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The Public, and The Digital Public Library of America

In our increasingly digital age there are many who adopt an attitude of: if it is not on the Internet it must not be anywhere. As a librarian I have encountered this attitude many a time: people want and expect digital content. And, in truth, there is a lot of very impressive digital content out there. So, at face, the idea of a Digital Public Library makes a lot of sense.

Right? Right, well, mostly right…but I’ll come back to that shortly.

The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) will have its official launch event in Boston on April 18 and 19 (2013). If you had not previously heard of the DPLA, and had no idea that a Digital Public Library (of America!) would be launching in April, well, you are not alone (sadly).

To explain the DPLA very briefly: it will act as a sort of one-stop website for the numerous digital collections from many of the countries libraries, archives, museums (and so forth), including a mix of public and private institutions. Or, as Megan Cottrell put it in an article titled “A Digital Library for Everybody” (which appeared in the March/April issue of American Libraries):

“Instead of being a repository, DPLA will be more of an aggregator of existing digital content and part of the movement to further digitize US special collections. DPLA will aggregate the metadata on all these collections and allow users to search and discover materials they previously didn’t have access to or possibly didn’t even know existed.”

[Note: Cottrell’s article is a very solid introduction to the DPLA, I highly recommend reading it if you are unfamiliar with the project. If the above link doesn’t work, try accessing it through the link on this page.]

And the DPLA website (in its “Elements of the DPLA” section) features no shortage of the types of terms that open Internet fans and advocates look positively upon:

“free and open source code…DPLA-created metadata will be made freely available in reusable form….[metadata] will be placed in the public domain…material will be added…starting with orphan works and materials that are in copyright but out-of-print…[materials] will be made available, including through bulk download, with no new restrictions, via a service available to libraries, museums and archives in the United States,”

And there are more “open” and “free” terms as well, after all, this will be the Digital Public Library of America. Heck, the following even appears at the top of the “about” section:

“The DPLA is leading the first concrete steps toward the realization of a large-scale digital public library that will make the cultural and scientific record available to all.”

Sound almost too good? More on that sentence shortly. For now I want to simply say that I think this is quite a good idea. There are lots of excellent digital collections online that libraries, archives and museums have worked hard to make digitally accessible – if the DPLA helps more people find and use those items it will be a good thing.

True, there are some common concerns that still float around the DPLA. Prominent amongst these being money; despite the word “public” the DPLA does not (at the moment) seem to be drawing much of its funding from the public. The project received a sizable National Endowment for the Humanities grant, and an even larger grant from the Sloan Foundation, but there is a difference between grant funding and the type of money needed to fund an ongoing project of this size. Like, shall we say, a library.

While it is true that the DPLA will benefit from having much of its expenses covered by its partners (insofar as cultural institutions that have already digitized large amounts of materials have paid to do so [it was announced that the National Archives will be providing content, who paid to digitize that content? The public did]), the fact remains that this is a very ambitious project and it will require a sizable amount of money for this project to pursue those ambitious goals. And yet I have a hunch that this project and those involved with it will be able to find the funding necessary to keep the project going. After all, it is easy to imagine foundations and tech companies wanting to be involved with something called the Digital Public Library of America. And the DPLA’s association with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society (at Harvard) bodes well for the DPLA. Truth be told, I’m rather surprised that Bill Gates (or another tech billionaire) isn’t already underwriting it.

To restate: I like the idea of the DPLA, and as a librarian with experience in numerous “digital” collections I think that the DPLA fills a genuine need. Now that I have sufficiently stated that I like the DPLA let me discuss why I find it (or at least its terminology) very concerning.

The quote at the head of the “About” section of the DPLA website reads:

 “The DPLA is leading the first concrete steps toward the realization of a large-scale digital public library that will make the cultural and scientific record available to all.”

The above quoted sentence sounds excellent. It’s the type of line that one prominently displays on a website to make ones admirable intentions obvious. It also features a an almost laughably serious flaw, in the same way that the placement of “digital” and “public” next to each other should strike you as somewhat odd.

A digital repository is never “available to all” (at least not yet). At best it is available to those with access to the technical devices that allow one to make use of the digital repository, at worst it serves to only widen the digital divide.

This problem was wonderfully displayed in what may have been an accidental juxtaposition found on the website for the Chronicle for Higher Education where two articles were prominently featured.


The lower arrow is pointing to an article hailing the appointment of Dan Cohen as the first Executive Director for the DPLA (“With New Leader, Digital Public Library of America Prepares for Its Debut” [on the homepage as “DPLA Prepares for Launch”]) while the top arrow points to an article lamenting those being left behind due to lack of access to high speed Internet (“The Bandwidth Divide”). While the “Bandwidth” article did not expressly refer to DPLA (it’s focus had more to do with Massive Open Online Courses [MOOCs}), the implications are still valid.

It is obvious – I hope it is obvious – that many people do not have access to the Internet or have access that is limited to a smartphone, and while many places may offer “Free wi-fi” one needs to own a device to be able to make use of these “free” zones (which is to say nothing of the expectation that a person will, frequently, be expected to purchase something from a store before being allowed access to the “Free Wi-Fi”). Granted, this is where Public Libraries (brick and mortar ones) have an important role, but as Jeffrey R. Young (the article’s author) notes in the “Bandwidth” article:

“Public libraries may become the de facto classrooms for MOOC students who lack access to the Internet at home. But many libraries offer an imperfect access solution—with limited hours and long wait times for shared computers.

More than 40 percent of public libraries reported that they do not provide enough Internet access to meet the demands of patrons, and 65 percent said they did not have enough public computers to meet demand, according to a 2012 study by the American Library Association. But technology in libraries is improving, said Larra Clark, a director in the association’s Office for Information Technology Policy, thanks in part to grants that were part of the U.S. government’s financial-stimulus measures.”

I am somewhat skeptical of the claim that “technology in libraries is improving,” not that it is wholly incorrect, but because library budgets are stretched extremely thin already, and in the present situation (sequester anybody?) it is hard to imagine too much money being allocated to allow libraries to purchase more computers or to improve bandwidth.

In other words the DPLA will be great for people once they access it through the Internet, but this is an advantage that accrues heavily on the side of those who already have consistent access to technology and the Internet. Not those who must wait for their turn to use a computer for a few hours, at which point they may have more pressing needs than accessing a digital repository of neat digitized content.

Libraries, museums and archives hold in trust much of our human history (biased as their collections frequently are) and some have thought over the years that this history is an important part of our “roots” or “rootedness.” It helps define us as individuals, as a society, and as a species. Our full awareness of our history is what empowers us to understand the world of today.

Such is the stance towards history discussed by the philosopher Simone Weil in her book The Need for Roots. Weil takes a nuanced approach to history, recognizing its proclivity for praising certain groups and not others. Weil describes how history frequently has its basis in “documents,” that glorify “conquerors” and “assassins” (terms she uses), and yet despite all of her warnings about the mutilation of history, Weil still writes:

“No other method exists for acquiring knowledge about the human heart than the study of history coupled with experience of life, in such a way that the two throw light upon each other. It is our duty to supply this food to the mind of youth, the mind of Man.” (229)

I think that this line needs to be read in the context of another comment Weil makes (albeit much earlier) in the same book:

“Where a real civic life exists, each one feels he has a personal ownership in the public monuments, gardens, ceremonial pomp and circumstance; and a display of sumptuousness, in which nearly all human beings seek fulfillment, is in this way placed with the reach of even the poorest.” (35)

And one can easily imagine the contents entrusted to libraries, archives and museums as fitting right in with those items of which people should feel a sense of personal ownership. Indeed those working in the aforementioned institutions have more than their share of place in the “our duty” of which Weil writes.

My point – to link the Weil quotes to DPLA – is that it is important for people to feel a sense of personal/societal ownership over these works that are going to appear in the DPLA (this is an important way of understanding the term “public domain”). I think that the DPLA understands this, but while building a digital public library is admirable we must not fall for our own utopian propaganda. The DPLA may seek to be making these historical contents available to “even the poorest,” but a hurdle called Internet access is still placed in front of this goal.

The DPLA is not “available to all,” it is “available to all the people with Internet access” and it is thusly biased in favor of those with better technological resources. Again, I think the DPLA is an admirable project, but I worry that the idea of “putting it online will make it available to all” risks forgetting those with no, or severely limited, access to technology. And this assumption that “everybody can get online” seems dangerously foolish.

I do not know the solution, but perhaps those who will devote funds to a “digital public library” (which should involve the greater public  [in other words it should be taxpayer supported {like a regular public library}]) should better ensure the economic stability of the “regular public libraries” upon which so many members of the public rely for digital access.

Therefore I would hope that the DPLA picks up another goal: ensuring that public libraries have the computers and Internet access they need. A project in which the DPLA seeks to place a few (say 1 to 5 depending on library size) computers with devoted access to the DPLA in every public library would go a long way to achieving the goal of “available to all.” It still would not be perfect, but it would demonstrate at least a recognition of this problem.

But until such time as the DPLA loudly recognizes that for its resources to be available to all, that Internet access (and computer resources) must be truly available to all the promise of the DPLA will be only half fulfilled.

Which would be a shame.

This article references the following book:

Weil, Simone. The Need for Roots. Routledge, 1952.

About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

4 comments on “The Public, and The Digital Public Library of America

  1. Pingback: Goals Goals Goals and some Focus | A Daily Journal of my Comp/Rhet Dissertation

  2. Pingback: The End of Books? | Silent Observer

  3. Hello there! I know this is kinda off topic however , I’d figured I’d ask.
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  4. Mikki
    July 26, 2013

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