The First Digital Public Library of America Workshop

Posted Wednesday, March 9, 2011 - 11:58

On March 1, I had the opportunity to join about 50 other invitees and steering committee members to discuss the scope and content of what has been named (at least for now) the “Digital Public Library of America” (DPLA). The planning effort is hosted by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, under the very able direction of John Palfrey, codirector of the Berkman Center. The planning phase has been funded by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Leaders of academic and research libraries gathered last fall to begin the planning for the initiative, and reached out more broadly to the library and information communities for the gathering in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Even so, the participants were predominantly from large research institutions. But those from institutions other than large research libraries (public librarians, freelancers, and open-digital-resource leaders representing entities such as the Internet Archive or the Biodiversity Heritage Library) had voices that were outspoken and welcome in the conversation.

This workshop was organized to explore the “content and scope” for DPLA, one of several threads to be undertaken. A full overview and summary of the daylong workshop can be found on the DPLA wiki.

Throughout the day, there were short presentations from the different perspectives represented in the room, followed by moderated discussions on each topic. The workshop was conducted under the Chatham House Rule in order to encourage open discussion. The framework worked well to ensure that we considered the scope and content from a variety of different points of view.

From my observation, I think some of the issues that generated the most passionate discussions were:

  • Should we only consider open access, or should we think about the possibility of tiered access? (My take: Open access seemed to rule the day.)
  • What is being conveyed by including “public” in the name? (My take: Let’s not get too bogged down on the name, but we need to be careful about what we convey by the words we use.)
  • Whose voices were we missing, such as school librarians or others, and how do we make sure that the tent is “big” and welcoming? (My take: The tent kept getting bigger as more people were invited, but we knew that we needed to consider the question: “Who is not in the room that should be in the room?”)
  • How should we approach the challenge—look for low-hanging fruit, such as material already in the public domain? Seek to tackle the issue of orphan works, where much of the content that researchers want can be found? Build on the work of those who are already building large digital libraries? (My take: We have opportunities to build more coordinated access to much that is already available digitally, but let us not lose sight of the importance of access to those sources that have legal complications.)
  • How can we be sure that we put needed focus on metadata and APIs and not just on capturing the content? (My take: Thank goodness this effort is being driven by librarians and researchers who care about the keys to access.)
  • How important is it to tackle copyright revision? Do we have the tools we need without thinking about that now? (My take: This is a tough one. Opinion about what we can or can’t do under current law is divided, but generally most agreed that we would need to press for copyright revision eventually, particularly for orphan works.)

At the end of the workshop, we seemed to have a better understanding of the broad concerns that we all brought to the discussion. But I for one was not sure where the next steps would lead. I think many of us were inspired by what other countries have been able to accomplish, illustrated by a presentation on Europeana. The DPLA effort may be too big to describe easily, but we all knew that it was also too important to put off any longer. We should be grateful to the Berkman Center and the Sloan Foundation for launching this effort to coordinate and focus our collective actions for the future.

There are ways for interested people to participate and follow the progress and work of DPLA. You can join the conversation by subscribing to the DPLA discussion list. This is a high-volume list, so be prepared to make a choice about how you want to participate. There is also a wiki with many people already contributing to the content.

Finally, we also should pay attention to the important work being done by ALA’s Task Force on Equitable Access to Electronic Content, chaired by Linda Crowe and Michael Porter. This group, established by a resolution (PDF file) at the ALA Annual Conference in 2010, met at a working retreat in Washington, D.C., March 7–8 and will be reporting back to the ALA Council at the ALA Annual Conference in New Orleans. Stay tuned. . . .

MOLLY RAPHAEL is president-elect of the American Library Association.