How a good open-source blogging editor could win the DPLA friends—and help it be more ‘generative’

imageThe Digital Public Library of America’s big meeting in Washington on Friday was abuzz with talk of $5 million in new grants and of interoperability and content cooperation with European libraries. The winners from the Beta Sprint competition went over well.

I myself liked the growing attention to K-12 and local-library needs—a separate public system can come later—and I’ll share other DPLA thoughts in the next week or so.

Check out a video and hope that routine steering committee meetings, not just special ones, will at least reach the Web in audio.

For now, speaking of benefits for the masses, here’s a cry from the heart on a somewhat different topic. DPLA’s angels at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Arcadia Fund, or elsewhere should fund the development of a first-rate open source blogging editor to run on linux and other major platforms and  tie in closely with other DPLA apps through means such as tagging, both controlled and uncontrolled. Yes, I’m talking about the software kind of editor, the tool used to compose and edit posts and insert images.

Again and again, many DPLA participants have bowed to the gods of interactivity and also called for the Harvard-hosted library initiative to be “generative.” I agree. Let open content lead to yet more content, whether of local, national, or global interest. Imagine the opportunity for K-12 students to blog full sentences and paragraphs rather than just tweet or Facebook away. Let technophobic professors in the humanities feel more at home than now in creating certain items directly for the DPLA and the rest of the plant. The DPLA’s content challenges are not just legal ones. They are also technical; and, as bloggers, even experienced Web users of Ubuntu and other linux distributions can face them.

Blogging software is my favorite example of the need for the DPLA to care deeply about easy-to-use tools for creation by both individuals and institutions. As a Ubuntu user, I cannot tell you how inferior I’ve found open source blogging tools to be compared to Microsoft Windows Live Writer, which, alas, requires the Windows operating system and cannot even run in linux’s Wine emulator (at least not easily).

The interfaces of existing open source tools like ScribeFire are badly lacking. And I am hardly the only one complaining of substandard feature sets and insufficient polish, in both independent apps and the ScribeFire plug-in. With Live Writer, shown in the second screenshot, I can copy a photo from Firefox, paste it into my post, and align it with just the kind of image-related text wraparound that I want. Not so with open source alternatives, at least none satisfying all my need.  ScribeFire recently added the pasting capability, but still lacks a slick enough interface for nontechies, and  it greets me with a notice asking if I wanted to monetize my post—hardly the best feature for a library-useful blogging tool. So the need remains. Along with countless other users, I want a well-supported open source program to rescue me from Live Writer, including any proprietary garbage that just might be mucking up my blogs.

imageHere’s another detail, lest naysayers protest: “Just edit in WordPress or whatever. And isn’t this the cloud era?” Yes, online tools are fine. But they have severe limits, especially in rural areas ill-served by broadband providers. Many people really want to create information on their own desktops, not just rely constantly on remote editors, which can be torture to use over a slow connection.

For the proposed blogging tool to become reality, the DPLA needs to look beyond the library world and reach out to the entire open source community—ideally with some foundation cash in hand to help draw in the best coders on earth, through prizes if nothing else. Give us a feature set the equal of Live Writer’s or, ideally, better. And test the software on a diversified  focus group consisting of more than just techies or librarians. Let the blogging editor work with WordPress and other common open source blogging systems, and in time perhaps with one from the DPLA itself. I don’t care so much about the “hows” as I do about the results. A browser plug-in or a stand-alone? And who to coordinate the project? How  best to incentivize coders and provide for continuing development and support? And might an existing app like the ScribeFire plug-in be brought up to snuff as at least a placeholder? Let the DPLA figure out the details.

Done well, the actual software could delight not just individual bloggers but also staffers at libraries, museums and archives, at all levels; consider the greater productivity, if nothing else. Libraries and museums could pick up the content via RSS or other means and use the tags and others technique to classify the content for truly permanent storage, further distribution, or combinations of the two. By default the blogging software would identify the posts as open content. I can also see the same editing software and related tools used in the construction of library and other Web sites, as well as in the offline generation of long annotations and other interactivity-related items. Remember, a powerful blogging system like WordPress is really just a content management system, and from the start or almost from the start, the program could work with many kinds of CMSs. Simply put, the blogging editor function could be just the beginning of a general content creation tool. In fact, a plugin could even help turn blog posts into book manuscripts (ideally with author-performed structuring, other refinements, and maybe professional editing to come next), a capability that already exists in primitive form through a WordPress plugin. While the editor would be easy for novices, the programmers could tuck away the aforementioned and other advanced features such as exports to or imports from wikis or Wikicite. Via blog comment areas and otherwise, authors could enjoy feedback as they went along, perhaps with the understanding that in the case of projects like books, they would be judged only by the final results. Significantly, content creation tools like the one I’ve described could be integrated with discovery tools to help writers discover material they might otherwise overlook as they composed.

Please, DPLA. Think about stellar blogging tools and other creation software of potentially widespread appeal. While discovery and collection aggregation programs and catalog-style ones were among the highlights of the Beta Sprint, the DPLA mustn’t neglect the nuts and bolts of creation if the system is truly to be interactive in intelligent ways. The DPLA has described its five elements as code, metadata, content, tools and services, and community. Well-integrated blogging software would fit all of those classifications in ways meaningful to millions and pave the way for content creation of other kinds.

An example of the desirability of open source, open standards, and open everything else: The DPLA pointed people to Granius to see videos of presentations, and I can understand the lack of full openness I experienced there (a nirvana of openness isn’t here yet, the reason I’m composing this post in LIveWriter 2011). But here’s the notice I saw on the Granius site: “To enable the most effective streaming experience for all browsers and operating systems, please download and install Silverlight from Microsoft.” The DPLA should depend as little as practical—yes, I’d be very reasonable about exceptions—on the technologies of individual companies.

And speaking of openness and permanence: Already Microsoft has announced the discontinuation of support for Microsoft Reader, which uses the company’s .lit format. That’s just one example of the disadvantages of proprietary technology when open alternatives are available. To Microsoft’s credit, it helped to set up a predecessor of the International Digital Publishing Forum, which today promotes open standards such as the ePub format for e-books. But as shown by LiveWriter’s availability only for Windows, I’d never confuse Microsoft with the Open Software Foundation or other bulwarks of openness.

I was delighted that a representative of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation attended Friday’s DPLA meeting, but in the open source area, let the DPLA strike no Faustian bargains!

Especially I would like to see the DPLA help participants minimize use of that system-clogging curse known as Adobe Flash, already under attack by Apple and others in favor of the HTML5 standard. When open standards are insufficient, then, just as I suggest for blogging editors, the DPLA should work with others to upgrade them. For now, I heartily recommend that the DPLA join the IDPF and work on e-book and other standards, including a synchronization scheme to match the Kindle’s WhisperSync—the DPLA could be a good home for a sync feature or anything demanding “forever” availability.

Of interest, too: Library Journal’s David Rapp on the DPLA meeting, as well as LJ Editor Francine Fialkoff’s account of a DPLA-related meeting at Columbia University (not an official DPLA gathering).

Note: Consider this a living document, subject to revision. Feedback welcome, via e-mail or the comment area (in keeping with some of the points made earlier)!

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