The risks if the DPLA won’t create a full-strength national digital library system: Setbacks for K-12, family literacy, local libraries, preservation, digital divide efforts?

By David H. Rothman, Published on December 19, 2012

Not one current K-12 teacher was among the two dozen or so attendees at the Audience and Participation Workstream of the Digital Public Library of America this month--even though the DPLA hoped educators would come.

Beyond doubt, the Harvard-originated national digital library initiative is an underachiever in K-12 matters. That's merely one area where the DPLA could better serve America's libraries and their users. Some other problematic areas range from family literacy to the content creation needs of local libraries, and preservation and digital divide efforts. Ahead, while urging massive incremental funding of the DPLA despite its extremely fixable shortcomings, I'll put forth specific remedies.

Maureen Sullivan Significantly, the DPLA is far more than just a band of dreamers. Harvard librarian Robert Darnton proposed the initiative, for which, as a veteran booster of digital libraries, I am cheering.

The DPLA nonprofit has been incubated in the Berkman Center for Internet and Society within Harvard Law School, President Obama's alma mater. Major foundations such as Sloan and Knight, as well as the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the National Endowment for the Humanities, have funded a DPLA demonstration project, for at least $7 million, even if that's just a fraction of what a good national digital system would ultimately need. Maureen Sullivan (left), president of the American Library Association, has served the DPLA as a valuable proselytizer and a consultant on organizational matters.

It isn't as if the Library of Congress is out of the picture, far from it. But the DPLA in some important ways is the main show, the one written up in the New York Times, and some participants wonder if in the end it could even evolve into an official government agency. So far, though this may change when the DPLA moves beyond the demonstration stage, the talk is of a rather small organization. That sounds smart financially but in fact could be a huge mistake; in the end America mustn't stint on a good full-strength national digital library system. How could we not care, whether about the DPLA's K-12 activities or others, especially if they preempt discussion of more ambitious efforts? A well-stocked national digital library system, tightly woven into K-12 curricula, with ample professional development opportunities for librarians and teachers alike, could go a long way toward upgrading American education. I myself was at the workstream's December 6 meeting at George Mason University, and I recalled a wise remark some months ago from David Ferriero, the U.S. archivist: K-12 might well be where the real federal money could come for the DPLA. But of course! That's in line with national needs even though we mustn't neglect those of upper-level academia, either.

John Palfrey The solution isn't to "sell" the missing K-12 educators on the DPLA. Rather, its organizers should frequent educational conferences and ask an essential question of K-12 leaders and grassroots-level teachers alike, especially from public schools. "Why don't you care more," the DPLA people should say, "and what can we do to change that?" And then follow through.

I'm fine with the estimable John Palfrey (left), head of school at Phillips Academy and a former Harvard law professor, as president of the DPLA's new board of director, given his stellar organizational skills and expertise in areas ranging from cyberlaw to social media. In fact, I can happily see him as executive director of the DPLA in the unlikely event he would leave Phillips. But the needs of an elite prep school with a rowing crew and tai chi instruction are a far cry from those of cash-strapped public schools struggling with the basics. John has tried hard to listen. But that is no substitute for more and broader representation from the K-12 community, including, I'd hope, a seat on the board of directors for a public-school educator. The Audience and Participation workshop this month was not the first that A & P had held without attracting any meaningful K-12 attendance. Doesn't this say something?

Andover Boys Crew Perhaps the DPLA can examine its K-12-related shortcomings and in the future make the right additions to the board and also compensate through the appropriate appointments to the new advisory committee. The DPLA is still clay in the mold, with an online demonstration project expected next year, but hardly the finished library system; so speak up while you can: it's worth your time. The organization has some wondrous things going on, even in the K-12 area. For instance, it is working toward a summer-reading-related Web application--not a magic cure but oh so useful, potentially, when so the reading skills of so many American children slip backwards between grades.

Just the same, the DPLA clearly could respond better to K-12 needs and others. Here is part of the problem, beyond the inevitable financial challenges (which I hope that governments and generous philanthropists can help this exceptionally promising initiative overcome, with the understanding it will develop more focus, ideally in the specific ways I'm outlining here):

So far the DPLA has been driven more by the interests of the dedicated, hardworking volunteers, especially techies and the like-minded, than by national needs or even public library needs. Nothing nefarious. I love the idea of such hackerish activities as contests to conceive and develop the best software apps; in fact, the DPLA held its December 6 A & P workshop simultaneously with a "hackfest." But the DPLA must do what needs doing whether or not the the coders and other volunteers are excited, and I'll offer an example--the pronounced apathy I found at the hackfest toward the idea of a good free blog editor/content creation tool to help the DPLA be more "generative." That's DPLAese for building on existing content and being able to create your own.

Ahead, in regard to education, local libraries, the digital divide, technical and scientific matters and other areas, I'll list some means for the DPLA to be more responsive--examples, not a comprehensive list but still ways to help refine the DPLA as a fulfiller of national needs and as a potential recipient of truly massive funding.

Suggestion #1: Plan for two intertwined but separate systems--public and academic

Actually the headline is a simplification--we need two national digital library systems, one public, one academic. I've repeated the arguments again and again on the LibraryCity site and pushed the dual-system concept in the online version of Library Journal. In a nutshell, for newcomers, the big point here is that public libraries exist not just to enlighten taxpayers but also to offer diversions to help take people's minds off the pain and drudgery of the quotidian; in that sense they are like public parks. Furthermore, public libraries aid patrons in improving their lives or coping with challenges in such areas as health or finance. Academic libraries are around primarily to spread and help advance knowledge. Those different priorities can be reflected not just in content but also in resources or lack of resources devoted to spreading it, popularizing it and helping users absorb it in various ways.

The answer isn't simply, "Let participating libraries choose what they want and individually pay for it." The issues are more complex; books and other content are a mere fraction of library spending, and you can't always separate content from related services or expect cash-strapped local libraries to do the job just on their own.

Furthermore, what happens when the DPLA gets into the business of producing as well as curating unencumbered content? Will the academics and publics--and school libraries, which could be included with the publics as long as special needs were respected--be on the same page? While the two systems should share content galore and a common technical services organization, let's keep in mind that librarians tend to be great respecters of hierarchy and prestige--meaning that public librarians could lose out to prestigious academic librarians with a "one big tent" approach.

Suggestion #2: Pay more attention to the book and other content needs of children and parents alike, as part of a coherent and cohesive family-literacy approach

The Obama administration is excited about the possibilities of digital textbooks and other net-related technology for the schools. But beyond the issue of whether textbooks are even the way to go for some educators, there's the question of what children's parents are reading or not reading. In this era when so many time-strapped parents are juggling around multiple jobs, not every mother or father can be a perfect role model. But there are ways of expanding parental reading and thus growing children's interest in reading.

We can start with the issue of content--for all generations: parents, children and grandchildren and maybe even great-grandchildren, so that the role-model concept truly applies.

Even in affluent jurisdictions the challenges daunt. In Fairfax County, Virginia, as reported December 14 by the Washington Examiner, 148 people were already in line for the 26 e-copies that the library system had ordered of of a James Patterson novel yet to be published. No more than one patron at a time can read a copy, and as with paper editions, the books expire.

With statistics like the above in mind, the DPLA should try harder to help U.S. libraries and schools expand the convenient availability as well as the range of content offerings for the average American, not just the academic elite, even though its needs mustn't be neglected either. Public libraries can't offer every bestseller immediately to every patron. But a partial solution would be a well-promoted and library-owned Netflix-style subscription service with fees (and subsidies for the the poor), fair compensation for publishers and kickbacks to local libraries. The DPLA or a related group could help this happen rather than simply forfeiting the revenue to Amazon and the like. Commercial rental services will do fine on their own if well run. It's the libraries I'm worried about. Besides, the priorities of a library-run subscription service could and should differ from those of Amazon, half of whose top-ten bestsellers in 2012 were erotic romances. As a customer I love Amazon because public libraries are so deficient in E and because I can afford to buy the books that libraries lack or force me to wait interminably for. As a citizen I fear it. Even in areas such as kids' books, Amazon and rivals will care less about the greater public good than about the enrichment of shareholders. To safeguard diversity of content and freedom of expression, the library model mustn't be the only one. But we shouldn't toss it aside, either, and the DPLA could update and rescue it for the masses. Along the way, commercial publishers and retail outlets could benefit from the survival of public libraries as gateways to books, especially when the National Center for Children in Poverty says that in 2010 some 40 percent of American children lived in low-income families.

In a related vein, the DPLA should deal as much as possible with publishers directly, just as some innovative libraries in Colorado and California are doing. With support from philanthropists and with fair compensation offered, the DPLA or another library-oriented nonprofit should seek to buy OverDrive, the largest supplier of digital library e-books for K-12 and public libraries. The DPLA could offer publishers a variety of business models, but it should at least strive to present its share of unencumbered content that is just plain free for people to access directly without much fuss (and with fair upfront compensation to copyright owners, at the least in the case of long form works such as books).

Want one example of current needs? Children's books. I can see the usefulness of starting children out reading paper books if the kids and parent respond better to them, but at an early age students should be able to call up digital books matching their precise interests--something far easier to do and far more economical than simply relying on paper books alone. Thousands of free e-books for children are on the Net, but finding good ones and zeroing in on them by subject is another matter, and there are other issues, such as supplying modern kids' books and those that feature members of ethnic and racial minorities, the fastest growing groups in America. Last week I searched the International Children's Digital Library, among the most obvious place to look on the Internet, for an aviation-related picture book from which I could read to my airplane-crazed young nephew. I found just one title, and beyond that, there are questions such as whether children's books on the Net today are optimized for easy read-to-me sessions; often the virtual print is too small for the parents to see during the read-me's and can't be easily expanded.

The DPLA should give large publishers every opportunity to serve its needs for children's e-books and others, but should also be prepared to work with independent writers, artists and small publishers to help create replacement content, when possible, if publishing conglomerates are too difficult to deal with (I'd hope that the large houses would smarten up, give libraries better terms and even work with them to increase budgets). At the same time, the DPLA could use its university connections to maintain quality standards.

Why care so much about kids' e-titles and the book-awareness of their parents? Keep in mind the relationship between children's academic achievement, their recreational reading and the number of books to which they enjoy access at home. Next mull over a statistic, from Reading Is Fundamental: "Nearly two-thirds of low-income families own no books." And then ponder a frightening fact supplied last year in another content context by Craig Moffett, a senior analyst with Bernstein Research. "After the necessities of food, shelter, transportation and healthcare each month, the bottom 40% of U.S. households have already exhausted all of their disposable income. There is nothing left for clothing... for debt service... for cable... or for phone." Maybe by going into debt they will end up with cable and the rest after all. But the end results still won't be pretty. Will Amazon and other bookstores go after such market? No, this is really library territory--not just supplying the content but creating a demand for it among the less-than-affluent Americans, which coincidentally will also redound in time to the benefit of the for-profit sector. While the disposable income statistics might be better now, just remember that books compete against other media such as television and video games with the usual visual allures. Even in the most prosperous of times, "free" is one of the best ways to make books and other texts more competitive against video games and other alternatives.

Speaking of free, may I suggest that philanthropists work with the DPLA to "unglue" modern classics? Bill Gates, last I knew, owned several copies of The Great Gatsby. In line with the suggestion in Help the Gates Foundation decide how to spend money on libraries, couldn't he or another billionaire try to buy the Gatsby for unencumbered use online? If Gatsby isn't available, then he could aim to do the same with other books. I first made this suggestion for Gates in the late 1990s. No response so far.

Suggestion #3: Work toward better library-school teamwork, related clearing houses, and a massive family-literacy campaign well integrated with the DPLA's content

All the content in the cosmos will matter squat to many children if they are not encouraged to explore books and other texts and challenge themselves with items that stretch their minds, not just entertain them; and better coordination between schools and libraries via the DPLA just might help. Check out an important account out of Philadelphia, based on a decade of research and comparing libraries in a poor neighborhood and a better-off one. Both libraries enjoyed the same level of resources. And yet the amount of reading still varied widely among the different socio-economic groups (PDF file). We need better library-school teamwork; a related clearinghouse to spread good ideas and practices among both librarians and teachers, ideally something piggybacking on the U.S. Department of Education's existing efforts; and a massive family literacy campaign well integrated with the DPLA's content, so that the right books are available at the right times for families wanting them. School libraries alone aren't enough. Consider that many neighborhood libraries serve as homework sites near students' homes.

Coordination between schools and libraries could come in many forms far beyond the DPLA and participating libraries supplying the right books and other items for students' reading assignment. With the permission of consenting parents and with help from DPLA software applications, children's librarians in public libraries should be able track individual students' reading (at least the school related kind), learn their personal needs and interests, and at least try to motivate them and raise their expectations face to face. Get rid of school libraries? Absolutely not! I see the public and school libraries as reinforcing each other. In the wake of outrageous cutbacks in the number of school librarians in many districts, this complementary approach is all the more essential.

Suggestion #4: Develop an easy and versatile content creation tool--and hire professionals to do it, since the DPLA hackers' interests apparently lie elsewhere

It sounded like a perfect software development project for the DPLA. Why not help local bloggers, librarians and gray-haired ladies at local historical societies and a lot of other ordinary Americans create content for the DPLA in the natural course of things? The app wouldn't replace WordPress or rivals but would let you more easily type out and edit documents for those blogging sytems and would also be used for word-processing. The geek term would be a "content creation tool," a software app I mentioned earlier in this essay. It could be as easy to use as the less cluttered versions of Microsoft Word and allow you to effortless mix text, video and audio in one document and even print out the text and images. Windows Live Writer, a blog editor, is also good for many nontechies, and lets users resize and move around images and wrap taxt around them far, far more easily than does the editor in WordPress, probably the most commonly used blogging system. But Windows Live Writer is unusable with the free and far more reliable GNU/Linux operating system; and, given Microsoft's passion for wrapping everything together, could conceivably come in the future with gotchas--just as Apple imposed certain nasty restrictions on the use of its iBooks Author software for creating books.

Of greater importance, consider the ability of a versatile creation tool to be integrated with the DPLA, so that you could insert suggested tags and metadata into your document in the natural course of things. You would not have to visit a DPLA site. This would expand the range of content for the DPLA since the tool would be a natural part of your life. If you wanted, you could even upload material directly to the DPLA for consideration without first blogging or otherwise publishing it. Imagine the possibilities for, say, local or family histories, which might start out as virtually worthless to the world at large, but acquire endless import if, say, Brother Billy or Aunt Amy became president of the United States. The creation tool's capabilities and interface would vary at least somewhat from operating system to operating system and from device to device, but as much as possible, there would be standardization and an emphasis on the more durable nonproprietary formats such as ePub for books. Add-on modules and switched-on options, tucked away behind a simple default screen, could accommodate advanced users without scaring away novices.

Not surprisingly, Maureen Sullivan and other librarians at the workstream worksop, such as Michael Colford of the Boston Public Library, were enthusiastic, and in fact this project would also jibe well with the useful PressForward project of Dan Cohen, a digital humanities professor at George Mason University who wants to faciliate scholarly communications. But the hackers at the December 6 hackfest? Not so interested. Aram Zucker-Scharff kindly pointed me to his post with some nice links related to "compact publishing." But no techie at the hackfest said, "OK, yes, let's get started." The real problem, as I see it, is that hackers already feel comfortable with the flawed interfaces of WordPress and other blogging systems and in many cases are less interested in polished presentations than are civilians. I just didn't pick up sufficient empathy toward nontechnical users who would love to contribute content to the DPLA in a nice, natural, organic way, but who would not want to mess with either visiting the group's site or worrying whether the organization will pick up their own site properly. Not to mention the potential DPLA content contributors without sites, period.

The lack of hacker interest in accelerating the development of a good free content creation tool, optimized not just for general use but for the DPLA, is one sign of the need for the organization to be ambitious in its fund-raising goals, so it needn't be so captive to the volunteers' interests. The Wikipedia model, with the focus on unpaid labor, is tempting to the frugal. But as shown by the hackers' lack of interest in the content creation tool, it has its limits for DPLA. As valuable as are library volunteers, we don't expect public librarians to work for free, and the same applies here. A truly professionalized DPLA will be able to respond better to national needs and better meet its own goals.

Suggestion #5: Work harder on e-book preservation and other archival issues for both individuals and institutions

You can't truly own a typical e-book from a large publisher or pass it on to your children. Technically, e-books are "licensed," not sold in the traditional sense. What better way for e-book to diminish the worth of literature, which, after all, thrives on permanence?

Libraries should offer book lockers, with a law enacted to require publishers and retailers to make their wares compatible with the lockers and the fair use concept. The doctrine of the right of first sale, the ability of "owners" to do what they want as long as they don't pirate books and commit other illegalities, is more assailable in the digital era than in the past. But society suffers when children can't inherit their parents' e-books. Of course, the real solution would be no DRM on books sold, at or at least kinds that would be compatible on different machines forever; but I won't count on that happening soon. Besides, despite the ePub standard and others, we don't absolutely know that today's books will be eternally readable on all kinds of computers and other devices. Hence the need for book lockers, and who better to establish and run them than the DPLA, public and academic libraries, which would be far, far more trustworthy than commercial vendors? Shouldn't the DPLA care about this ownership issue, which, in effect, is really a preservation one at the individual level? The book-lockers could store not only the book but the related annotations, another way to guarantee their usability on a variety of devices.

Preservation issues also arise at the institutional level. The DPLA has started out with a distributed system that uses metadata from participating libraries to send library users to the actual content. The DPLA itself, in most cases, won't be storing the content. That's fine for a beginning, but as I see it, actual books and other content should all be available in time through DPLA servers, not just locally, to ensure long-term preservation of books, other items and annotations and inter-item linking. Should the DPLA really be just another form of the Web? Shouldn't it value permanence more? As a user option, filtering mechanisms could weed out items that were deemed too old or unpopular or mixes of the two.

Needless to say, the DPLA servers could be backed up in a variety of locations and also rely on different storage media.

Suggestion #6: Care more about the narrowing of the digital divide and also create a seamless library ecosystem--which would help everyone, not just the poor

Replying to my suggestions for the Gates Foundation, a Southern librarian asked in effect: Why care so much about library e-books and the rest when millions of low-income people lack computers or at least the skills to use them? I can appreciate his concerns.  Academics and other well-wired DPLA participants need to understand that many millions of Americans lack easy access to broadband Net connections, among other things--a problem in rural areas but even in some individual cases in well-off suburbs, as Fairfax County educators recently discovered first-hand. Ideally the DPLA can serve both local libraries and their users with a technical services organization mixing R&D, user training, help with technical support issues, hardware-related assistance including the provision of machines for the poor, forge alliances with other organizations to address connectivity issues, and--last but not least--develop a seamless library ecosystem.

Even for intelligent, well-educated and affluent Americans, library books tend to be harder to check out than Kindle books. The more control e-libraries enjoy over their technical side, the closer they can come to making themselves Kindle-easy for patrons to use. And if they can add a rental side, perhaps with purchase options, directly or via links to commercial bookstores, then so much the better. This library ecosystem would not preempt those of Google or Amazon or Barnes & Noble, just make e-libraries far, far more convenient to use than they would be otherwise.

So far, alas, the DPLA has not discussed the ecosystem approach to the extent it should. Arcane metadata matters, though important, are no substitute for attention to the basic and pressing needs of K-12 students and teachers in small towns and poor neighborhoods, as well as other members of the non-elite.

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What are the chances of the DPLA following at least some of the suggestions above? Actually I'm upbeat. I can remember when the organization lacked public librarians on its steering committee despite the "Public" in its name (something I'd prefer that DPLA drop, so it will not provide unwitting solace to those who think that digital libraries can replace the brick-and-mortar variety). What's more, it used to meet behind closed doors even though a then-SC members was a pioneer in net.casting and in getting government information online. Now the board sessions are open with at least audio--Webcast video would help, of course, via Google Hangouts or othwise--and some and perhaps most of the DPLA workstream meetings are videocasted, making it easier to keep track of who is speaking.

All this is a healthy sign of open-mindedness. Moreover, when I suggested to Maureen Sullivan that the DPLA not just sell itself at education-related gatherings but instead use them to sound out user needs and then sincerely follow through, she understood. At the meeting of the Audience and Participation Workstream, I also liked the scenarios created to anticipate the needs of hypothetical users, including some in K-12. Excellent. But what-ifs on sticky-notes are no substitute for the dearth of K-12 educators participating in the planning and governance of the DPLA; yes, a retired teacher did attend the gathering, but she was just one of the two dozen or so attendees and came as an employee of the Enoch Pratt Free Public Library in Baltimore, not an independent K-12 advocate.

I also can think of other under-represented groups such as members of the scientific community and small-town librarians (despite the appointment of an excellent one, Dwight McInvaill, to the steering committee). Monday's meeting, however, or at least actions that follow, will offer a chance to remedy these shortcomings. I'm optimistic.

While the DPLA board is weak in some areas, it shows far more balance than the early steering committee did and, despite its shortcomings, has accomplished far more than the skeptics would have you believe.

Simply put, I believe that prospective funders, government, philanthropic and other kinds, should consider the DPLA's capability for change, as well as the experience, stature and organizational connections of its leading participants. It now deserves massive funding, at least in increments contingent on performance, as long as it continues to evolve in the proper directions and can show signs of sufficient responsiveness to national needs. Let's not do the DPLA on the cheap.

YouTube links: Part I, Part II and Part III.

Note: Editor's note - this article was re-published with the author's permission, from his blog, Library City.