of knowledge, 2) conversations about knowledge, and 3) creating context for knowledge,” with geography a major consideration.

“Collections” and “context”? Well, to sum up Nate’s example, a California library user might want to know about logging near him or her, not the same activity in Michigan, even though both systems might pick up some of the same digital objects for their respective virtual collections. “Conversation”? Comments on the collections. Returning to the “context” issue, the California librarian might filter out comments from users more than 50 miles away. Who the devil in San Jose cares about Michigan-specific logging tidbits?

At the same time Nate can’t imagine public libraries without books, presumably from everywhere (although I would hope for localization filters for occasions when patrons wanted the filters). I call Nate’s essentials the three Cs, or CCC, to which I’ll add an M later on—short for mindshare, a big deal when e-books and other digital objects are so vexingly invisible to your naked eye, at least when you’re away from a gizmo. CCC would work with either one organization or, as I’d urge, the dual-system approach. We need the Scholarly Digital Library of America (academic) and a National Digital Library of America (public)—and a third, tech-oriented organization to serve both the SCLA and the NDLA. For now, alas, though this might change, the Digital Public Library of America is dead set on one big tent for public and academic libraries.

In San Jose, the public library shares a building with the San Jose State University library. But publib users must show up in person to use some of the university’s databases—almost surely because the local public library would rather that its resources go for other purposes more in keeping with mass tastes. What applies to physical objects like p-books won’t necessarily apply to electronic resources, as I see it. Nate himself thinks that a one-system approach might fly if there were extensive enough customization capabilities at the local level as well as provisions for forums set up for various academic levels, and like me he is envisioning different interfaces for different users. I myself recognize the possibilities but am still highly skeptical of the big tent, given all kinds of questions on, say, budgeting matters. I want things to happen in a concerted way through the national system—for example, literacy programs and mass purchases of bestsellers (sometimes interrelated activities!).

Public libraries must appeal to the taxpayers, whose tastes widely vary. Academic libraries focus on the campus community, a smaller universe with more-intellectual users. You could try to reconcile these differences within the DPLA and even allow for a Chinese-restaurant menu of choices, so that some individual systems can spend more on scholarly monographs and some can spend more on digitized movie classics, but that turns the DPLA into more of a procurement agency and less of an avenue for a coordinated attack on national problems such as illiteracy or semi-illiteracy, or K-12 students’ research skills or lack thereof, or inadequate use of library resources in school curricula. Simply put, I’d want extensive customization capabilities for librarians and patrons even within the individual two systems. But let’s not toss out the strategic possibilities, either.

At the same time I agree fervently with Nate about the infrastructure-related synergies , the “icing on the cake.” That is, both academic and public libraries enjoy the economies of the common building in San Jose, and in fact, I would badly want the SDLA and the NDLA to share the infrastructure and tech services in general and exchange content, among other forms of cooperation. I’d love to see the governing boards overlap to facilitate that. John Palfrey, for example, the current DPLA Steering Committee leader, could serve on the board and be an officer of the NDLA, not just confining himself to the SDLA, while David Weinberger, a tech-and-communications expert also associated with the Harvard Law School, like John, could play a prominent role in the National Library Infrastructure of America or whatever it was called. David also could serve on the SDLA board, the NDLA board or both.

But if we want both the academics and publibs to reach their full potentials, then we need focus, especially at budget time. So much needs to be done. Just today on the New York Times site, I was reading about an initiative to distribute paper books to children from low-income families. Great. Studies show a strong connection between academic achievement and the number of p-books available to children at home, even allowing for factors such as parents’ occupations. But what about the digital future? And the need to work closely with local schools and libraries, so children actually consume and benefit from the e-items? Just as the March DPLA Concept Note appropriately says, the organization “cannot be everything to everyone.” Both academic libs and publibs can be challenging cats to herd, and the DPLA will do much better with a reorganization to allow greater focus. Localization means greater precision of focus. And that should be the goal, too, in organizational terms; hence, the need for both the SDLA and the NDLA.

Even many librarians don’t understand their missions. I’m amazed by the number who would be content to end or reduce publibs’ role as warehouses of books; and that is why I am extremely appreciative of Nate’s interest in all three of the Cs, especially the besieged first. With sufficient focus, through separate organizations, it will be easier for academic libs and publibs alike to give all of the Cs sufficient resources for their respective purposes. Let’s not have learned monographs competing so directly with electronic picture books at budget time, which, especially if we want to address the geo-related “savage inequalities” of America’s public libraries, could still happen even with the Chinese-menu strategy in effect.

No matter what the approach, both the scholarly and publib sides should be rich in the 3Cs; but what about the M—mindshare? Is it possible the abbreviation should be not CCC but instead CCCM, or Triple C M? In fact, Nate himself may have said as much in effect, by way of his Library Outpost concept, which would not just help make some library services more convenient but also grow mindshare in geo space. May the Outposts sprout up in shopping malls and elsewhere! This could happen under local branding. Imagine mini libraries promoting their most popular e-offerings through trailers—for novels and other items—appearing on large-screen TVs.

Nate and I are hardly the only ones to be in mindshare territory. Josh Greenberg, now with the Sloan Foundation, a DPLA backer, formerly worked for the New York Public Library and fought to get the library “in the faces” of users in all possible platforms. Library Outposts would be a great way, whether through the physical presence of library staffers or the use of video trailers.

As an aside, let me mention, along the way, that even before Josh arrived at the NYPL, the system had decided on a merged catalog for the research and public sides (see update below).  I’m wildly in favor of a consolidated catalogue as an option for SDLA and NDLA users wanting this approach online. But that would hardly require the big tent and the resultant loss of focus. A dual-system approach with close cooperation and with technological and human overlaps would function far more smoothly than one big organization trying to serve everyone from six-year-olds in Watts to Nobel Prize winners at Harvard and MIT.

To John Palfrey’s credit, he reacted favorably to Nate’s CCCs, and I’ll hope that the rest of the DPLA will be attentive and think, too, about the ideas in my present post—“mindshare” and separate systems as well. Allowing publibs to geo-customize and otherwise adapt would help. But that still isn’t a substitute for separate public and academic systems.

Details: Let me repeat what I’ve said earlier—that the public should be able to access both the SDLA and NDLA systems directly. A little competition won’t hurt even if the core constituencies would be different. If nothing else, such an approach would increase diversity and freedom of expression. Also, I’d like to see the tech organization develop software tools to automate localization algorithms on various topics. That would be one way to reduce librarians’ workload, especially for those in small local systems that wanted to maximize librarians’ face time with patrons.

Update, May 19: Revised at 3:50 a.m Eastern time to allow for comments Nate made to clarify his stance on a mono- vs. a dual-system approach.

Update, May 20: Josh kindly set me straight on the chain of events at NYPL. Contrary to what I said or at least implied earlier, he was not the original pusher for the consolidated catalogue even though he believed in it. I’ve tweaked this post. On the DPLA mailing list today, Josh wrote:

“Just for the record, that decision was made well before I arrived at the NYPL (my best sense is that the decision was ultimately made by David Ferriero, then the Mellon Director of the NYPL and currently the Archivist of the US). You could probably see my hiring at NYPL as part of the same organizational impulse that let to the catalog merge, but there wasn’t a causal relationship between the two.

”I did, however, advocate getting the library ‘in the faces’ of users on whatever platforms and whenever possible – that’s completely accurate.”

Great! And I bet Josh feels the same today.

As I personally see it, a separate public national digital library system could better focus on the in-your-face goal than one that was in the big tent with the academics in the organizational sense. I even want an ongoing national TV campaign to back up local promotion of content, services and local-library funding. You can still think big—in a subtle, nuanced way, involving various forms of cooperation and common projects—while avoiding the big tent in the organizational-chart sense. I’m rooting for the DPLA to come around!

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