Building the Digital Public Library of America

On Friday a friend and former classmate and I went to the “Building the Digital Public Library of America” program at Harvard, where Robert Darnton and John Palfrey both spoke and answered questions. Darnton is the Director of the University Library and also a professor at Harvard, as well as a co-founder of the DPLA, and the author of The Case for Books, among many others; Palfrey is also a Harvard professor and the chair of the DPLA steering committee, as well as the author of Born Digital and other books.

The DPLA is envisioned as “an open, distributed network of comprehensive online resources that would draw on the nation’s living heritage from libraries, universities, archives, and museums in order to educate, inform and empower everyone in the current and future generations.” Naturally this goal is viewed by some as utopian or simply impossible, but as Darnton said Friday, “We don’t have answers, [but we do have] the determination, expertise, funds, and public support…We will make it happen.” Calling the DPLA a big task is an understatement, but, Palfrey said, “This is exactly the moment to think this big…[if we don't] we are falling short.”

There are design challenges and technical challenges, but “these challenges can be met and will be met,” said Palfrey. As for what exactly the DPLA will contain or look like, he said, “What is the DPLA? We’re not sure yet. And we’re not sure on purpose.” People have dedicated themselves to workstreams for the five elements of the DPLA: code, metadata, content, tolls & services, and community.

The biggest challenge is that of copyright; it’s why Google Books ultimately failed. In order to succeed, there must be some agreement between the creators (authors), the publishers, and the service/platform/distributors. Unlike Google Books, the DPLA aims to provide free access, not commercial access, to a broad public. Behind the DPLA is the belief that access to information is (a) the right of citizens, and (b) fundamental to democracy.

Models of this type already exist; one is Europeana, “a single access point to millions of books, paintings, films, museum objects and archival records that have been digitised throughout Europe. It is an authoritative source of information coming from European cultural and scientific institutions.”

The digital divide is one concern; despite the growth of e-readers and e-books, and the widespread (but not complete) availability of Internet access, for many people, print content is still more accessible than digital content, especially when digital content comes encumbered with DRM and other limitations.

Another concern, raised during the Q&A on Friday, is how the DPLA will affect public libraries. The people working on the DPLA are pro-library; many are librarians. Darnton emphasized that they are designing the DPLA “not to undercut public libraries…[but rather] to reinforce public libraries.” The DPLA, he argued, would make public libraries more important: not only could they serve as an access point, but librarians could create and curate local collections. Overall, the DPLA “is a very complex ecosystem and we need guides through it.” Librarians, Darnton says, can be those guides.

This is one of my answers when people ask if librarians are necessary anymore, because “everything is on the Internet.” Perhaps it is (though not everything is Google-able) – but can you find it? The proliferation of information, both in print and online, is overwhelming – “information overload,” anyone? – and most people could use some help sifting through the hundreds, thousands, or millions of search results to find something reliable and relevant. That’s one reason why librarians are necessary – and this librarian is excited to search within the DPLA as soon as it is up and running, just over a year from now.

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3 thoughts on “Building the Digital Public Library of America

  1. I was also struck by Darnton’s determination to make the DPLA happen no matter what. It sounds like they will achieve the April 2013 goal through sheer force of will. It’s refreshing to hear that kind of gutsy resolve, in contrast to the wishy-washy, wait-and-see attitude that sometimes keeps our profession from thinking big. It makes me want to dive in.

    There, I’ve just signed up for the “Audience and Participation” workstream listserv. It’s about the same size as the “Content and Scope” and “Technology” lists. The “Governance,” “Legal,” and “Financial” lists are about half as big (50 rather than 100).

    Did you see this funny note at the end of L. Braunstein’s post about the event on the ACRLog? “Before the lecture, I joked to a friend that we were about to watch an episode of ‘Darnton Abbey.’ Librarians in Darnton Abbey will be both upstairs and downstairs – we should labor to support the project, but we, like all users, will also greatly benefit. In the face of trends that threaten to enclose information in an estate of privilege, the DPLA aims to democratize knowledge for all.”

    • “Darnton Abbey” – I love it. And I’m glad the project has financial support and a determined core driving it forward, but many of those people are affiliated with Harvard and other large academic institutions – public libraries are represented, but not quite as well…which makes it all the more important that we participate! I’ll sign up for the listserv too.

  2. Pingback: Upcoming local events « Jenny Arch

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