Commentary - Digital Public Library of America - can it live up to its huge potential?By David H. Rothman, Published on June 16, 2011
Note - Update to this article: Flaws of Harvard-hosted Digital ‘Public’ Library of America: Too secretive, too oligarchical and not responsive enough to U.S. library needs—especially for modern e-books - June 17, 2011.
Perhaps someday the Digital "Public" Library of America will puzzle out what it needs to be.
I'm hardly the only one saying that, but I have cut the DPLA far more slack than some others have. You won't see their messages on the DPLA e-mail list, because they've more or less stopped caring, especially K-12 educators, along with grassroots public librarians and others in small towns in so-called "flyover" country (photo).
With notable exceptions, the surviving list regulars are academics and techies, a good, smart combination in most cases, but not here with so little input from the very people they are supposed to be helping. One small-town Connecticut librarian surfaced briefly to complain that her patrons could barely understand e-mail attachments. As I'll show later here with a Netflix-Blockbuster parallel, the DPLA isn't entirely at fault; for the public library world itself still has mixed feelings at best about e-books--no small barrier for the Harvard-hosted initiative to overcome--just as Blockbuster bellied up for want of sufficient willingness to retool for change.
That said, the DPLA itself is hardly blameless. In a Point-Counterpoint in Library Journal, DPLA Steering Committee leader John Palfrey tells of the financial woes of America's libraries and of the organization's desires to "create resources for libraries and patrons of all types." And yet the current DPLA seems more caught up in upper-level scholarly needs and in some legal and technological minutia than in, "What kinds of activities will best fill in gaps for K-12, Nora Roberts and John Grisham fans, and other groups beyond the campus?"
Couldn't the DPLA help state, local and federal governments create a companion digital public-library system that would focus on provision of urgently needed content and services and share some but not all resources with an academic effort and even offer a common catalogue for those wanting it? Why not both a Scholarly Digital Library of American and a public system--the National Digital Library of America, in recognition of the rather different missions of scholarly and public libraries? The needs of a Ph.D. at Harvard are not the same as those of a sixth grader working on a term paper in Oshkosh, or an 82-year-old cancer patient in San Antonio seeking accurate medical information from a lay-level publication. And would the Scholarly Digital Library really like to see many millions spent each year, as it should be, on an ongoing television campaign to foster family literacy? Can all this happen simply with the creation of smart-enough computer code? Are DPLA-style libraries to be just another form of the Semantic Web? National digital library systems as content automats, without the right staffing and strategies?
The leaders of the current DPLA, however, won't even compromise and commit to the dual-library-system approach happening in such-and-such number of months. And the DPLA is hardly the only organization lacking a realistic vision. Despite all the concern over Harper26Collins and despite expanded e-book budgets, America's public libraries still seem to be too much like the old DVD-fixated Blockbuster and not enough like the movie-streamers at Netflix. I worry that too many librarians believe they can hang on to complete physical collections much longer than reality dictates, especially when Google is hinting it might branch into a paid subscription services for e-books. The DPLA isn't offering the strong voice that this issue deserves. I am reminded of the smug era when the conventional wisdom was that online catalogs, not actual e-books, were sufficient. I've not been the only one on the DPLA list saying we need more of a full-service digital library strategy for the country. Shouldn't the DPLA listen? Tens of billions are going each year for libraries of all kinds in the U.S., with books and other content accounting for just fractions of their budgets, and while I'd personally like to see more money spent on content and on actual librarians, especially the school-related kind, it would not hurt to slow down physical expansion. Consider all the calls in Washington and at the local and state levels for reduced government spending. Isn't it possible that certain larger libraries could plan to trim paper collections over the years--"trim" is different from "eliminate"--and in some cases perhaps rent out space to appropriate businesses and nonprofits that could benefit from proximity to the library users?
Granted, libraries are about much more than books, and I myself want the physical neighborhood branches to survive in a major way as community centers and homework centers; they could even expand into new areas, like mini-libraries in shopping centers, where video trailers could promote library offerings. But so far I fear there is too much eagerness to preserve in full the physical side of libraries. The longer libraries put off the inevitable move toward much greater availability of e-books in place of new paper ones, the more they must rely on oft-problematic models under which they cannot even enjoy sufficient control over their own books. I worry that the DPLA leaders have become enablers of the status quo, by their silence if nothing else. And their project's existence just might be preempting the creation of initiatives better able to help stakeholders like K-12. Should the needs of schoolchildren and others go on hold while the DPLA and the Harvard Law School graciously take time to reinvent the American copyright system? With two separate library systems--along with a third organization, a technological services one dedicated to such issues as digital library infrastructure, technical help for member libraries, end-user connectivity and mass access to hardware, partial indirect cost-justification of the systems, and related education of policymakers--we'd be far better off.
I wish John, Bob Darnton, Rebekah Heacock, David Weinberger, and the other DPAers the very best of luck in achieving their goals; perhaps the DPLA can stick to its present path and in fact serve as a limited technological and legal resource for other library initiatives. The present efforts are far from useless. I was simply hoping that with all the foundation contacts at Sloan, Mellon, and elsewhere, the DPLA would be so much more and would truly kick-start a major public library system online, especially when companies like Amazon and Apple are so intent on creating the proverbial "seamless experiences." Will American taxpayers really keep supporting libraries if they see the commercial side providing a far better value in the areas of books and other content and services? The DPLA should worry less about the oft-Byzantine politics of the library world and learn on libraries to provide that value at closer to the speed with which Americans are gravitating toward e-books from Amazon and elsewhere.
Libraries really do count. Ninety-nine-cent e-books in online stores can go only so far in closing the digital (and educational) divide if libraries aren't around to help low-income people catch up with the right technology and also young people with free e-books that will never draw fines (because they expire automatically). But matters such as family literacy are not on the DPLA's radar right now. Copyright is far more important to the DPLA, and I'm not surprised; for the DPLA is hosted by the law-centric Berkman Center, not a school of education (Harvard has one) or a school of library science (AWOL at Harvard). What does that say about the priorities of our society, especially the academic and foundation worlds? At the same time I had hoped to see a little more understanding of non-research-library needs. Copyright laws are no small detail in determining library budgets, and I myself detest atrocities like the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, but the current battles could go on for many decades, and while the Harvard law professors can hope for change within a DPLA collection, that still won't address the needs of the country as a whole.
The gifted and hardworking DPLA volunteers mean well; in effect I've been one myself, considering all the hours I've devoted, complete with a trip up to Cambridge, this blog, the long essay in the Chronicle of Education, and my participation in the Point-Counterpoint discussion on the Library Journal site. And I can appreciate the wealth of valuable details that the e-mail list has carried along with the trivial. I'm cheering, too, for the Beta Sprint and other promising efforts. However, I see better uses for my time, both in and beyond the digital library area. So for now I plan to scale back my activities on the DPLA e-mail list even though I'll almost surely pop up there again and even though I'll continue writing in the blog on library-related topics, within the limits of my schedule. If I involve myself with other digital library projects, they most likely won't compete that directly with the DPLA, since its priorities are so different from mine. In fact, I can see synergies and alliances with the DPLA and its brilliant people. But my current faith in the DPLA's ability as a group to live up to its huge potential is at an all-time low, given the refusal to extrapolate in a meaningful enough way from well-known situations like Netflix vs. Blockbuster.
In the unlikely event that this post spurs the DPLA to reexamine its priorities and agree to the two-system approach in a reasonable number of months--and make other needed changes, such as further diversity improvements on the Steering Committee and open SC meetings and workshops, broadcast on the Net--I'll of course reconsider my decision to scale back somewhat. Good luck, everyone! Please take this tough-love in the right spirit. If the DPLA can successfully turn itself around by agreeing to separate public and private systems, may governments and foundations respond with an avalanche of cash! Minus the dual-system approach, the DPLA, as a potential benefactor of the entire country, not just the academic and urban elites, isn't nearly as attractive as a recipient.
Note: This is a one-writer living document--I may be revising.
Republished with permission.