in PUBLIC HUMANITIES
Digital Public Library of America Featured At 2012 Miller Memorial Lecture
By Linda Shopes
Imagine a digital space that would provide access both to diverse materials – books, pamphlets, periodicals, manuscripts, images, audiovisual materials – currently available in digital format but in disparate, sometimes gated silos, and to materials that to date have not been incorporated into the digital realm. And imagine these millions of items freely available to all. Such is the vision of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), as presented by John Palfrey, chair of the DPLA Steering Committee and faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, at the 2012 Fredric M. Miller Memorial Lecture on May 8 at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. A program of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities, the annual Miller lecture honors the vision and legacy of archivist, historian, and author Fredric M. Miller (1945 – 1998). This year’s lecture was organized in cooperation with the Delaware Valley Archivists Group and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Palfrey, who also serves as the Henry N. Ess III Professor of Law and Vice Dean for Library and Information Resources at Harvard, readily admits that the DPLA is “a very big aspiration,” one that is asking fundamental questions about libraries as guardian and gateway to the world’s store of knowledge in a digital environment. “What can we do in a digital era,” he asks, “that would do better and more and be more effective in presenting materials, whether historical or archival or more modern, that would promote learning and teaching among all of society?” And fundamentally, “what kind of institution do we want to build that will sustain the democratic values that have underlain libraries, archives, and museums historically,” especially the core principle of providing access to all, at no cost? The outgrowth of a 2010 planning meeting at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the DPLA is grappling with these questions as it moves towards an April 2013 launch.
While the digital revolution initiated interest in a national digital library as early as the 1990s, the more immediate precipitate is concern about the privatization of knowledge, or as Palfrey phrased it, “the enclosure movement in a digital era.” He cited “the cloud,” i.e. the storage and delivery of an aggregation of digital assets for diverse end users, which, “may feel like a public space, but is a series of private spaces by design. So when we put collections into the cloud, because they are held in private hands according to different rules, it’s much harder to have this free-to-all principle at the core.” He also noted that as e-books become the norm, private entities can control access, a situation he terms “dangerous.” For example, five of the six major publishers do not allow public libraries to acquire and lend e-books. The DPLA, he avers, is defending against such developments.
Recognizing the not inconsiderable problems that have prevented previous efforts from “quite getting off the ground,” Palfrey said the DPLA was confronted with two choices: “keep planning or get started.” That they opted to do both – “figure it out and get started” – speaks to the sense of mission driving the project. Accordingly, since the initial meeting in 2010, the DPLA has developed a planning process that resembles a design charrette. Interested parties are convening in a variety of forums to “think from the ground up” about the digital architecture that can best realize the vision driving the DPLA. Decision-making is distributed across several bodies; there is no central, curatorial body. The entire process is informed by an expanding community of more than one thousand stakeholders, including public and academic librarians, cultural, educational, government, and foundation leaders, and experts in technology, publishing, and law; or as Palfrey put it, “a group of people, almost all volunteers, who are devoted to building something that’s a knowledge institution and is figuring out how we come together to create the greatest public library we can for America.”
At the core of the process are six working groups, or “work streams” in DPLA parlance: audience and participation, content and scope, financial and business models, governance, legal issues, and technical aspects. Each work stream is comprised of ten to fifteen members who define key next steps in their designated area, invite public input both online and in person, and seek consensus on the issues at hand, which is then forwarded to the DPLA steering committee for further consideration and action. For example, the content and scope work stream met in Philadelphia in early 2012 to consider the first tier of potential content for the DPLA, as well as methods of aggregation, standards, and policies.
In addition to work streams, the DPLA seeks to expand its reach though four day-long “big tent” meetings that seek to engage a broad spectrum of stakeholders in conversations that vet key questions and issues raised by the DPLA and further encourage innovation, collaboration, and connections. One such meeting was held in Washington, D.C. in 2011. More recently, DPLA West, as it was called, took place in San Francisco this past April, drawing more than three hundred participants. The remaining two meetings will take place over the next several months.
The DPLA is also developing ad hoc structures to address specific problems. Palfrey described last summer’s Beta Sprint: the DPLA issued an open call for models of concepts and code that would define how the library should operate, received more than sixty expressions of interest from a variety of collaborative projects, selected six to review, and, working through the technical work stream, has since developed the first version of the DPLA platform for materials already available in digital format. He also noted tools and services the DPLA as an institution could provide in the future: for example, channeling public and private monies to institutions to digitize material that would then stay local, be deposited in a second, more central location to enhance security, and be available through the DPLA infrastructure.
Currently, the DPLA is focusing on access to materials held by repositories in the United States: if the goal were “one global library, we would never get there,” Palfrey stated. However, he also affirmed that planners see the DPLA “as part of the global development of knowledge and technology,” noting that many European countries have similar plans under development. The key, he said, is “interoperability, having things work together even though they are not the same,” most likely through “open linked data at the metadata level.” Additionally, he explained that as part of the DPLA launch, it is collaborating with Europeana, a roughly analogous project that provides access to collections from more than two thousand institutions in Europe, to develop a joint digital collection and virtual exhibition on the subject of the immigration of Europeans to the United States and vice versa.
How the DPLA will work
The DPLA is envisioned primarily as an open distributed network of comprehensive online resources. It is thus seeking a mid-ground between two poles: “a project that aggregates metadata and then points people to different destinations and a project that creates one big mass of material in one single, highly centralized place.” Programmers are developing an open source code – a code anyone can use – that will allow anyone with digital assets to make them available. The code will also be used by the DPLA for its own digital projects. Anyone with access to a computer will thus be able to access materials either through individual repositories or directly through the DPLA. Palfrey estimated that most searches – perhaps 80 percent – will go to a site that will get to material that has curated by, for example, a local library or archives. The remaining 20 percent will go to material developed directly by the DPLA. Just how DPLA will handle material that has already been digitized, given that metadata are often inaccessible, incompatible, or incongruent, has not been resolved. Palfrey noted that addressing this will require “making metadata open access” and emphasized the DPLA’s “commitment to drive forward the movement towards open metadata.”
Questions from the audience raised other issues that present challenges to the DPLA’s vision, especially the problem of making available materials currently limited by copyright. Palfrey acknowledged this issue, noting that the DPLA will begin with “a limited number of already digitized material in the public domain.” But, he went on to say, “There is so much that is or could be digitized that gives DPLA leverage to push on other things.” Why not, for instance, try a “common pooling system to pay publishers for e-books” that could then be freely available to all?
“There is a utopian quality to what I’m talking about, and it is purposeful” he concluded. “Given this moment in history, when there are fundamental questions being asked about what a library is, or what an archive is, and what is its value, we have to think big. And we have to think in a way that answers with fundamental answers and that answers with all of us working together towards something. The whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.”
Detailed information about the Digital Public Library of America, including planning documents and regular updates, is available on its website at http://dp.la.
The DPLA encourages public participation in its work. Cross Ties readers can explore the website for details on how to become involved.
Linda Shopes is contributing editor for Cross Ties. She is a freelance developmental editor and consultant in oral and public history.
Interested in reading more about the Fredric Miller Lecture and the DPLA? Click here to read Amanda French’s response to John Palfrey’s lecture.