The Digital Public Library of America

It’s not every day that I’ll take the time to stay up late to blog something – but I think this is important and wanted to share it with our readers. I’m sure you’ll hear and read many things about the Digital Public Library of America in coming days(weeks, months, years), if you haven’t already. That said, let me explain why I think this is important.

I’ve been following the development of the DPLA for about a year now, and the conversations surrounding it have been almost as exciting as the idea itself. So what exactly is the idea? In their own words,

No project has yet succeeded in bringing these different viewpoints, experiences, and collections together with leading technical experts and the best of private industry to find solutions to these complex challenges. Users have neither coherent access to these materials nor tools to use them in new and exciting ways, and institutions have no clear blueprint for creating a shared infrastructure to serve the public good. The time is right to launch an ambitious project to realize the great promise of the Internet for the advancement of sharing information and of using technology to enable new knowledge and discoveries in the United States.

What this sounds like to me, and the reason it feels so important, is that a group of capable and brilliant folks from a variety of reputable institutions (libraries, institutes, universities) have identified a need, and have initiated a grand idea to address that need. There are and will continue to be many issues that’ll need to be explored, as they note on the website, including Governance, Content and Scope, Legal Issues and More. However, I still think the matter at hand rings out loud — that information is invaluable and that it is our duty to provide access to it, to the best of our ability, with the tools available to us, always and forever. 

A few key points I think Library School students should pay attention to:

1. Someone else already wrote this, and I can’t remember where I read it… but… there’s something to be said about the name, “Digital Public Library of America.” “Digital.” “Public” “Library.” “America.” There’s has been considerable discussion about the inclusion of “Public” in the title, and since it’s stayed I think it is worth interrogating for a second. When we hear about a public library we have very specific ideas about what that means, correct? Will this body be living into the ideal of a public library, or will it be something entirely new? Is that a positive or a negative thing for all the public libraries out there? And, America. Already bold, seeking to include all of America is nearing brash. I do hope that this will truly be representative of America as the project grows, but again, it’s incredibly complicated and too early to know. Lastly, digital. That makes sense… utilizing the growing web of connections through technology to allow access to great resources. And yet, we still are fighting to solve the digital divide. Collecting every great resource into one central location of the web is amazing, but there will still be tons of folks who will not be able to see it, use it, or learn from it.

2. Who is involved? I’d encourage you to look over the list of names associated with this project. There are many people included in this that I personally have a huge amount of professional respect for, but you should formulate your own opinions. Are these people accurately representative of the future of what our great grandkids may know as the “public library”? The DPLA has worked to include many voices, by opening a public listserv (the 1st I’ve ever subscribed to), and a wiki. As Governance is solidified, this body could grow the DPLA in one specific way or another.

3. The technical infrastructure of the DPLA will affect all libraries and many information institutions (again, my opinion). There’s been a lot of talk lately about Linked, Open Data, and developing one standard by which these gigantic collections will be pieced together. If this goes as planned, we all (librarians) will need to have a real, solid working knowledge of how Linked Open Data functions in order to continue to make our work as information professionals useful to our user/patrons. (Also, check out Linked Open Data in Libraries, Archives and Museums – LOD-LAM)

I could go on, but following a great Twitter conversation Zack and I had while I was writing this — I’d love to hear your thoughts. Is the DPLA all hype? How will this affect our profession? Our graduate education? Should we revolt against MARC and DCMI? Against Library of Congress and NARA? Why isn’t this thing called “Digital Archive of America”?

I’d encourage you to take the time to read these posts – one from Jessamyn West and one in Library Journal.

10 replies

  1. Also, on Friday, October 21 the DPLA is holding its first plenary meeting in Washington, DC. You can register here. I’ll be attending and will be sure to take good notes!

    For those not in the area, I think they plan to have some webcasts…


  2. Micah,

    After reading the linked content I’m even more convinced that the DPLA is just hype. It’s hype with a tremendous amount of promise, but it’s still smoke. You’re right that a ton of cool people are involved, and that it’s promise is extreme. I just question our ability as a society to create something like this.

    First, I think we already have a National DPL to some degree, it’s called the Library of Congress Digital Collections. The reason why this resource isn’t used more, and it’s limitations, are the same Achilles heel that this initiative will face, copyright law.

    The promise of Google books wasn’t just that they would provide open source access for works in the public domain, and as a venue for Google to sell books. Google’s original promise was to expand the public domain and commercial markets to include orphaned works. Google eventually had to step back. Libraries face the same collection development issues in creating digital collections, which is why they often times end up being underused. They’re old books, which makes them valuable for historic research, but not as much for leisure and educational reading.

    The same people involved with the Google books effort are leaders hear, Harvard and other large research libraries with large foundations as a funding base. But they face an even bigger hurdle in crossing the digital copyright divide, because they have years more of legislative and bench imposed regulation to cut through.

    Even libraries with great digital collections are shackled by oppressive IP rules. We have a great collection right here, which is locked down under unnecessarily restrictive rights management. Not because it’s burdened by outside pressure, but because the library that controls the images doesn’t understand their value in digital form as a public good. That’s a library collection free of copyright, and digitized the library. Multiply that schizophrenia across multiple institutions, and you get a feeling for the tremendous challenges this project faces.

    That said digital collections, digital collection portals, and libraries for digital collections are generally good ideas. SCDL, the South Carolina Digital Library, is a good example of how portal sites can direct users to digital content. North Carolina’s digital library functions as an Overdrive consortium to the state, letting access to digital works to spread across the state. Other states and sites will do things differently or provide a hodgepodge of different services and solutions. DPLA sounds like it may do it nation wide. I just don’t by the hype that this is new, unique, or even if it is, that its feasible as an institution. I’ll be interested to see what comes up, just not with bated breath.


  3. @zfrasier I’m hearing you but re: ‘hype’, I think the hype is actually a very good thing. metadata standards, the semantic web, digital libraries: none of it is really that sexy and exciting to talk about, unless you are a librarian. One of the thing I think the DPLA has going for it is the hype and the scale of the project. It’s crazy ambitious. It’s a head-turner. People who aren’t librarias might actually care about it. They hype is a good thing, we should roll with it!


  4. I don’t know about rolling with the hype. What if it steals the thunder from other less flashy efforts underway? This is potential, there are a lot of digital library efforts that are actually putting rubber to the road.


  5. Zack, I just wanted to thank you again for adding comments and expressing a different side of this project. To be honest, I’d love to hash this out with you in a good solid conversation, as I think it’d be really a really interesting discussion. Podcast sometime?


  6. Thanks very much, Micah, for your thoughtful DPLA post.
    And also thanks to your commenters. Like Nate Hill, I believe that the current DPLA is not just hype. It will be well worth supporting if the organization can better address public needs than it is now doing.

    Why is so concerned about “Public” in this Harvard-hosted organization’s name? Because the academic world excels at mission creep. And because opportunistic politicians could use the DPLA’s existence to justify the reduction or elimination of local public library services. Oh, how nostalgically I remember certain public officials’ proposal to count ketchup as a “vegetable” for school lunch programs ( That’s the mindset we’re talking about in D.C. and elsewhere. A mainly academic “public” library system would be no substitute for a true public system online—especially with so many Americans already having to wait weeks and weeks for the e-books of their choice, and with Amazon and OverDrive taking over so much of the work of traditional public libraries, at least in their digital incarnations.

    DPLA supporters’ own statements have not always helped on the name issue and others. I’d suggest that people check out the first item below—as well as related writings on the digital divide issue and on the need for separate academic and public systems. I want both kinds of libraries to thrive on the Web, as opposed to an academic-dominated system wittingly or unwittingly downplaying the needs of public libraries, either on- or off-line! And now here are a few cites from COSLA,,, the Chronicle of Higher Education and elsewhere:

    1. State Librarians Ask for Reconsideration of “Digital Public Library of America.” Chief Officers of State Library Agencies Concerned That the Name Will Result in Unintended Consequences.

    Click to access COSLA_Resolution__DPLA__May_2011.pdf

    2. On ‘Open Mind’ PBS program: DPLA proposer’s inconsistencies show why we need TWO national digital library systems—one academic and one public

    3. Why We Need Two National Digital Library Systems

    4. Digital Underclass 2: The future of books and libraries

    5. ‘Newport Beach may close Balboa branch, open ‘electronic’ library’: Many are shunning books. How to restore their popularity—and protect the public library model?

    6. It’s Time for a National Digital-Library System. But it can’t serve only elites

    (Notice how out of touch some of the academics reading my commentary were with public library needs? This is what got me thinking about TWO systems.)

    In response to critiques from me and others, the DPLA has evolved somewhat, especially in matters such as interactivity, and I love the philosophy behind the Beta Sprint effort and the efforts on behalf of open linking. Shame on certain elderly members of the public library establishment for not fully grasping the DPLA’s potential in technical areas! In fact, I’d like to see some of the current DPLA people, including Chair John Palfrey and his Harvard colleague David Weinberger, participate in a common technical organization that could serve the needs of both the public and academic systems to reduce costs and leverage expertise. And I want both systems to share content when appropriate and have somewhat overlapping boards.

    While I’m fervently rooting for the DPLA or equivalents to succeed, however, this group needs to be far more sensitive to nonelite needs in areas ranging from access to range of content. I’m all for culture and preservation—essential missions of libraries and one reason why I’d hate to see the OverDrive-Amazon model prevail in the library world. But the DPLA currently lacks the balance I’m after and isn’t even adequately addressing the OverDrive-Amazon threat, which, among other things, could wreak mayhem on many library students’ career plans, not just harm the public (obviously my main concern).

    Like Wall Street, alas, even though the DPLA’s motives are much purer, the group isn’t fully in touch.

    I doubt that the Street will ever care about the public except to the extent that Washington and PR challenges force it to. But I do see Harvard and the DPLA as educatable, and I hope that Hack Library School and its readers will join me in examining the specifics of what the initiative has or might have in mind.

    If nothing else, shouldn’t the Hack Library School community care that the DPLA’s routine meetings–as opposed to the well-publicized session in DC on October 21—are closed to the public? I couldn’t attend a private DPLA steering meeting in Washington earlier this year even though I was an invited participant at the likewise closed March workshop in Cambridge and have been pushing since the early 1990s for a well-stocked national digital library system integrated with local libraries. Should a “public” system isolate the public from actual decision-makers? Of course not—yet another argument for two tightly intertwined but separate systems. Mailing lists and other welcome Net-related activities are no substitute for the old-fashioned open approach that characterizes most brick-and-mortar public libraries. Routine DPLA steering committee meetings should even be broadcast in real time and on demand. I find it highly ironic that Carl Malamud, normally a dedicated advocate of open government with some essential projects to his credit in the Webcasting area, sits on the secretive DPLA steering committee. Yes, “routinely closed meetings” means “secretive.”

    Don’t go by, “I respect such-and-such.” Just as Micah so wisely suggests, you should use your analytical powers.

    “Collecting every great resource into one central location of the web is amazing, but there will still be tons of folks who will not be able to see it, use it, or learn from it.”

    Well said, Micah! And that’s a major reason why, as a former poverty beat reporter and veteran of the e-book scene, I’ve been writing so extensively about ways in which the DPLA could improve. Done well and in close coordination with others, including public, nonprofit and corporate people working on issues such as broadband, e-text-friendly hardware, e-text standards, and early childhood literacy, DPLA-type initiatives could be far more useful than at present. Would you believe, not a single K-12 educator sits on the current DPLA steering committee—not even a school librarian! Time for a more holistic approach? The DPLA isn’t a panacea for America’s many woes, but it at least can try harder to help address national problems, not just library problems.

    David Rothman


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