New DPLA board somewhat weak in areas such as science, small-town libraries and public K-12 education, but shows balance on the whole

dplasteeringcommitteeNo K-12 educators. No local public librarians, even. No members of minorities.

Those were among the shortcomings of the steering committee of the Digital Public Library of America in the DPLA’s earliest days. Academics ran the show.

But the steering committee (photo) grew more balanced. And its successor, the board of directors of the new DPLA nonprofit, will be more or less balanced from the start despite weaknesses in areas such as science, rural and small-town libraries, and public education. The small number of board members, just five, made some omissions inevitable. I continue to believe the DPLA to be worthy of funding from major philanthropies, government agencies and others, given its already-demonstrated capacity for change.

The five just-announced members are:

Cathy Casserly, CEO of Creative Commons. Her appointment could help the DPLA and participating libraries benefit from CC models to develop their own content to augment public domain items and those from the commercial world. In addition, she has worked for the Hewitt and Carnegie Foundations and advocates open education. She can help the DPLA go after foundation grants.

Paul Courant, University of Michigan librarian and dean of libraries, a steering committee member with expertise in the economics of information—likewise helpful in the development of new business models. While academics have been overrepresented in the past, their presence is essential.

Laura DeBonis, former director of library partnerships for Google Book Search, which has dealt with libraries of all kinds. She can also help the DPLA understand the ways of big-time technology companies, learn from their positives and negatives and perhaps forge alliances with them.

Luis Herrera, city librarian for the City and County of San Francisco, a steering committee member who will provide both minority and public library representation.

Former Harvard Law Prof. John Palfrey, Head of School, Phillips Academy, Andover, yet another steering committee member. He has in fact chaired the committee.

While three of the five members are from the old steering committee, the selections were wise, assuring a certain amount of continuity—much welcome, given the complexities of DPLA-related issues, as long as the board composition evolves.

But why “On the whole” in the headline? Because the balance is not perfect. At the same time, I agree with the DPLA’s decision to keep the board small in the interest of streamlining and decisiveness, and that means, inherently, that some groups will be unrepresented. Via workstreams or the equivalents, the DPLA can mitigate the imbalances that do show up. Here are areas worthy of special attention:

1. Rural and small-town libraries. The needs of big-city libraries, intended for scholars and other researchers, not just the public at large, are rather different from those of small-town and rural libraries—especially in poorer communities. Dwight McInvaill, a steering committee member who is executive director of the Georgetown County Library in rural South Carolina, can ideally join the board sooner or later. Of course, I hope that in time the DPLA will fork into two intertwined but separate national digital library systems—one academic, one public, with an advisory coordinating-committee. Among other advantages of the dual-system approach, this would be a way to help make certain that small-town libraries don’t fall through the cracks. Or public libraries, period. Notice? Just one of the five board members is from the public library world even though public and school libraries are the most common varieties.

2. Public schools. In the interest of continuity, as well as become of his brilliance and open-mindedness, I applaud the appointment of Steering Committee Chair Palfrey to the DPLA board. I can even see him as a possibility for executive director of the DPLA if rules allow and he is inclined (my hunch is that he’ll prefer to remain at Phillips Academy). But let’s remember that, as head of school at Phillips, he is not dealing with the same set of challenges that public school educators face. Most of Phillips’ students come from highly privileged homes. The DPLA mustn’t become a force for the wrong kind of gentrification of America’s libraries. At least a partial solution, as I see it, would be for a clueful public educator from a cash-strapped district (or at least one able to understand their needs) to chair a K-12-oriented committee or working group.

3. The scientific community. The DPLA should be strong in the humanities, but it’s disappointing that the board includes no one from the scientific world—important not just in the interest of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but also because science is the father of technology, which in turn is the father of wealth and general prosperity.

4. The museum world. I’m excited by the possibility of the DPLA disseminating a torrent of information from museums in the U.S. and elsewhere. But I don’t see any museum people on the board. Something else to be addressed through a workstream?

5. The publishing industry. While the DPLA should be rich in public domain and Creative Commons-licensed content, it mustn’t neglect the traditional copyrighted kind. And it needs to be intimately acquainted in an ongoing way with the oft-changing concerns of publishers in the U.S. and elsewhere. In the other direction, DPLA-friendly publishers could help explain—to their peers—the business opportunities that library model potentially presented.

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