February 17, 2018

A Point-Counterpoint on the Digital Public Library of America

The Digital Public Library of America initiative, led by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, has been gaining steam and has elicited a lively debate on the DPLA’s discussion listserv about how any such institution should be constituted. David H. Rothman, cofounder of LibraryCity.org and founder of TeleRead, has been advocating for well-stocked national digital libraries for many years and is an active participant on the listserv. He has questioned the project’s “big tent” approach, arguing that public libraries and academic libraries have diverging interests. John Palfrey, the vice dean for library and information resources at Harvard Law School and the co-director of the Berkman Center, says that now is the time for the library community to act in a unified way and not build fences. The duo explain their viewpoints in the following opinion pieces — Michael Kelley

Why We Need Two National Digital Library Systems

By David Rothman

HarperCollins enraged more than a few public librarians when it slapped a 26-time lending limit on e-books.

Talk about the need for a well-stocked national digital library system–fair to libraries and publishers alike! E-books were even the leading format in all categories in U.S.trade publishing in February, maybe partly because of all the e-gizmos bestowed as holiday gifts. Sixty percent of iPad owners read e-books, according to some industry experts. Browsing the New York Public Library site on May 20, I found a waiting list of 127 patrons for a single e-copy of a biography of Bobby Fischer, the chess wizard. That’s an extreme even for New York. But with $114 Kindles and the prices of iPad-style tablets on the way down, e-book demand will keep spurting; and potentially the technology could help libraries get far more for their money in N.Y.C. and other places threatened with Draconian budget cuts or already suffering them.

In fact, we need not just a single national digital library system, but two–one for the powerful academic community, and one for the rest of us, whose library needs may otherwise suffer.

Consider the Harvard-hosted Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), the most widely publicized of all national digital library efforts at the moment. Potentially the group could be a godsend for book-starved K-12 students, small-town libraries and others. But this e-initiative in its current form would serve academics mainly, regardless of the “Public” in the name and the recent addition of three well-regarded local public librarians to the previous 14 members of the Steering Committee after I and others protested. Still AWOL, just to give two examples, are a small-town librarian from “fly-over country”and at least a token K-12 educator.

Dominating the initiative’s email list, moreover, are scholars and likeminded souls who write more about the needs of sophisticated researchers than, say, the best business models, connectivity policies, and other arrangements to make this a true e-library system for the K-12 students and the general public. In a similar vein, I found many in the academe to be vastly under-appreciative of the need for a true public library system, for both the elites and nonelites, when I published a long essay earlier this year in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Both academic and nonacademic priorities should count. But as now envisioned, the Digital Public Library of America wouldn’t provide a sufficient number, breadth and quality of copyrighted books and other up-to-date items for K-12 students, job-seekers, skills-upgraders, civic activists, bestseller fans and other public library patrons, including those in need of reliable and easy-to-understand medical and financial information.

“With adequate funding,” the March “Concept Note” says of the proposed digital system, “it might establish a pool of money to be distributed, according to frequency of use, to authors and publishers of works that are in print and covered by copyright.”

Might? Then the Note talks about coordinating writers’ “voluntary contributions” to “the general store of knowledge.” Hello, authors’ groups? Some donated professional content is fine, but what if no “pool” happens or the size is too small? Will book-writers and other creative people end up even more under-compensated than in today’s publishing world? Even if the Digital Public Library of America revises the concept note, the organization will accidentally shortchange not just the public and content-providers but also the scholarly community, as a result of lack of focus and insufficient respect for differing priorities and business models.

Instead the Digital Public Library of America and friends should push toward two tightly intertwined but separate entities–a Scholarly Digital Library of America (perhaps mostly privately funded, in line with the original vision out of Harvard) and a National Digital Library of America (mostly publicly funded, and with true public governance). None other than the “Concept Note” concedes that the initiative “cannot be everything to everybody.”

Dual systems would allow for more freedom of expression and content diversity and help cope with the starkly contrasting priorities of scholarly and public libraries on such issues as staffing, acquisitions budgets and governance. Academic libraries cater to, yes, the campus community and care less about mass culture or open governance in the democratic tradition. So far the Digital “Public” Library of America has closed its steering committee meetings (we’ll assume some have been formally held) and at least two crucial early workshops to the public. Genuine public libraries tend to be governed more openly and strive for a different excellence. Typical taxpayers care less about high culture and scholarship than about reading Nora Roberts, John Grisham or vampire novels, or finding out how to grow richer, live longer and maybe attain thinner thighs along the way.

Of course, even the blood-sucking happens with a purpose; for, above all, public libraries promote mass literacy. In Readicide, a much-admired English teacher named Kelly Gallagher tells of the need for a “flood” of books addressing the needs and passions of K-12 students. A public national digital library system could oblige with a far-greater selection of books than students now enjoy on paper. Education can’t occur without content, and recreational reading is no small detail; the wider a student’s vocabulary and range of knowledge, the more likely he or she will be able to understand and analyze a book or article. Looking beyond K-12 students themselves, let’s remember the benefits of family literacy–of encouraging parents, also, to read for pleasure, so that they can benefit, too, and serve as positive role models. Needless to say, the public digital system could train local librarians and teachers to localize and otherwise adapt the national collection for all generations.

Simply put, this is a literacy opportunity disguised as a problem. Rather than playing up the scholarly side so much, especially when institutions like Harvard have already amassed individual endowments larger than the GDPs of some small countries, we should aim for a balanced approach. The academic and public systems could still cooperate closely–for example, through a common organization to address infrastructure issues and other technical matters. A consolidated catalog could serve those wanting it, and the whole country, not just the academic community, could use both systems. In fact, all of Planet Earth could in cases where copyright and other complications did not get in the way.

Also, the two systems could swap appropriate content, and team up on certain acquisitions to increase leverage with vendors; and board memberships could overlap somewhat. And how about a Library Corps that would send recent English graduates and geeks from top schools to rural and small-town libraries to help them upgrade content and technology?

Far from vanishing, Harvard academics and scholarly friends should hang around to make valuable contributions to the public library scene. But please don’t throw the public and academic libraries together in one digital system when their main raisons d’etre are so different. To borrow a Robert Frost quote, dear to so many English professors and other literati, “Good fences make good neighbors.

Come Now, Let Us Reason Together: A Clean Slate Project on the Future of Libraries

By John Palfrey

The need for librarians, and those who care about libraries, to come together has never been greater. Funding and political support for libraries has eroded in hard economic times. Priorities such as foreign wars, public safety, health care, and long-term national entitlements have boxed out the support that has enabled libraries of all sorts and sizes to thrive.

At the same time, the emergence of the digital information environment is also prompting hard questions about the role and the function of all libraries. This month, Amazon announced that more people bought digital books than any kind of hard copies, hardcover or paperback combined. People of all ages – though young people especially – get their information from a broad range of sources, online and through mobile devices. As readers vote with their clicks, publishers struggle to shape their own future by experimenting with different modes of lending and payment for e-books, including some which have denied libraries access to new e-titles. Librarians have reacted, appropriately, with outrage. The role of libraries in this new environment has been called into question.

The Digital Public Library of America is a broad, ambitious, collaborative effort to stake out a positive role for libraries in our shared digital future. The DPLA is in its early planning stages, but the core idea is well-established at this stage. We aspire to establish a system whereby all Americans can gain access to information and knowledge in digital formats in a manner that is “free to all.” It is by no means a plan to replace libraries, but rather to create a common resource for libraries and patrons of all types.

This planning initiative for a DPLA is a major opportunity to pull together libraries large and small, foundations, technologists, authors, publishers, and many others who care about the future of libraries to create this new, exciting resource. The precise form that the DPLA will take remains to be worked out, but a large, diverse, growing group of people are engaged in just that process of definition, planning, and fundraising. The group that has already signed on to this concept includes important leaders from around the library world; every day, others are volunteering to assist in one way or another. A common sense of purpose is emerging.

The mode of the DPLA is designed to be collaborative in no small part because we believe that this is a time when those of us who care about libraries need to come together, rather than to risk working at cross purposes. This momentous series of challenges calls for a series of forceful responses. These responses need to be framed in the interest of the public at large.

A key part of the response to the challenges facing libraries needs to be conceptual. We need to reason together about what the future of libraries ought to look like. The theoretical work that is so crucial will take up a broad range of hard questions. These issues are fundamental: how physical and virtual space come together for library users, in communities and in cyberspace. We need to grapple with what the future of cloud computing means for libraries: how we structure the way that materials, metadata, and interfaces to digital information come together in way that best serves our users. We have to figure out how the skills of librarians need to change over time: how we turn the challenges that our users face in a digital-plus world into opportunities that librarians can seize as we redefine our services.

Another part of the response needs to be through fast, concrete action. We – let’s call “us” those who care about libraries and their future – face a collective action problem. Many brilliant and committed actors are moving in important directions. There are extraordinary projects that are creating a bright future for libraries. These projects are underway in public libraries, in research libraries, in government agencies, in labs of all sorts, and in private companies. These projects often adjust our existing systems in modest, salutary ways. Other, massive projects – like the Internet Archive, PublicResource.org, the HathiTrust, LOCKSS, American Memory at the Library of Congress, to name a few – are already helping to solve some of our hardest problems and offering enormous future promise. Smaller scale efforts are underway in thousands of libraries, public and otherwise, around the country. It is terrific that there is such diversity of work and ideas. This diversity is leading to innovation that is already enabling us to reinvent libraries at all levels, in productive ways.

In addition to these many projects, we ought also to be working together on what computer scientists refer to as a “clean slate” project. That’s the core idea behind the planning efforts, now underway and gaining steam, for the Digital Public Library of America.

On a great, big, public whiteboard, we are imagining what a Digital Public Library of America ought to look like. We are puzzling together over what the use-cases are, about how people might use such a DPLA. The public librarian Nate Hill recently wrote a thoughtful, inspiring post on the Public Library Association’s official blog on just this topic. Through a series of workstreams, on issues such as business models, legal issues, and technological design, we are gearing up conversations about each of the component parts of a DPLA.

In the conceptual sense, we need to argue, in public, about a vision of where we want to get. At a practical level, we also need a mechanism to start building, in an iterative fashion, toward that positive vision. In part because of the speed of change in user practices and technological development, our approach needs to be grounded in openness to the greatest extent we can manage it. The system should be built on open-source code base, with metadata that is as open as we can make it. Where we can, the materials need to be made openly available, and always “free to all,” all the while ensuring that those who create, edit, and publish are paid for their work.

We need to work together in the library community on this conceptual and practical work to the greatest extent that we can. We do not yet know the precise design of the DPLA – and we’ve invited anyone and everyone to propose what it ought to look like, through our announcement last week of an open “Beta Sprint.”

But, to borrow another metaphor from the computing community, it is far too early to fork this project. It would be a mistake for us to divide the world into those who speak for the public library community and those who speak for the academic and research library community. The DPLA initiative derives its strength, in these early days of planning, from the breadth of the leaders who are involved. I can imagine that we may choose to build a common platform and then to build it out in different way, say at the interface level. One might even think about other ways to segment the project in particular ways down the road.

Fences right now are the wrong things to erect. We should find and build from commonality, not from differences. We should solve the collective action problem, not exacerbate it. We need to join together for strength, in terms not just of political force but force of intelligence and resources. Let’s start with common ground; we can carve it up later, perhaps at the interface layer to ensure that varying needs are met, as the project takes shape.

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