DPLA steering committee still secretive, as shown by LibraryCity’s survey of SC members of Harvard-hosted digital library initiative

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Secrecy begets secrecy and perhaps worse. Only two of the steering committee members of the so-called Digital “Public” Library of America replied to my questions about closed committee meetings and other governance issues.

One was DPLA Chair John Palfrey; and I thank him, even if I’d still like to know, for example, his personal opinion of the problematic “Public” in his group’s name.

The other was Donald J. Waters of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, who, actually, is not among the 16 current members. I appreciated his courteous note to me and can understand his resignation some weeks ago, since, in his Mellon role, he’ll be able to be more detached on funding issues.

But I’m disappointed by the lack of cooperation from Amy E. Ryan of the Boston Public Library (first photo), Carla Hayden of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore (second), and Luis Herrera of the San Francisco system (third).

Just what kind of an example is this for other librarians, traditionally believers in openness?

Ironically, as an advocate of more female and minority members on the DPLA committee, LibraryCity.org played a major role in the three public librarians being awarded their committee memberships in the first place. The DPLA still has just one Latino (Luis Herrera) and one African-American (Dr. Hayden) among the 16 committee members, and other diversity issues persist, such as the absence of any K-12 educators or small-town public librarians on the committee. Before I and others complained, the DPLA lacked a single local public librarian even months after its creation last fall. While the DPLA says its workstream groups will offer a wide variety of backgrounds and views, they cannot substitute for various kinds of diversity on the board itself.

I see the secrecy and diversity issues as intertwined; open organizations tend to be more responsive to public needs, especially when committee or board members are individually accountable for their opinions and decisions. Just why did the DPLA committee keep me and others out of its June 13 meeting a few miles from me—even though I’d participated in the group’s March workshop and have been advocating a well-stocked national digital library system since the early 1990s in places ranging from the Washington Post op-ed page to the Chronicle of Higher Education? And isn’t it telling that everyone, save for Chair Palfrey and ex-member Waters, ignored my queries about governance? I’d given them the option of replying to just the first four questions if need be, and they could have kept their answers very short. See why we need both public and university e-library systems? Even with some local public librarians involved, the DPLA committee was still clinging to its secretive ways, and I’d hate to see them spread to the public library world (of course, if the academic library world can be made more open, I’ve got no problem with that).

imageGranted, on some occasions, such as when the very most sensitive personnel matters are discussed, closed meetings may be justified. But by far, secrecy should be the exception. Isn’t it time for Harvard Law School, host of the DPLA by way of the Berkman Center, to catch up with the National Public Radio? NPR holds public board meetings, just like public library systems such as Boston’s. I’m dismayed that Harvard so far is tolerating the DPLA’s secrecy, especially when DPLA committee member Carl Malamud (photo) has beaten the drums again and again for government openness and was an Internet broadcasting pioneer. No, I won’t buy the argument that the DPLA is an informal group. Harvard-informal is different from grassroots-informal.  The latter organizations don’t get respectful write-ups in the New York Times and enjoy access to its op-ed page, nor do typical grassroots groups attract thousands in funding from sources such as Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Open Society Institute and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

imageOf still greater importance, consider that two of the DPLA members are Deanna Marcum of the Library of Congress (left photo) and Susan Hildreth of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (which among other things awards library-related grants). Behind our backs, the DPLA in effect is helping to shape national digital library policy, and in Carl Malamud’s shoes I’d be furious that the process wasn’t more transparent. Or does Harvard-hosting mean that his earlier beliefs needn’t apply, that your local library board can just turn itself over to Harvard and never, never have to worry again about nosy members of the public? The ideal solution would be both real-time and on-demand audio, and if Harvard Law School and Harvard University as a whole can initiate and meaningfully implement openness policies to cover similar situations beyond Berkman’s and the DPLA’s, assuming those policies don’t already exist, then so much the better.

Come on, DPLA. Do the right thing. Here’s one sign from the heavens that you should. Coincidentally, while writing this post, I received the meeting notice below from the Nate Benes, via the mailing list of the Steering Committee of the Data Portability Project—a refreshing contrast in this case to the DPLA committee on secrecy issues:

Just a quick reminder, the DPP Steering Committee meets Today, July 6, 2011 at 4pm PT via conference call. Anyone is welcome to participate.

The phone number is 1-201-793-9022 and the Participant Access Code is 1719146.

The Skype number is: +9900827041719146


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John Palfrey’s newest video report: Helpful but no substitute for meeting records.

I’d intended to post some friendly suggestions for Harvard and the DPLA at the macro level and along the way recognize the positives of the Beta Sprint program (60 submissions). Those thoughts are still coming—in the next week or so, maybe in a few days. But I decided that the secrecy issue merited attention first, given the questions asked last month.

Meanwhile here’s a reminder to myself to search the DPLA email archives and see if John Palfrey has yet released the minutes from the June 13 meeting as promised last month.

Video progress reports, like John’s latest, are very welcome but are no substitute for detailed written minutes on, and audio records of, specific meetings. Let’s hold those DPLA committee members accountable. If they refuse to be, then they shouldn’t be serving on the steering committee. This is a crucial time for the committee. The current vision, alas, isn’t as responsive as it could be to nonscholarly needs, the reason I favor tightly intertwined but separate public and academic systems, particularly with digital divide issues in mind.

Sorry, but I won’t buy the possible time or money excuse as a reason for closed meetings and for not at least releasing transcripts.

If Berkman is to be genuinely worthy of upbeat coverage by the New York Times and other major media, then maybe it needs to spend a little more time and money on DPLA governance. And, no, the email list and wiki and workstream groups don’t count in this respect. Email lists and the others can’t apply for grants or undertake other activities in which the actual DPLA committee may engage. Ideally John Palfrey can go on to say, unequivocally, that “Closed meetings should be rare” rather than simply saying that he favors a mix of open and closed.

Regardless of the DPLA’s formal legal status or lack of it, I’d love to see the group comply with at least the spirit of open meeting laws as they affect actual public bodies (in care you’re curious about exceptions, here is a list of categories of closed meetings allowed for public bodies in my own state of Virginia).

Even an informal DPLA can set a good example for formal organizational successors.

Here’s one last twist of fate. Would you believe, Berkman also hosts a media law organization that, yes, among other topics, discusses open-meeting issues. I have no plans to attend the Citizen Media Law Project’s meetings but wonder if these gatherings—in-person or virtual—are open.

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