The Harvard-hosted Digital Public Library of America is doing plenty of things right on the path toward a national digital library system.
For example, the DPLA’s successor will be less Harvard-centric. And via a sister organization, the current group has just snared a $1-million federal grant to help library patrons find and view library and museum items from multiple collections. Public domain works and locally digitalized content are understandably among the DPLA’s initial priorities. We mustn’t entrust our cultural heritage to the likes of Google and Amazon.
If, however, the ultimate results are to jibe with the LibraryCity vision propounded in the Chronicle of Higher Education and elsewhere, then the DPLA might want to adjust its strategy in several areas.
1. The DPLA ideally will make an early commitment to the idea of separate but closely intertwined national digital library systems for public and academic libraries. It isn’t just that scholarly monographs are a long way from, say, copies of bestsellers. Which comes first? Online communities and other virtual amenities for scholars? Or greater focus on the use of e-books to develop family literacy in cooperation with local libraries? Community libraries should enjoy plenty of ongoing support from a national system in many ways. And details like hiring practices and grant opportunities should reflect this. While the DPLA has not totally ignored the mainstream needs of public libraries—I love the idea of a summer reading project that will promote both paper and electronic books—university priorities are still the main show.
But what about the teenager hoping to catch up with a digital copy of a bestseller rather than suffer a delay of the kind a Washington Post reporter described when writing about a John Grisham book. Imagine: 288 people and just 43 digital copies. Granted, library patrons must wait for paper books, too. But consider all new business models that libraries and publishers could try with E to augment the traditional models—for example, extra-short lending periods for the titles most in demand (and, yes, buying links). Among other topics in the video shown above, you can hear Grisham on the importance of E, which he expected to account for half the early sales of a recent bestseller.
Even recreational reading can boost academic achievement, and love of popular titles can lead young people to the classics dear to the DPLA’s founders. Today’s Hunger Games fan may be tomorrow’s Pride and Prejudice reader. We need much more content from academia in public libraries—especially public domain classics, with live annotations and other interactivity, and perhaps accompanying multimedia—but let’s not blur the missions of public and academic at the expense of both. They could still a shared infrastructure, as well as an advisory body to help coordinate both systems.
2. Toward the reduction of costs and toward other benefits for libraries of all kinds, the purchase of OverDrive, the main e-book distributor for schools and public libraries, could help considerably. I’m delighted that some key DPLA people are open-minded about the idea, and ideally the DPLA and the library community will follow up with philanthropists, lest OverDrive go public and becomes too expensive. There are reasons for OverDrive to sell out to a DPLA-related group or other library nonprofit if the terms are right. For example, it has strong competition from 3M, which has just hired the former book review editor of Library Journal to oversee e-collection development. A fair price for OverDrive from a consortium of philanthropists, starting or strengthening a library-oriented nonprofit to house the acquisition, just might seal the deal. Companies such as 3M could still serve as contractors, albeit with public librarians in charge rather than vendors.
Significantly, OverDrive is already wired into both the publishing and library worlds and, reinvented as a library-oriented nonprofit or part of one, it could serve as a bridge between the two. OverDrive’s value isn’t just in its technological infrastructure (hardly flawless but still a head start for the DPLA), but also in the number of publishing houses and books in its stable. Without OverDrive, public libraries could take a long time to catch up if they want to control their own infrastructure (the most efficient way to go about). As part of a nonprofit, the reinvented OverDrive could include tech-savvy members of the DPLA and the business community as well as receive guidance from people now with the company—ways to avoid the mistakes that OCLC made in its clumsy takeover of NetLibrary. It could also be part of a technical services organization that public and academic libraries shared while still maintaining separate organization for content-related matters.
3. On the cusp of an era of networked books drawing on many sources, the DPLA needs to look beyond aggregation and metadata and think in terms of a heavy-duty, truly trustworthy infrastructure with resources that could be accessed forever at the same electronic locations. Priorities like permanent preservation of classics and other content should come ahead of inter-institutional politics. There should be provisions for redundant backup at different locations and in different media. Not just private companies but organizations such as the Internet Archive could serve as contractors.
The mostly distributive approach now envisioned is fine as a start. But don’t regard the approach as the be-all and end-all.
Yes, there could systematic coordinated backup of independent archives, but a genuine national digital library infrastructure with redundant preservation systems is really the most prudent way to go, and there could still be provisions for sufficient institutional autonomy. Local and state libraries and universities need not be restricted to the offerings of a national digital library system. Besides, if nothing else, libraries could bypass the infrastructure and go on the Internet directly.
Also consider the fact that with a national infrastructure, systemwide computational power and data could be better integrated. What’s more, there would be less of a problem guaranteeing a certain level of performance. On top of everything else, commercial publishers and retailers could piggyback on the library infrastructure, which would be especially helpful in an era of networked and multimedia books. Possible revenue opportunities for the library system?
4. The DPLA would also benefit from closer ties with the International Digital Publishing Forum, the main e-book standards body—whether about e-book formats or design of reader prototypes. With the right standards and other compatibility issues addressed, it would be easier for small software developers to build a rich assortment of features into their products to take advantage of DPLA technology.
5. I’d also like to see more participation of private contractors in the DPLA, even now. The DPLA is right in favoring nonproprietary technology and an open approach. But private contractors could still do the work with provisions in place to prevent them from laying claim to the technologies developed for the public infrastructure. Academics don’t hold a monopoly on innovation. In fairness to the DPLA, I can understand the financial challenges of relying on the private sector more for technical tasks than the organization has so envisioned far. But I’ll still include this among my shoulds: perhaps some clueful philanthropists can augment the DPLA’s existing resources, just as I would encourage them to make possible the acquisition of OverDrive before it is too late.
Related: Inside the quest to put the world’s libraries online, Esther Yi’s reportage from the Atlantic site, which among other topics mentions the issue of how centralized the architecture should be. Again, I’m all in favor of autonomy. But we already have the Internet, and I’d like to see the DPLA take advantage of the ad advantages that a better coordinated approach could offer in terms of capabilities and in terms of preservation and revenue opportunities.
Tweaked on July 27 to include more on the issue of system architecture.
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- WaPo article on e-book crunch at public libraries is must-read for DPLA Tech Aspects Workstream members and others
- While U.S. library leaders dilly-dally, OverDrive breaks ground for its own world digital library in Garfield Heights, Ohio
- Bill Maher hates public libraries: One more reason why the DPLA should drop the P from its name and not preempt the founding of a true ‘public’ digital system
- For ALL—rural and urban, rich and poor