The Digital Public Library of America and you, and me

Those of you who follow my antics know I was at an all-day meeting for the Digital Public Library of America project on Tuesday. While I have vague ideas what I was doing there, I have to say that I was still surprised at how few other representatives of rural and/or digitally divided folks were there. You can see the invite list here. I felt lucky that many of my viewpoints were ably represented by Josie Parker from Ann Arbor Public Library, Tony Marx from New York Public Library and Molly Raphael incoming president of ALA. Also in attendance were some of my favorite free culture folks: Brewster Kahle from the Internet Archive, Chris Freeland from the Biodiversity Heritage Library and my friend Richard Nash who runs Cursor Books. I also got to sit right next to Steve Potash from OverDrive right when everyone wanted a piece of him. That said, you can read the list and I’m sure you only vaguely care who I had dinner with. The meeting took place using Chatham House Rules meaning that in the interests of people being able to speak freely, nothing people said would be directly attributed to them.

So, let’s talk about what actually got me out of bed early on a Tuesday morning and has had me all hoppitamoppita since then. I’m going to use the “more inside” thingdoo on WordPress for possibly the first time ever. This idea is so big and exciting it’s had me just … well it’s like the Christmas present you never open, which is always somehow exactly what you want. I’m not sure what this will turn into and I’m sure it won’t be exactly what I want, but I’m excited that there is a friendly accessible group of do-gooders [with some funding, and some history being able to actually do things] who wants to Get Started. I like the Berkman Center folks and the projects they do. Their ideas mesh with mine, about using whatever privilege and powers they have to try to make more stuff accessible to more people and solve problems using technology. It’s also nice to see people who use wikis and blogging in an actual systematic and institutionalized way. The DPLA wiki is pretty robust and yes I’ve even made a few edits.

First off, you can read the notes from the meeting here and I suggest also checking out what other media and blog people have said about this so far, both before and after the meeting. The basic nutshell issue is: none of the big institutions we have seem to be advancing the idea of making consolidated digital content available to Americans in usable and accessible ways. While we can all point to individual libraries doing this in interesting and often effective ways, there is no useful way to assemble the cultural content of our country in such a way that an average person could say “This is our stuff” and point to a thing. Of course librarians since the world began have attacked chaos wherever they’ve found it, but this project seems to me to be something different. This is, as they call it, a “big tent” approach to the idea of what a digital library might be or could be.

Of course I think a lot of people will point to the Library of Congress, the work being done by, the amazing miracle that is Google or other similar projects and say “Well how is it different from that?” and I think this is what this sort of meeting was supposed to get at. Different people came and did short presentations about different aspects of the problem, the topic was discussed, and each section was summed up in small bullet points. John Palfrey, whose book Born Digital has been on my “to read” pile for an embarassingly long time, was the gracious and kind host and his small blog entries on the sections are probably the best summaries there are.

Just in writing this, I keep going back to the DPLA wiki and adding my thoughts and reading what others have written. People provided a lot of suggestions for starter projects to undertake. I got sort of excited about making a true government documents repository. Assembling what is freely availably digitallly and scanning what is not. I’m not sure this idea has traction, but it seemed not only like a good idea to advance the ideals of the project, but also an aspect that would not get bogged down with endless copyright arguments. Incidentally, the meeting had many vendors at it [I have a photo I love with a guy from Apple (don’t see his name on the list and it escapes me), Steve Potash from OverDrive, and Dan Clancy from Google all sitting together] and varying opinions about whether the current copyright environment would be okay for something like this or whether copyright reform would be one of the things on the table. And since I always get like this when smart people with money start talking about copyright reform, I was intrigued but that didn’t turn out to be a major point.

I made a few comments, one of which was asking the ARTStor and Ithaka(JSTOR) folks about the bottlenecks they found with their sort of massive projects. In libraries we focus on the human touch, so much so that the work we do doesn’t really scale. Large technology projects are all about scalability, and economies of scale. I also mentioned the up- and down-sides to trying to consolidate metadata. Talking about how when libraries moved to OCLC, some of them found that their local cataloging couldn’t come with them. Terrible? Of course not, but it’s always worth thinking, when we move from one technology system to another, what is gained and what is lost.

And really, without recounting this in a one minute = one sentence format, it would be hard to explain much more about what was going on. There was a lot of talk about metadata. There was a lot of respect for traditional libraries. There was an understanding (I felt) that for this project to truly be for everyone, it would have to be accessible and understandable. At this point it is nascent and darned near inexplicable, but people are trying. And, I rarely say this about big projects with major funders and people who meet at meals with more than one course, I think they have a good idea and it’s worth seeing where it’s going to go. Interested folks can follow along on or add comments to the wiki or try your luck at the DPLA listserv which is exciting but also a little unwieldy to me personally. If you’ve got questions, feel free to pass them on to me. Sorry this is so all over the place.

4 comments for “The Digital Public Library of America and you, and me

  1. 04Mar11 at 9:31

    Hoppitamoppita! It is fun to see you excited about something, especially something that I had looked at & thought “eh?” so far. Time for me to look again.

  2. caleb
    05Mar11 at 3:45

    i really appreciate the write-up! i’m glad to see my earlier comments were addressed, or at least as far as anyone would want to address them so far: make the whole heritage available, check, expand on public library mission, check. thanks for being part of the good hands we’re in

  3. Michael Blake
    23Mar11 at 2:03

    Thanks for attending the conference and blogging about it. If you weren’t part of the conference, I would not have known about the session briefs. There seems to be little reporting about the conference since. Using Chatham House Rules does let an “honest conversation” happen, but it doesn’t guarantee the conversation will be publicized outside of the elite few that attended.

    Above you said “Talking about how when libraries moved to OCLC, some of them found that their local cataloging couldn’t come with them. Terrible? Of course not, but it’s always worth thinking, when we move from one technology system to another, what is gained and what is lost.” For the scholar, the degredation of the catalog record is a terrible thing. Any decrease in the number of access points to the converted item can cause whole subject areas to be missed, especially when one deals with local collections. It is precisely those catalog records that allow researchers to find “fringe” or “grey” materials. The MARC records from vendors is at times, abissmal, with only basic bibliographic data provided. A scholar wants, and needs, more information on the records. Terrible? Yes, the change in catalogs is terrible.

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