The DPLA and the risks of gentrifying America’s public libraries

DPLAscreenshotJim Duncan, now executive director of the Colorado Librarian Consortium, offered some needed candor about the Digital Public Library of America for NPR reporter Laura Sydell’s August 19 segment on the DPLA.

The reaction from certain NPR commenters online? Nasty bashing of Duncan and other public librarians.

One listener, for example, accused public librarians of “hopping on board the ‘library patrons only read trash and would rather make this a rec center’ train.”

Now back to reality. Duncan himself used to be an academic librarian, and he hopes that the DPLA will succeed hugely and offer a wealth of cultural and historical riches, in line with his own interest in this kind of content. But he warns that the organization so far has not done enough for typical public library patrons, who tend to want “contemporary content, best-sellers. That’s what they’re coming to the public library to check out.”

dplaALEXAExactly! The public librarians I know say that just a fraction of patrons care for out-of-copyright books, historical documents and other items high on the DPLA’s list. May this change someday! But don’t count on instant miracles.

For more proof that the DPLA and typical public library patrons live on different planets, just look at the Alexa graph to the right—showing how how few people are now visiting the DPLA’s Web site.

AlexaWhoVisitsDPLAGranted, Alexa numbers are very unscientific unless sites run server scripts from the service, and the DPLA site is just a start, a demo with more content to come. But, significantly, traffic has fallen off steeply since the initial bursts of publicity when dp.la officially debuted this spring. Even allowing for the summer slump from students and teachers’ being on vacation, numbers are far from stellar. The global rank as of this writing is 178,494 based on three-month measurements, worse by 71,943 than the previous period. The one-month U.S. rank is a mere 72,943, compared to 22,636 for a one-man e-book blog run by a friend of mine. Notice, too, that the DPLA’s shown demographics, whether fully accurate or not, are starkly unrepresentative of Internet users at large and probably of the U.S. population as well. Viewership is skewed toward the academic elite and toward women. While the typical U.S. public library probably draws more female patrons than male patrons, DPLA leaders should still remember how far boys can lag girls on reading tests. Might the DPLA’s gender gap be even worse than in the brick-and-mortar world?

Yes, of course: we’d like K-12 students and other learners to be comfortable with classics and with source materials of the kind so dear to the DPLA; we urgently need for the past to be universally accessible. But America’s public libraries exist for recreation and other purposes, not just education and research, however essential the latter two activities are. This multi-faceted mission is perfectly in line with the wisdom in the Five Laws of Library Science. Academia must not boss around the public library world—a very strong possibility in the end, as digitization continues, if the current DPLA vision prevails.

The brilliant people now running the DPLA aren’t out to crush popular culture, not deliberately. But this could change: we are talking long term about an ambitious project out of Harvard and not merely the present leaders, whom I like and admire. When I saw Web comments from NPR listeners slamming Jim Duncan for telling the truth about the library preferences of typical taxpayers, I grew all the more convinced that the DPLA should turn itself into the Digital Academic Library of America or something similar while encouraging public libraries to establish their own system, ideally through COSLA, a group of state library administrators. Both systems could share not just content but also a common catalog for patrons wanting it, an infrastructure and technical services organization, and overlapping board members—while hewing to the systems’ respective priorities.

But tell that to the bashers of public librarians. However intelligent and however well educated, too many of the NPR commenters failed to grasp that with digital technology, public libraries could offer an unlimited number of classics and historical source materials while still serving up popular bestsellers for Mr. and Ms. Average Taxpayers. Public libraries could pick up out-of-copyright content and other goodies for free by way of an academic system based on the DPLA or a successor. Remember, unencumbered items are a DPLA priority. (Furthermore, Americans should be able to call up an academic system directly.)

Commendably, through APIs and other technology, the DPLA already does want to make itself part of public library collections. The risk is that DPLA content will displace popular content if certain of the more zealous supporters get their way eventually. Some of the NPR commenters, in their disdain for mass culture, are hoping for the DPLA to reinvent public libraries for the campus crowd and friends—despite the usefulness of contemporary bestsellers as gateways to other kinds of books and as sheer sources of pleasure for the nonelite. Is there anything wrong with the latter function, when so many U.S. families are cash-strapped? Horror of horrors, maybe public libraries should even continue drawing in people by way of video games—a topic, in fact, of an excellent NPR segment.

Granted, the DPLA wants to do more in the future to include still-in-copyright books and entice publishers to go along. But this process could take years. Having been incubated at the Harvard Law School before becoming an independent nonprofit, the current DPLA still seems more interested in reforming copyright law (a needed change!) than in meeting the immediate needs of typical library patrons. Correctly, COSLA has even passed a resolution asking the DPLA to drop “Public” from its name to protect the branding of real public libraries. The DPLA is not a genuine public library serving the masses, and the Alexa statistics only reinforce that belief, even allowing for huge errors in the numbers. In fact, the current DPLA is more of an archive, driven by what material is available, than it is a genuine library serving the public at large. Even “archive” stretches matters somewhat since the DPLA on the whole tends to link to resources rather than actually hosting them on its servers.

But here’s the real point. The DPLA for now is more of a research resource than an endeavor for the edification and entertainment of the nonelite. Disturbingly, moreover, as long as we’re discussing the DPLA’s mission and education, let’s remember that the intellectual gap is no longer simply between the poor and the rest of society. DPLA leaders should read When Class Became More Important to a Child’s Education Than Race, on the Atlantic site. Authored by Sarah Garland, a staff writer for The Hechinger Report, an education newsletter at Columbia University, the Atlantic piece tells of increased intellectual disparities between the middle and upper classes. By not presenting collection items in ways more useful to typical public school teachers—see pre-launch recommendations from Donald R. Smith, a veteran educator with experience in both public and private schools—the DPLA so far is coming across as more interested in the needs of the elite than those of the poor and middle class. The DPLA offers some teacher’s guides to great novels and so on, and I love the graphical historical timelines on the site. But even considering that the DPLA is a startup, the pickings are skimpier than they should be. Moreover, the guides are no substitute for a major outreach effort to the public school community as well as to charter schools—and inclusion of public school educators on the DPLA board. While the DPLA should serve elite K-12 schools, it mustn’t neglect the others. Even if thought of as an educational tool rather than a general public library, the current DPLA falls short. The general pattern is of insufficient responsiveness to mass needs.

Above all, do we really want to risk gentrifying public libraries, and maybe even imperiling their survival as as public institutions, by dropping or downplaying popular items in time when digital counts most? Consider the outrages down in Miami where the libraries are faced with severe cutbacks that library supporters will never be able to beat off without support from readers of Lee Child, Danielle Steel and others loathed by literary purists. In the 2006-2007 fiscal year, the Miami-Dade County system was spending $7 million on books and other content, compared to well under $3 million today, with talk of further reductions. How much does the DPLA care about Miami and the possibility of at least partial solutions such as a national digital library endowment that could benefit both public and academic libraries and give public and academic librarians more clout in negotiations with publishers—by expanding the library market (this in addition to the simplified process of publishers selling to the two proposed library systems and their members)? What about children from bookless homes? Are they going to start off reading Austen and Dickens? Will their parents steer them to Amazon? And how about the cause of family literacy? Won’t children be more likely to read if their parents, their role models, are doing so? That means genre fiction, sports books and other library items anathema to snobs and totally outside the DPLA’s current interests right now. The irony is that by gentrifying America’s libraries, we may dumb down the country at large since fewer plebes will care about them and books.

On top of everything else, if we blur the distinction between public and academic libraries, we just might drag down the level of the latter. A Dutch scholar’s review of the DPLA site was less than fully laudatory, despite his belief in the group’s obvious potential, which LibraryCity noted in its own assessment of dp.la’s debut. Given the challenges of satisfying academia and friends, the DPLA should focus on its own impressive strengths and remember the sagacious recommendation of one of its main founders: don’t try to be everything to everybody. As I see it, that at least should mean the twin-system approach: intertwined public and academic systems cooperating closely with each other but never forgetting their core missions.

I commend NPR, Laura Sydell and her colleagues for caring about public library issues—the link to the whole series is here—and now I hope they will go on to educate their listeners about the possibilities of the twin-system approach and about the perils of gentrified public libraries. Traditionally, NPR listeners have embraced the complexities that the network serves up for them. Here is a chance for public radio to tell the whole story.

Update, 3 a.m., August 19: Expanded in places.

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