Why librarians, the media, philanthropists, and politicians should care about the Digital Public Library of America

DPLAweb_white_-squareI typed both “DPLA” and “Digital Public Library of America” into Google News today and saw nary an article in English, just a few mentions in French and Polish.

Skeptics notwithstanding, however, the Harvard-hosted group is actually picking up steam, making it worthier of attention from the library world, the media, philanthropists, and politicians controlling budgets at all levels of government. I witnessed this first-hand at the August 31 meeting of DPLA Governance Committee at the National Archives, graciously hosted and chaired by David Ferriero, the U.S. archivist.

No, I don’t work for the DPLA unless some volunteering counts. Indeed, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the online version of Library Journal, and elsewhere, I’ve criticized the organization on matters ranging from openness to diversity and responsiveness to major national needs. I’ll stand behind what I’ve written, in the context of “then.” The DPLA still has its flaws in the aforementioned areas and others; I’d like to see more participation from the scientific community, for example.

But so far the DPLA appears on track to complete a demo library next year, and in addressing my concerns, it has come a long way from its birth in fall 2010 behind closed doors at Harvard. Ideally the DPLA will receive extensive and thoughtful media coverage when it convenes publicly on October 11-12 in Chicago.

At the open meeting at the National Archives last week, remotely accessible by phone, with video being a possibility in the future, members of the Governance Workstream:

–Agreed on the conversion of the initiative to an independent nonprofit. The Berkman Center of the Harvard Law School now hosts the DPLA. Of course, the DPLA could change yet again—maybe to a government agency or part of one. But for now, the nonprofit approach will offer maximum flexibility.

–Were at least open to the possibility of two national digital library systems in time, one public and one academic (no decision reached or expected at this point in the DPLA’s evolution).

As I see it, the two different kinds of libraries have different values, different missions. Public libraries, for example, tend to cater more to mass tastes and are or should be more interested in easy-to-understand presentation of content. The public and academic digital systems should be endlessly collaborative and intertwined, with a joint catalog and other common discovery tools for those for those preferring to use them. An advisory coordination group could facilitate matters, serve infrastructure needs, and provide other technical services.

But please—two systems eventually. Otherwise, what happens when academics want to pay at the system level for creation of unencumbered material of main interest to university people, while public librarians want to commission e-books and other content of a more popular kind? Scholarly monographs vs. popular fiction? That is but one of many arguments for a two-system approach.

–Made it clear that the future nonprofit’s executive director needn’t hold an MLIS degree and could even come from a nonacademic field such as media. No minor subtlety here. Such a conclusion signaled a strong commitment to the vision of the DPLA as a mainstream organization, as opposed to just a playground for academia.

The DPLA should use well-trained librarians in its day-to-day operations and seriously consider candidates who hold MLIS degrees. But for fund-raising and other business development, as well as receptiveness to worthy new ideas that could offend the hypercautious in the library profession, a nonlibrarian just might be better. Governance committee members were right to consider how top-level leaders from different backgrounds could complement each other.

In a similar vein, the working group’s members were commendably open to the inclusion of business people as members of the nonprofit’s main governance body or at least an advisory committee. The challenge here will be to appoint the appropriate business types who won’t interfere with the librarians and are committed to library values, such as truth-seeking rather than propaganda dissemination. I see the risk as worth taking.

–Discussed the issue of who the DPLA should serve—institutions or individuals, for example (my own answer would be “both,” although direct access by end users is a “must”). Meanwhile the DPLA mission statement will apparently be written to clarify further that the organization is not a replacement for brick-and-mortar libraries. A good move! But I still hope that the DPLA will drop the P word from its name, lest the ill-informed or unscrupulous downplay the mission statement and use the organization’s existence as an excuse to lobby for slashes in the budgets of local public libraries.

In the wake of all the criticism of the DPLA for lack of focus as well as too much of an academic tilt—I’ve been among the most outspoken—it was heartening to see progress last month. Librarians, the media, philanthropists, and budget gatekeepers should give the DPLA a good close look rather than dismissing it as an academic experiment.

The DPLA has received millions in funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and other private sources, the National Endowment for the Humanities and other benefactors and forged an alliance with a European digital library initiative, in addition to involving the Hathi Trust and the Internet Archive. Besides David Fierro, DPLA participants have included Susan Hildreth of the Institute of Museums and Library Services (a former steering committee member who left to assure adequate separation between the DPLA and IMLS for funding purposes) and Deanna Marcum (former associate librarian at the Library of Congress), and Maureen Sullivan (current president of the American Library Association), as well as academic luminaries such as Harvard’s Robert Darnton, the original proposer of the DPLA idea.

DPLA Steering Committee Chair John Palfrey, a distinguished former Harvard law professor and a technology expert who is now head of school at Phillips Academy, has strengthened his understanding of K-12 and public library issues, and I’d certainly want him among the candidates considered for executive director of the DPLA if rules permitted and he were somehow inclined despite his loyalties to Andover and his extremely short time there (major obstacles). It’s tricky. Among the people most knowledgeable about the DPLA are also those involved directly or indirectly in the selection process. Steering Committee member Marcum—not just an MLIS but even an ex-library school dean—ideally could be another name to consider, given her history at the Library of Congress and her popularity among both academic and public librarians as well as her understanding of the issues at both the grassroots and upper levels. Those are just two examples; let the net be cast wide.

If any national digital library initiative in the U.S. stands a chance of making it, the DPLA does. But this is still early in the game. The real tell will come when the new DPLA nonprofit approaches funders for the long term. I hope they oblige.

Also of interest: OverDrive as an e-library kickstart—and related information on e-books and family literacy: Links for new visitors to LibraryCity.org. I’ve proposed the DPLA’s possible involvement in the purchase of OverDrive, the leading provider of e-books for public libraries, so that private priorities do not interfere as much as they do now with public ones.

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