Five ways the DPLA can fix itself—while reshuffling the current crew, not banishing anyone

imageWhat a joke is the Harvard-hosted Digital “Public” Library of America. Imagine—closed steering committee meetings of the so-called public library group, just like the Porcellian Club. And meanwhile the DPLA is a mess on the whole, caught between the oft-conflicting needs of public and academic libraries.

But fixable? Absolutely if the DPLA leaders will open up their minds. Here’s a five-part plan.

1. Turn the Digital Public Library of America into a technical services and infrastructure organization for both public and academic libraries, and farm the core-content-related functions out elsewhere. Nora Roberts is a long way from scholarly monographs. Better for the DPLA to focus on bits and bytes than let just-the-facts Ph.D.s pretend to understand Nora Roberts-style mass culture at the practical level. The academic world abounds with virtues but is infamous for often allowing rank and credentials to prevail over competence.

imageAlthough academics as a group are rotten at practical masscult, the best professors and students can be inventive in technical areas—Google grew out of a student project at Stanford University. And on bits-and-bytes matters,  public libraries could benefit mightily.

So let the shared technical group continue the DPLA’s potentially useful Beta Sprint project, while also forging library-friendly alliances and otherwise working to overcome the hardware and connectivity issues of the digital divide. For, say, isolated hamlets in rural America, what’s the point of the best digital library in the cosmos if people can’t access it? And shouldn’t different interfaces exist for both unsophisticated and power users?

DPLA steering committee members not interested in interfaces, gadgetry, connectivity and other grubby topics like software and metadata could move over to—depending on their qualifications and interests—the proposed scholarly and public digital libraries mentioned below. Yes, some people might be in more than one of the three organizations. Somewhat overlapping boards could help keep everyone in synch.

2. Rename the DPLA: call it The Library Infrastructure of America or something similar in honor of its new tech role. Avoid use of the word “Public.” Even the separate public digital library system should steer clear of the words “Public Library” to avoid imperiling the branding and franchise of local libraries in an increasingly digital future.

3. Open all the LIA steering committee meetings to the public (perhaps with rare exceptions allowed). Broadcast them on the Net, with the accompanying Twitter arrangements and other feedback mechanisms, and release transcripts and archive everything.

4. Create the Scholarly Digital Library of America, perhaps out of HathiTrust. The DPLA and HathiTrust are in each other’s territory to an extent, with an emphasis on scholarly content; and in one swoop, that would solve the problem. As described on the LibraryCity site (here and here and here) and at LibraryJournal.com, the SDLA could cooperate closely with the intertwined but separate public system addressing the needs of public libraries.

5. Work with a real public library organization—perhaps the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies, if COSLA can understand the urgency of a graceful Netflix-style transition to from physical to the digital—to establish the National Digital Library of America on the public-library side. It could exchange content with the Scholarly Digital Library and share some board members, along with the tech organization. But public, not academic, librarians should be in charge.  No overlords for them from Harvard or similar institutions, please, just take-it-or-leave it advice. Work on digital divide issues via the tech service organization and truly explore the possibilities of multiuse cost-justification of appropriate hardware for the masses to enjoy the library. Yes, prices will fall. But the actual gizmos are just part of what I have in mind—given the back-office requirements on both the public- and private-sector sides. For now, just five percent of Americans own tablets, so often the optimal way to enjoy library e-books and other items at home.

While I regard the Berkman Center people as elitist practitioners of oligarchy, for keeping the public out of steering committee meetings and not striving for diversity until under pressure from LibraryCity and others, I am not seeking to banish them from national digital library efforts. Just the opposite. The same for all current DPLA steering committees members. Continuity is good (just so everyone adheres henceforth to a more open approach with no more series of behind-closed doors meetings and ideally with open workshops as well). The idea isn’t to hurt anybody. I am merely calling for the above reorganization to improve citizen access and institutional focus or, to be precise, focuses, plural, considering the need for both public and academics systems rather than a chaotic “big tent.”

Harvard is in an excellent position to act on behalf of public libraries rather than accidentally drain resources and influence away from them. It has alumni all over Washington, including a Harvard law graduate, broadband booster and new iPad user named Barack Obama, who has just appointed a pediatrician, Judith S. Palfrey, mother of DPLA Steering Committee Chair John Palfrey, to a health-related advisory committee. If Harvard can’t lobby for public libraries for real, who the devil can? And on issues such as cost-justification, Harvard could do worse than to pick the brains of Vivek Kundra, President Obama’s outgoing chief information officer who will be a fellow at Berkman Center and another one at at Harvard. Some amazing serendipity could grow out of personal connections, and I don’t just mean for lobbying purposes; consider the benefits of  what could follow. Some literacy advocate already distribute read-aloud books to mothers at well-baby clinics. Now imagine the same mothers also receiving tablets from which they could read to their children in time and meanwhile develop their own skills, aided by both text and multimedia, as well as coaching and inspiration from friendly librarians and volunteers. Might not mothers and fathers be better role models for their children if the parents themselves read eagerly from a public digital library with up-to-date books of interest to them? And how about tablets as spreaders of multimedia health information? Or ways to help patients, not just doctors, deal with health-related paperwork and other varieties? On and on goes the list of potential applications in various areas of American life.

I also hope that Harvard Law will provide public libraries with legal help in negotiations with copyright holders, while understanding that K-12 students and other Americans mustn’t suffer further collateral damage in the copyright wars. Both librarians and copyright holders need to explore creative solutions and work toward the day when they can lobby together for bigger library appropriations—just like the Pentagon and contractors do on defense issues—rather than endlessly jousting. Enough blood! Although keen on the First Sale doctrine, I think one compromise if need be might be for libraries to agree to usage fees if copyright holders agreed to waive copyright much earlier than otherwise. Ideally all copyright terms can be shortened someday. But meanwhile perhaps arrangements could be made on a case-by-case basis. We’re not talking frills here, but, rather, contributions to mass literacy—especially the family-based variety with a heavy role-model component.

Given the well-documented benefits of even recreational reading, the kind that so many academics look down on at the popular level, isn’t it possible that society will be better for it even if many young mothers at the well-baby clinics never go beyond Nora Roberts?

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