John S. Knight Jr. and his brother supplied the first name in Knight Ridder, one of America’s best newspaper chains. Pre- and post-merger, the company’s papers won a total of at least 84 Pulitzer prizes.
Years before most competitors, Knight Ridder’s people were envisioning digital newspapers displayed on iPad-style tablets. Knight himself, in character for the chain at its greatest, was fact-and-conscience-driven. He was a conservative Republican, but his columns against the Vietnam war helped win one of the Pulitzers. The chain is gone now. But the brothers’ legacy lives on through the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, with something like $2 billion in assets.
Last week in the spirit of Knight Ridder’s early forays into info-tech, the foundation’s Jorge (George) Martinez unveiled a $1-million grant to the Digital Public Library of America at the DPLA’s Midwestern meeting in Chicago. The Knight grant will fund seven digital service hubs to help local and state libraries digitize and organize items reflecting our cultural and scientific heritage.
Among other things, the hub pilots mean that people using DPLA-powered libraries will more easily find and see reproductions of old news clips and other items on topics like the Civil War and the Great Depression.
The DPLA’s potential as a promoter of smart civic engagement
With more money from Knight and other funders, as I envision it, the potential result could be the start of new synergies between libraries, schools, and newspapers—leading to more interest in civic participation, better monitoring of government at all levels, and maybe even a revival of many young people’s interest in newspapers. Those should be just some facets of the DPLA, but they are important ones and in keeping with Jorge Martinez’s hope that the libraries among other things can “play a central role in fostering civic dialogue…” His sentiments perfectly jibe with those on the foundation’s “About” page.
The current DPLA, still subject to major reinvention, especially following completion of the demonstration project going online in April 2013, focuses mostly on historical documents and literature and at least some scientific content.
I would love to see the organization bulk up in those areas but also pay more attention than at present to the needs of the America of here and now, not just in encouragement of civic involvement but in areas such as K-12 and family literacy and job training. It isn’t as if the DPLA is totally neglecting them. But despite considerable progress so far, the organization is not yet fully living up to the possibilities I’ve laid out in the Chronicle of Higher Education and elsewhere. For now, the DPLA is not sufficiently addressing the priorities of the typical taxpayers relying on public libraries for digital books—namely, more e-books, especially bestsellers, and shorter wait times for them, ideally aided by libraries’ foundation-assisted purchase of OverDrive, the biggest commercial supplier of library e-books. Such concerns are not frivolous. Book reading of all kind, including the recreational variety, can help foster and elevate literacy, a prerequisite for intelligent civic participation.
But what about the library-school-newspaper synergies mentioned above, the main topic of this essay? Well, in two earlier posts, I wrote of some possibilities. See Ignorant U.S. voters? Absolutely. But could interactive digital libraries help fix this and reduce political polarization? Also check out Digital libraries vs. our national dumb-down: Could ‘civic dashboards’ and other innovations help America break out of an endless loop? Both essays made the case for libraries not as partisan tools but as encouragers of a fact-driven approach to public issues no matter what the politics of individual patrons—in other words, the approach that John Knight took in opposing the Vietnam war despite his conservative Republican tendencies. In the other direction, although a lifelong liberal and although I considered Sen. Abraham Ribicoff a true hero on many issues dear to me, I wrote for the Connecticut newspapers about the senator’s secret and illegal investment in a CIA-occupied building in Arlington, VA. The point here is that facts and conscience, in Knight’s case and in my own far less stratospheric one, tromped partisanship and ideology.
Fact-driven civic involvement—the kind that encourages people to read and care about good newspapers—begins at the local level since the young can see problems first-hand and act on them.
Why community “media labs” at local newspapers and “Newspapers in Education” programs aren’t enough:
I’m delighted that some local newspapers are experimenting with “media labs” for their communities to encourage people to master blogging and then do posts for the newspapers or linked blogs. But the labs aren’t enough. Nor are “Newspapers in Education” programs. The NIE approach treats K-12 students more as consumers of information than as the creators they are today, whether through blogs or social media. We need to develop them as both consumers and creators.
If newspapers want citizens to care about civic life, they should lean on schools and local libraries to start early in training them to create useful content for civic discussion. A teaching hospital approach could be used to help young bloggers discover and learn from their mistakes, and their initial efforts could be done collaboratively. Newspapers and other commercial media should not worry about competition from such efforts. Just the contrary. Existing media themselves will benefit, too—both from young people’s greater interest in civic affairs and from greater availability of local items that the papers can check out and either publish themselves or use as tips for their own articles, including highly readable and polished trend stories aggregating information from a number of bloggers.
Again, it all starts in K-12. During my high school days near Alexandria, VA, I wrote for my high school newspaper on the lack of a stoplight at the intersection of Gum Springs Road and Route One, which my school bus passed. Would that the paper have published more on those real issues! And if only the accreditation of my high school had partly depended on the existence of meaningful student participation in civic life—something that well-trained educators and librarians alike could facilitate, ideally with help from journalists as well.
Professor Peter Levine of Tufts University, a leading expert on civic involvement, as well as author of related recommendations for the Knight Foundation, says nuts-and-bolts civic participation is one of the best ways to encourage the young to take an interest in civic affairs, as opposed just to the current focus on rote memorization of the mechanics of government.
He wants more balance and even calls for a Civic Information Corps for young people—within the Corporation for National and Community Service—and I couldn’t agree more. DPLA collaborative possibilities? In very specific ways, beyond the contents of the Levine report (PDF of the full document here), how can we assure that the necessary information is available for a fact-based approach for the young and others?
Needed for citizen participation: Easy access to civic information—and the right packaging and tools
Good freedom of information laws and easy access online and offline to public officials, and other people important to civic life, including journalists, can go a long way. The DPLA itself was abysmally lacking in openness but has dramatically turned itself around—complete with netcasts of major meetings, augmented by a chance to submit questions and comments via Twitter and otherwise—and in general is far more respectful of local communities’ needs than when it started. Nice job! What a great example for public libraries and other agencies of government!
But openness itself isn’t enough; the DPLA and participating libraries also need good packaging of their civic-related content. And so the DPLA should help local libraries systematically bring together and present not just heritage items but also actionable information from the present—whether it relates to air pollution levels or truly comprehensive demographical information from local communities (or detailed local campaign donation lists that so many newspapers are omitting from their digital pages or not even bothering to link to). It should work with such organizations as the National League of Cities and appropriate government agencies to come up with an extensive list of information items that cities, states and local governments should provide: a true standard. I agree with the already-discussed goal of interoperability between the DPLA and Government Printing Office; this is a terrific beginning, as is strong support of the DPLA by some government archivists, most notably National Archivist David Ferriero, who has cochaired the DPLA governance workstream within the steering committee.
Even openness and good packaging won’t suffice by themselves. DPLA-powered libraries should also provide civic associations and individual citizens with neutral guidance and electronic tools for identifying and analyzing salient facts—whether about accident rates at specific intersections or how much the mayor received from individual donors with an interest in zoning cases. The results and underlying facts, as variously interpreted, could be fodder for more informed civic debate by all sides. As laudable as are DPLA-inspired efforts in textual analysis with literature and history primarily in mind, we need to augment them with tools and other helpers that could enhance traditional systems approaches through much greater citizen participation.
Among the tools should be alert mechanisms—email, social media, RSS, you name it. Just to give one example, a huge defense complex, a quarter of the size of the Pentagon, in terms of the projected employe count, arose right in my backyard with a mere fraction of the affected people aware soon enough of such downsides as the clogged roads and even potential terrorist threats, especially with these twin towers just a short distance from I-395 here in Alexandria, Virginia. Who knows what new negatives could emerge? As it happens, the complex so far has not generated as much traffic congestion as anticipated, because, leaned on by furious constituents, U.S. Rep. Jim Moran successfully lobbied to limit the number of parking spaces and force more workers to use mass transmit. But could better-informed local planning, with greater public participation, have prevented the complex from arising miles from the closest subway stop? And how about better zoning laws, drafted soon enough with more input at early stages from all sides, including both developers and civic groups? Would more—and more timely—warnings in the local press have helped?
DPLA and Knight both keen on apps—and civic life could benefit from this
Yes, as noted earlier, traditional media should partner up with libraries and schools on new ways to enhance civic life, and one of them could be the use of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that would make it easier for the press to pick up information and analysis from civic databases. APIs are an important component of the DPLA, which, very, very sensibly, wants local libraries not just to be able to access information through reinvented library system but also display it in ways meaningful to local patrons. The DPLA will even hold an AppFest November 8-9 where developers can build apps piggybacking on the DPLA’s API capabilities. Now guess what other organization has also been keen on the use of APIs? None other than the Knight Foundation, as part of its efforts to encourage journalistic innovation, especially at the local level, and citizen engagement and empowerment.
Ideally DPLA leader John Palfrey, a Knight trustee since last year, can not only talk up the DPLA’s civic-related possibilities to libraries but also encourage newsroom hackers to get involved—perhaps in a separate AppFest, since the current one isn’t that far off.
Especially if an experimental library-newsroom collaboration in this area is successful, which I expect it would be, ideally with lots of crosspollination with Knight’s existing efforts, then the foundation should send a lot more money in the DPLA’s direction. The $1 million so far is nice but a speck of what potentially could come in the future from a $2B foundation for DPLA-related endeavors. Knight could sell the API vision and others here to newspapers as a chance to do well by doing good. Remember, the biggest challenges of newspapers today in regard to local issues—lack of sufficient citizen interest in civic affairs (potentially addressable through DPLA-inspired efforts in K-12, with, I’d hope, plenty of help from Knight) and tightened newsroom budgets (addressable in part through library-related blogs, forums and other new information sources, and maybe even the use of DPLA-powered libraries and newspapers as a combined Facebook alternative—so that reporters and editors can more easily keep up with the news and needs of their local communities).
Benefits for traditional media
No, I’m not expecting newspapers to supply content without some tangible financial rewards. It remains to be seen whether the paywall model or the “all free” one will prevail, but either way, arrangements could be made. For example, with a paywall model, there could either be direct payments to libraries, provisions for library users relying on their private subscription IDs, or mixes of the two approaches. An ad-supported approach, of course, would make life easier for the libraries. One way or another, the information needs to be out there for patrons of all socioeconomic levels, perhaps through subsidies for low-income users.
For more on the DPLA and its Midwestern session, you can see the tweets from the Chicago event here, YouTube segments here, and perhaps a full video record here (the video wasn’t working for me when I tried earlier this week), as well as read Dan Cohen’s insightful comments on the current DPLA vision (including the hope that the DPLA can be more of a supplier of in-copyright library books than it is now) and additional items from American Libraries (here, here, here, here, and here). Knight’s gift announced at the conference follows an earlier grant from the Sloan Foundation, at least $5 million in separate combined funding from Sloan and the Arcadia Fund, $1 million from the National Endowment for the Humanities and $250,000 from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. According to the DPLA, Knight grant will support the pilot hub projects of “State libraries and regional digital library collaboratives in Georgia, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon, South Carolina, and Utah.”
While the DPLA is not perfect—I myself continue to press for the eventual architecture of two very tightly intertwined but separate systems, one public, one academic—let’s remember that it is not frozen and that we cannot expect the demonstration in April to do everything at once. Given all the progress so far, especially in areas I care endlessly about, such as openness and community outreach, I believe that the organization is now worthy of truly major support from the Knight Foundation and others. Unquestionably, John Knight would have liked what the DPLA is now up to despite its present shortcomings. “Thus,” the foundation’s About page quotes him about good newspapers, “we seek to bestir the people into an awareness of their own condition, provide inspiration for their thoughts and rouse them to pursue their true interests.” Indeed, and without being partisan or ideological, the DPLA and libraries can do the same.
One of my suggested top priorities for the Knight Foundation in a DPLA context: Development of decent blogging tools for linux, with DPLA-related capabilities built in (such as optional guided tags—or maybe even automated analysis of the related posts to help come up with DPLA-friendly tags or other metadata with minimal work). For many bloggers, despite improvements in WordPress’s online capabilities, there is no substitute for a good local blogging client fully up to the standards set by Microsoft’s Windows Live Writer.
A delightful irony: If the DPLA helps make it easier for communities to create content for the present, historians may be among the biggest beneficiaries—since today’s news is tomorrow’s history.
The elite factor: I don’t put forth the above vision as a full solution to local information needs, and I acknowledge one challenge in many places. If the local political or economic elites don’t want information shared or acted on, then the road will be much rockier. This is one reason why I believe that organizations like the National League of Cities should work—ideally in consultation with library and media groups—to come up with standards for the kinds and extent of information to be available. Public-spirited local media and others, in turn, could cite these standards in pressing for access.
Re-published with the author's permission, from his blog, LibraryCity.
Editor's Note, October 31, 2012: Harvard to Contribute Special Collections Materials to Digital Public Library of America.
Below is an explanation of what the hub program is about. Emily Gore is the DPLA’s content director. And speaking of DPLA staffing, the organization is looking for an executive director who, as tweeted by John Palfrey, “wants to change the world, promote informed & engaged communities, support libraries.”