I’ve warned the Digital “Public” Library of America, the Harvard-hosted project that has claimed so much space in the New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Please help public librarians set up their own national digital library system, and please drop the “P” from “DPLA” since the organization is a long way from a true public library (here, here, here, and here).
Otherwise, powerful university academics will set the tone at the expense of such public library patrons as K-12 students, recreational readers, and people with medical or financial crises or others. Not one school librarian or other K-12 educator sits on the DPLA’s 17-member steering committee, which includes only three local librarians, none working in small towns. We actually need much closer ties between campuses and public libraries (including easier dissemination of open content from universities). But upper-level academics can be exceedingly tone-deaf about the needs of the untenured, the reason why public and K-12 librarians should control their own destinies. Let the academics establish a separate system focused on campus needs, one that could still share technical resources and content and otherwise bolster the publib digital system and local libraries directly.
Alas, the possibility of too much focus on high-ed, at the expense of other groups, isn’t the only threat if public librarians don’t stand up for their patrons’ interests and their own and tell the DPLA to drop the P when the issue comes up on Monday at the organization’s steering committee meeting in Washington (apparently closed to the public). Imagine how the existence of a so-called “Pubic” library online could be used by enemies of public and school libraries; they are already positioning Amazon and Google as library substitutes, even without “Public” in the names. Here is a gem from an anti-tax techie on the DPLA email list who thinks librarians spend too much time on social-worker-type interaction with patrons: “If you type into a search dialog box: ‘ABC’ .. and you get what you are looking for .. why would you need a ‘wasteful social worker’ in the first place? If you need a ‘wasteful social worker’ .. maybe it’s time for you to go to ‘social services’ ..”
The adjective “wasteful” was what I had used earlier in deepest sarcasm mode. But here’s the real point: Libraries are different from most other government agencies; the knowledge they spread is empowering: library patrons aren’t just passively sitting back. You can research your medical condition or other challenge and have a “social worker” help with questions you might not have dreamed of asking. If you don’t know what to type into the box, you might even miss out on life-saving facts. With a librarian to assist you, you’re more likely to find out about all the options. No bureaucrat is saying, “Do this! It’s your only choice.” The poor, as well as first-generation Americans with less than full mastery of English, can benefit especially from in-person help. Same for schoolchildren whose teachers lack the time to bring them up to speed on research techniques.
Americans urgently need home access to a wealth of e-books, databases and other goodies since many people cannot conveniently visit neighborhood libraries in person, and I love the idea of a national reference service available by phone and the Web, but let’s not do away with the warm, fuzzy, in-person kind of reference help—a danger that will grow if the DPLA insists on branding itself as a “Public” Library despite the risk of library enemies using this as ammunition. In fact, as I now see it, even if public librarians establish their own national system, they should avoid the P word in its name in order to keep the spotlight on local public libraries.