How the DPLA could turn itself into a real ‘public’ library system—and encourage billionaires to pay for it and an academic system

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americanGirlAn eight-year-old girl in Massachusetts falls love with the American Girl series of books. She begs, begs, begs for more of them.

She doesn’t just discover paper books and e-books through the public library and other traditional sources. American Girl promotes a Web site through passes supplied with doll gift boxes, and she haunts the virtual library there. After breezing through a sample chapter, she leans on her parents to buy her yet another A.G. book at Amazon.

Far from stopping, the little girl makes new requests. This on top of her other reading! At times she can devour as many as several books a day.

The girl just happens to be the daughter of John Palfrey, the founding chair of the Harvard-nurtured Digital Public Library of America. He entertainingly shares the story in a must-read new book titled BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google.

All kinds of thoughts course through my mind. In a Palfrey household context, they are overwhelmingly positive. Props to the girl’s parents for raising such an eager reader; I doubt that DNA alone is the explanation. No, the Palfrey family loves books and learning, hardly a surprise, given that he is a former Harvard Law professor and now the leader of Phillips Academy Andover.

Unfortunately, however, not everyone feels the same. America is spending only around $4 per capita on books and other public library content—a pathetic $1.2 billion a year, or less than the cost of just one military office complex across the freeway from me. Not that the news is all bad. President Obama’s plan to create a 10,000-book library for low-income students is a step in the right direction, and the DPLA is part of that laudable initiative. Via the DPLA students will also enjoy access to millions of out-of-copyright books and other items beyond the 10,000.

But even the President’s $250-million-plus initiative is nothing compared to what should be done—both in terms of the number and scope of books and other items and in terms of the comprehensiveness of the program, so that, for example, it encompasses more age groups. Remember, the kids have parents, their main role models. Mothers and fathers should be reading, too. That means also providing books most likely to appeal to them.

How to fill the just-mentioned gaps and address some of the other great library issues? In this commentary, using the Palfrey book as a peg, I’ll argue that the library world needs two intertwined but separate national digital library systems rather than the single one that the present DPLA-style approach would entail. One system should be public, the other academic. Far from being anti-DPLA, I’ll tell how the organization could live up to the P word in its name and be the public system if it wants to go that route. Alas, for now, although things should change for the better in the K-12 area under the Obama initiative, the DPLA is more of a metadata, archival and academic library project than a genuine public system optimized to serve and please typical taxpayers. We need both kinds of systems.

I’ll also make the case for a “national digital library endowment,” a cause the DPLA could advance by promoting the idea with that exact phrase and also by showing more focus, so digital libraries would appeal more to big-time donors.

BiblioTech obviously calls for more money for libraries. But like a Washington Post reviewer, I would have welcomed many more details on the “how,” not just the “why,” and the evolving endowment proposal in various forms offers plenty. The plan has even made the Chronicle of Philanthropy, not just the Web site and printed incarnation of Library Journal. Another version is to appear in the near future in Education Week, the leading publication of its field, just as Library Journal and the Chronicle are in their own areas. The Palfrey arguments would have been stronger with links to detailed, endowment-related arguments within and outside the LibraryCity site, meaningfully addressing such issues as whether the super wealthy would contribute.

Furthermore, LibraryCity’s endowment idea goes beyond the Palfrey vision of one or two major saviors and calls for a well-structured efforts to reach out to a number of potentially receptive billionaires, especially those without the time to be Carnegie IIs on their own.

As BiblioTech makes clear, copyright reform by itself can go only so far in enriching library collections. Why didn’t it devote more pages to a financial solution or at least partial solution?

Luckily it isn’t too late for the DPLA to embrace the endowment and twin-systems strategies propounded by me and Jim Duncan, a former academic librarian who serves as executive director of the Colorado Library Consortium. Jim gets out to visit tiny, cash-strapped rural libraries. He can tell you what life’s like for librarians and patrons when a decade-old library computer gives up the ghost without cash easily at hand to replace it.

What BiblioTech and the DPLA have gotten right—plenty

My criticisms notwithstanding, as someone who has been writing since the early 1990s about digital libraries, I agree with 90-95 percent of what the DPLA’s chair so eloquently and cogently says in BiblioTechon matters ranging from copyright to the need for good WiFi in libraries. Outrageously, millions of American schoolchildren must go to McDonald’s or Starbucks for the connections they need to finish their homework. BiblioTech is absolutely correct. The McWiFi approach is hardly the best way to fight the obesity epidemic or let K-12 students be within convenient distance of expert librarians to help hone their research skills. Score one for Palfrey.

What’s more, how could I fail to concur with him that corporate subscription services and Amazon-style stores can not replace librarian-controlled institutions? Libraries focus on patrons’ needs, including the one for readers’ privacy. They are insulated from Wall Street’s reactions to quarterly earnings.

Also, isn’t it interesting that public libraries must now deal with competition not only from Amazon and Google but also from a doll-and-games company like American? Once again BiblioTech gets it right. The book is spot on, too, in saying library world needs more co-operation and less feuding between institutions. I wildly approve of the DPLA’s efforts to establish a common platform for the preservation and sharing of historical documents, books and countless other kinds of items. LibraryCity’s twin-system vision, in fact, calls for both the public and academic systems to use the services of a third organization, infrastructure-related. Also focused on providing “last mile” assistance in many forms, it could even fund the development of e-reading apps rather than leave the library world so dependent on Amazon, Kobo and the rest. Certainly it would be in line with the apropos call in the Palfrey book for more research and development to benefit the library world and the rest of us. The New York Public Library, the Douglas County system in Colorado, and other libraries are already doing work in the book app area. But so much more could be done.

BiblioTech is likewise correct in calling for the reinvention, not the elimination, of brick-and-mortar libraries. Here’s to maker-spaces and the reconfiguration of libraries to serve different patrons, or even the same patrons at different times! We need quiet homework havens” as well as places where teenagers can socialize in a noisier fashion. That could mean in some cases the displacement of physical books. But there are still ways to keep them on patrons’ minds—in fact, even more effectively than is the case now—through means such as e-book posters and cell phone book clubs. If nothing else, by reducing the need for shelving and such, digitally savvy libraries can devote more time to the promotion of books and other items as well as interaction with patrons.

Finally, BiblioTech reminds us that libraries are and should be about much more than books. At least one system even lends out fishing gear. The challenge, as I see it, is reach out into these other areas without compromising the availability of books. Digital libraries could help, with their efficiencies, including ease of sharing resources from Maine to Hawaii within the limits of copyright law.

What especially needs rethinking

Now let’s hope that both John Palfrey and the DPLA will rethink other matters. They can start with the role of libraries in providing best-sellers, a key way in which these widely cherished institutions endear themselves to local taxpayers in many locations. I wonder about the section where he notes the easy availability of Kindle and Nook books and digital magazines and newspapers and other content “if one has the money.” Yes, that’s true. But then he writes in the next paragraph: “Libraries may have a role in providing free access to those same digital services on networked devices, but that role is bound to be minor.”

He goes on to mention the short-sightedness of physical libraries simply “deciding who is first in line to download the latest James Patterson novel in a given zip code,” and I agree: local libraries must be and do so much more. Still, let’s not diss libraries as sources of bestsellers (especially if through a more of national approach we can give libraries new clout in dealings with publishers while also increasing the market for the houses’ wares). Certain literary books, not just Patterson novels, can be bestsellers on occasion. And what about the role of important nonfiction bestsellers in the civic debate? Suppose a heavy reader like Barrack Obama loves BiblioTech and talks it up at a White House news conference, resulting in follow-ups in the New York Times and many other major publications. Presto! Suddenly this important work of nonfiction is on the N.Y.T. bestseller list, just as Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century got there even without a tailwind from the Oval Office.

Shouldn’t as many people as possible, rich or poor, be able to benefit from good nonfiction bestsellers in a timely manner? Granted, BiblioTech does mention the possibility of special arrangements for low-income people to be able to read “the latest best-selling novels of hit movies” or presumably nonfiction works as well. But it envisions activities like this happening “at the margins.” [Added, April 16, 2019: I do need to note that Palfrey is talking in this exact place about activities at the local level, but then elsewhere he appears to have omitted such a qualifier. Beyond that, his big solution to access for the masses seems to be such changes as more lenient copyright laws. They are onerous now. But copyright reform by itself would be far from a replacement for adequate funding for the purchase of content—especially the popular kind so dear to library patrons—at prices fair to writers and publishers and others. A compulsory licensing scheme might help. But without the necessary money to buy books and other content, it will hardly be nirvana.]

I’m sorry; I passionately disagree, and President Obama just might, too, assuming he’s willing to expand the current K-12 initiative to embrace all age groups. Some librarians may dream of playing down books and bestsellers in particular as calling cards, and I myself would love more focus than now on the long-tail titles. But millions of typical patron-taxpayers will especially seek out books that they discover via the media or word of mouth generated thereby. What’s more, bestsellers can be like WiFi, a way to steer people to a library’s other offerings. In fact, smart librarians can even serve up popular romance novels while pointing patrons to classics and contemporary literary novels with similar characters and themes, as well as movies based on them. The same general idea also could apply to the promotion of the best nonfiction, following up on readers’ interest in somewhat similar books of less stature.

So with this and much else in mind, I’ll keep trying to turn around both John Palfrey and the DPLA on the bestseller issue and related ones, especially the need for separate public and academic national library systems, not just the endowment alone.

The two systems should share and collaborate and be good neighbors in the best tradition of a Robert Frost poem, Mending Wall (Frost audios here). But separate they should be. Otherwise we stand the danger of bestsellers losing out to scholarly and semi-scholarly writings at budget time. The library world tends to worship credentials and institutional prestige, so, under a single-system approach, academics and like-minded people may prevail even when their taste diverge widely from those of the public at large. In an academic context, that isn’t at all bad. Scholarly libraries should not pander to the preferences of the American population at large. Go for truth, scholarly importance, and aesthetics. Please don’t conflate the two different kinds of libraries even if their missions often overlap.

No mere abstraction here. The DPLA announced recently that it would work to get copyrighted books online, and at least pre-Obama-initiative, it apparently was to focus most of all on high-brow titles such as those available through the Humanities Open Book program. I, too, want generous funding for such valuable undertakings. But let’s not confuse those activities with genuine mass-literacy efforts, or ignore the risk of library gentrification. Let’s push hard for a national digital library endowment in the name of both mass and class. Simply put, the DPLA should honor the Five Laws of Library Science, especially the ones saying “Every book his [her] reader” and “Every book its reader.” That means making popular copyrighted titles available as much as possible. Yes, rationing may occur. There may be wait lists or shorter loan durations. But one way or another, libraries should stay in the best-seller business and encourage people of all socioeconomic levels to care about the ease of checking out such books.

This isn’t to say that libraries should be the entire book world, far from it. Let’s encourage all kinds of synergies between libraries and the commercial sector, especially with so many brick-and- mortar bookstores having vanished as outlets for the display of new books. The need badly exists for different business models—one way, beyond the two-system approach, to encourage a diversity of voices.

Still, library themselves should set up a Netflix-style subscription service and e-bookstore for patrons impatient to read hit titles. I own and will be happy to donate the domains of and if the DPLA or another public-spirited group will meaningfully follow up on the suggestions here. Just don’t forget the patrons without ample discretionary budgets for books. Ideally both the library-created subscription service and e-bookstore could offer discounts to low-income people. But how to pay for the above and more? I’ll further explain the endowment idea in the last part of this commentary.

More on the digital and reading divides

While the Palfrey book hardly ignore such issues as the reading and digital divides, I would have appreciated much more on them. This is just as important as the bestseller issue, and, in fact, the two go hand in hand since the greater availability and affordability of bestsellers would be a godsend for mass literacy. The same applies to many other books, especially children’s (just so they matched readers’ individual interests, and just so enough well-qualified librarians were around to encourage the books’ absorption and enjoyment). A member of the Quora service, a Web site where members ask and answer questions, inquired: “Should I buy books for my 10-year-old daughter to support her reading or have her buy books with her allowance to teach value of money? She’s already a voracious reader and has two library cards. Why or why not?” The Palfrey girl’s doppelganger? The responses on Quora were overwhelmingly in favor of not stinting on books.

The damage from “book droughts” in many small towns and rural areas harms us all. Not all families there have either literary or intellectual interests or the budget for steady Amazon purchases matching their children’s exact needs.

Conversely the greater availability of the right books could help smarten up the workforce, raise the GDP and make young people and the rest of us more empathetic, no small consideration in this post-Ferguson era. In The K-12 and Economic Cases for a National Digital Library Endowment, the LibraryCity site links to a slew of academic studies to support these assertions. As shown by the successes of the Changing Lives Through Literature program out of the University of Massachusetts, the right books and librarians can even reduce recidivism rates among convicted offenders. Extrapolating from research out of the U.K. and elsewhere, it’s also possible that a well-funded national digital library endowment could ultimately pay for itself by delaying the onset of dementia. And that is just one example of the potential cost-benefit ratio here.

For now, keep in mind that Americans between 15 and 19 years of age spend a mere six minutes a day on recreational reading, and although international test scores are hardly the be-all and end-all, we could be doing better. If nothing else, the easier availability of timely bestsellers on popular topics would be one way to encourage parents to read and be role models, even if the titles they favored were not the same as their offspring’s. Bear in mind, too, that popular-level best-sellers can be gateways to literary fiction and the most thoughtful and the best-written nonfiction.

The radioactive P word: How to keep it but lower the threat level

Sadly, in seeking solutions to the above and other K-12 and library challenges, the DPLA has divided the library community in much the same way that the Common Core State Standards initiative has divided educators. None other than the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies has passed a resolution asking the DPLA to drop “Public” from its name. Among some veteran public librarians’ sensible fears is that ant-library zealots in the future will argue that brick-and-mortar libraries will be redundant in the digital era.

Could the P word really complicate matters even now, at a time when some public library buildings in New York are literally falling apart and libraries are approaching politicians for millions and millions to maintain them? By all means.

A Forbes contributor has written a column saying that libraries could simply get out of the business of providing books and governments instead could pay companies like Amazon. Never mind that, even today, not all books are digitized. Or that the Forbes writer’s scenario already is reality to a great extent in the e-book world. Even today, companies such as the foreign-owned OverDrive serve in effect as public e-librarians for the nation; at the same time  they see our libraries and schools as cash-cows for investors. The private side has its place. But let’s not diminish local libraries along the way, either wittingly or unwittingly, whether the remote digital alternatives are public or private. BiblioTech correctly depicts the DPLA’s pooled resources as a promising means to augment individual libraries, not replace them. But the unfortunate P word could still backfire in the worst way.

Remembering the need to protect the branding of local libraries in the wake of attacks of them, I myself hope that the word “public” will not be used in the name or names of a national digital library system or systems. Better to say “National Digital Library of America” and “Digital Academic Library of America.” While the word “free” appears in the names of some brick-and-mortar libraries, that does not mean that the DPLA should do the same—lest it come across as a competitor.

But if the DPLA still insists on the P word, let me offer some friendly terraforming suggestions, beyond those mentioned or hinted at earlier, so that it will indeed be a genuine public system.

Turning the DPLA into a public library for real: More Specifics

1. The DPLA should go beyond simply designating Amy E. Ryan, head of the Boston Public Library, as John Palfrey’s successor as chair, effective this summer. She holds a library degree and has been in public library management for 35 years, so, yes, this is an excellent start. But it is not enough by itself to increase support for the DPLA among public librarians. Ideally the DPLA will appoint a current small-town or rural public librarian, as well as a school librarian, to its nine-member board of directors. Dwight McInvaill, a long-time DPLA participant, as well the innovative director of the public librarian system in Georgetown County, S.C., which has a high poverty rate, is one terrific possibility. Meanwhile, other demographic concerns arise. The only two public library directors on the DPLA board are from big-city systems on the coasts. Most public libraries are on the smaller side, most of them well inland, and their local demographics may differ considerably from ocean-side metropolises with large creative classes such as Boston or New York City. What’s more, of the 16 convening members of the DPLA’s content strategy committee, just four are now public librarians. Academics and the like-minded overwhelmingly predominate despite Dwight McInvaill’s presence, and not a single school librarian sits on the committee even though school libraries are 98,460 of the 119,729 in the U.S. This must change if the Ryan appointment is to signify more concern for people beyond the university campus.

2. The DPLA needs to care more about access issues—in terms of technology and the presentation and absorption of content–than it does now. I can recall at least one DPLA participant actually worrying that too good a site would steal traffic away from public libraries. Instead the somewhat dowdy-looking site has had the opposite problem. Compare it to the best public library sites with colorful homepages, pictures of kids and parents, and much, much easier navigation. might wow certain librarians and at least some tech-loving journalists. But for the rest of America, it lacks the pizzazz one would expect. Fortunately, the DPLA does intend to upgrade the site; I just hope the changes will be radical. For now, the site is too much for researchers, not enough for recreational readers. Yes, I know: students and teachers can use the material for assignments; but the site navigation is too complicated for their needs. I want all the power to remain. But let’s keep it optional, and let’s work toward a separate academic digital system where the complexity needn’t be hidden.

As I write this, the’s global rank on Alexa is 167,601; the domestic rank, 47,180. I know. The DPLA has drawn millions of accesses through APIs instead of the Web, and to a huge extent it’s about behind-the-scenes benefits to existing public libraries. Just the same, with the right approach, we could be talking hundreds of millions of accesses. Of greater importance, the site sends the wrong message. We need a separate public library system with a site that serves as an inspirational role model for the individual institutions within it. Local libraries could still live up to their name and localize and make the DPLA content part of their own sites via APIs.

3. Create a separate academic digital system, in the spirit of my suggestion in Item 2. Community colleges, not just four-year schools, could benefit (just as the community institutions could through the public system—they could tap into both, so as to serve a variety of patrons). Along the way many of the current people in the DPLA focused on higher-level library needs could shift their attention somewhat from public libraries to the Digital Academic Library of America or whatever the name ended up being.  Everyone could still access DALA; and much and perhaps even most of its content could simply be passed on to the public system, within the limits of copyright law. At the same time the DALA could better focus on the needs of scholars and researchers and college students than could a “one big tent” system aimed at the public at large. This would be reflected in everything from acquisition priorities to the interface of the Web site.

The above is hardly the only reason for a separate academic system. The DPLA has come a long way from its start. But it is still far more for humanities scholars than for those in scientific, medical and technical disciplines, among others. The academic digital system would help remedy this and other shortcomings of the current DPLA and make more copyrighted titles available for faculty, students, and others while still pushing the open access model to the extent possible. Both DALA and the National Digital Library of America would be well represented in the third organization proposed here, the one devoted to infrastructure. With the public NDLA system contributing to the funding of the common infrastructure organization, however, not just DALA doing so, less danger would exist of our neglecting the digital and reading divides.

Furthermore, the existence of two separate library systems would offer an opportunity for a wider range of opinions on both librarianship and actual content than would one system with the academics and like-minded people in charge. Think of libraries as like Congress. In our bicameral system, we have the House of Representatives and the Senate. Yes, gridlock can arise. But I’d hate to think of a country with only one legislative chamber to reflect voters’ viewpoints.

Again, keep in mind that Amy Ryan’s appointment as the forthcoming chair is not enough to make up for the current under-representation of public librarians such as Dwight McInvaill. Another interesting possibility for the board and committees would be Jeff Scott, now library director in Berkeley, but formerly the head of the system in Tulare County, California, an overwhelmingly Hispanic location with an adult functional illiteracy rate greater than 40 percent. He and I teamed up on a Tulare-related application to the Knight Foundation to try to finance the creation of cell phone book clubs—just the sort of grass-roots innovation that the DPLA should be nurturing.

“But,” supporters of the DPLA status quo might respond, “what about about the current efforts to encourage local libraries and museums to scan historical papers and other content and make the related metadata available both nationally and globally? Can we really separate academics and nonacademic elements?” I agree in this case. This is the very kind of activity that the joint infrastructure organization could handle. At the same time it could address other infrastructure issues such as preservation of content, not just pointers to servers elsewhere. The DPLA’s participation in the Hydra preservation- tool project is just the kind of activity at which the joint infrastructure organization could excel.

4. Work out a plan for both the public and academic sides to be true public library systems, staffed by government employees answerable to the rest of us. Wikipedia says: “A public library is a library that is accessible by the general public and is generally funded from public sources, such as taxes. It is operated by librarians and library paraprofessionals, who are also civil servants.” The DPLA is trying to change the definition to encompass nonprofits. That is wrong. As for the endowment itself, it could start out as nonprofit to bypass the gridlock on Capitol Hill, but as I personally see it, the endowment ultimately should be a public agency for maximum transparency and responsiveness.

What a national digital library endowment would look like

But what about the endowment to help pay for it all? The endowment idea is evolving, but Jim Duncan and I have already described the possibilities in depth. I hope that John Palfrey and colleagues will pay close attention not only the writings in Library Journal and the Chronicle of Philanthropy but also as well as LibraryCity items: The K-12 and Economic Cases for a National Digital Library Endowment, the endowment proposal in its original form, and a related FAQ. In BiblioTech, he says he “religiously” follow LibraryCity. Here’s a chance to revisit earlier LibraryCity posts, especially now that President Obama is putting e-books for K-12 in the spotlight.

Some related thoughts:

1. The initial goal would be a $15-$20 billion endowment within five years. Current public library endowments of all kinds are only about several billion, based on a Wilmington Trust N.A. study. Now consider that just 400 Americans are together worth more of $2 trillion dollars.

2. The money would come from interested members of the super rich and actually help local library fund-raising. The endowment could offer matching grants to assist local fund-raising campaigns. Yes, funds could go to local libraries directly, not just the proposed public and academic systems online.

3. No, not every billionaire will rush to contribute, but success would take only a few of the richest ones, and the endowment plan could benefit from support at the top—from President Obama himself. Remember the White House conference for young members of the super rich? A future conference not only should encourage individual initiatives but also those that are part of massive, coordinated national efforts—like the proposed endowment.

If nothing else, the national digital library endowment concept jibes nicely with the Gates Giving Pledge. No guarantees, but ideally Bill Gates and the like will come around. He himself is worth around $80 billion, and his friend Warren Buffett comes in second at about $70 billion. Granted, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is phasing out its Global Libraries initiative, which includes a domestic component. But if the endowment were created to fund separate public and academic systems—both with missions more clear-cut and focused than the current DPLA’s—perhaps Gates and other members of the super rich would be receptive. As for Buffett, keep in mind a quote that might reveal his mindset: “If past history was all there was to the game, the richest people would be librarians.” The current DPLA ideally will be able step up its digital humanities effort but at the time will also be forward-looking, just like the stock market, and play a major role in creating an infrastructure for scientific R&D as well—especially since the lines between the storage and processing of information could so often blur in the future. Talk about ways to endear a national digital library initiative to technologists like Gates as well as friends in the business world!

Also, in making the initiative more fundable, keep in mind an already-made point. While John Palfrey hopes for a billionaire savior or two for libraries, he would be better off to think in terms of an endowment of interest to billionaires with money but without the time or inclination to be Carnegies on their own. An endowment approach, moreover, could tap the skills of library and business professionals well beyond any one billionaire’s circles. It would be more more receptive to ideas from outside.

4. Members of minorities are badly underrepresented in the library world and other areas such as children’s literature—just read my Baltimore Sun op-ed for the specifics. The endowment could help pay for hiring and professional development of librarians in poor and heavily minority areas. In the near future, nonHispanic whites will be a minority. It’s time the library world caught up. Same for the publishing world in general.

5. The endowment would not only foster reading but also creation at the grassroots level. While the DPLA has often talked of a “generative” approach and has lived up to its words through APIs and improved access to valuable source material, it has lagged in other respects. Executive Director Dan Cohen and I both like the idea of the DPLA creating easy-to-use software for writing and editing blogs and more formal publications—and able to run on different platforms, including Linux. The issue isn’t just that current blogging apps for Linux are so dismal compared to Microsoft’s proprietary Live Writer. I also see an opportunity for the DPLA. Doesn’t it want to capture local history through scanning? Fine. But how about future history? Most of this content is created in digital format. Why not a DPLA blogging app with guided topic-tagging built in, so that even grassroots blogs are all set to go, if their authors are so inclined? In a related vein, how about a noncommercial alternative to Facebook that would be more respectful of privacy? See LibraryCity’s UsBook proposal. John Palfrey himself is, among other specialties, an expert in social media.

6. Ideally the endowment could directly or at least indirectly promote cell phone book clubs. Most teenagers today own cell phones. The better ones, especially big-screened “phablets,” are excellent for recreational reading for many young people and others. This isn’t the solution for all. If someone wants to read club-related books in paper format, why not? But special attention should be given to the term “cell phone” since people carry them everywhere, just like keys, wallets or purses.

7. A major focus of the Obama administration has been on the narrowing of the equality gap. Now consider libraries in the context of another important book from an author with Harvard connections, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, by Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist, who tells of the connection between community life and young Americans’ chances of success at both school and work.  What counts in the end, Putnam more or less says, is connections between the kids and caring people who are able to help them. Not just family members but community ones. Putnam is keen on libraries as life-changers. I wish the professor had developed his library-related thoughts further, just as I wish that the Palfrey book devoted even more space than it already does to the community and social-mobility aspects of libraries. If nothing else, cell phone book clubs would be one place where the disadvantaged could meet prospective mentors. Foundation funding libraries to start and maintain the clubs might depend to an extent on indications that business people and professionals would participate. Talk about useful Rotary Club projects! At the same time let’s not leave out communities where there is no way to round up enough volunteers to be mentors.

8. If the DPLA is to become a real public library, it should pay much more attention to recreational reading and to the idea of books as narratives, not just “information” sources, the endowment could promote this. In “The K-12 and Economic Cases for a National Digital Library Endowment,” as noted, LibraryCity points out the potential of the best narration-centered books as empathy builders.

9. Most or at least much of the academic research on e-reading vs. p-reading is bunk, reflecting all too heavily the prejudices of researchers weaned on paper books, and let’s hope the biases won’t interfere with the realization of the endowment vision.

John Palfrey’s own daughter is format-agnostic, and that’s just how it should be. What researchers should pay more attention to is the optimization of e-book technology—both the hardware and the software. Browser-based e-readers are not always the best way to go, as the Palfrey girl discovered. Perhaps this will change. Given the millions of U.S. children with such learning disabilities as attention deficit disorder, it would also help for Washington to pass legislation to require e-readers to be able to read books aloud, assuming that FCC won’t require this.

10. The endowment should encourage library systems to learn lessons the from the all-digital library in San Antonio, Texas, and start branches like it in appropriate areas. See LibraryCity’s detailed book review of Bexar BiblioTech: The Evolution of the Country’s First All-Digital Public Library. Mention of the successful Bexar County experiment, by the way, would have been highly appropriate in the Palfrey book.

Will DPLA and its chair follow up on the ideas here? One librarian has compared to the DPLA to a train roaring down the tracks, bound for an already-determined destination, and, in fact, the organization can often be vexingly impervious to advice from outsiders, even knowledgeable ones. I myself will be a little more optimistic. I’ve devoted months to developing the endowment concept and days to analyzing the Palfrey book. Ideally he’ll take a few hours to consider the possibilities here.

Addendum, 6:37 p.m., April 30, 2015: This  “first edition” is subject to corrections and other tweaking. I wanted it online in time to quickly follow the Obama speech announcing the K-12 e-book initiative. Applause for Obama and the DPLA for what’s happening now. But let’s do more! Ten thousand current books for the President’s national library for disadvantaged kids is nothing in the grand scheme of things. A related question is, How many students at once can check out a particular title from the 10,000-book collection? I don’t know. Libraries and e-book services often use DRM to limit simultaneous accesses.

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2 comments to “How the DPLA could turn itself into a real ‘public’ library system—and encourage billionaires to pay for it and an academic system”
2 comments to “How the DPLA could turn itself into a real ‘public’ library system—and encourage billionaires to pay for it and an academic system”
  1. I'm confused by your call to support the DPLA with an endowment.  If the DPLA is to become a real public library it needs to build a collection.  As it is it is simply a portal to collections a la the Online Archive of California, WorldCat or Eurpeana.  It’s a library in name only.  The best thing DPLA could do with an endowment is to give as much of the funding it can to public libraries of all stripes and advocate for support of issues vital for citizenry like fair use in Washington.  Let’s face it, the only reason we need DPLA is that ILS systems do a terrible job of getting metadata on the web.

    • Thanks, Todd. A few points:

      1. Portals rich in metadata—not just full-fledged archives—can be useful. Of course, I wish the DPLA interface were better so people could get to the actual books, etc., more easily. Yes, the current site is a long way from a typical public library one in friendliness. But as with the Obama plan, is a start. Besides, is doing a great job of encouraging libraries of all kinds to scan new content—I love the content and service hub concepts. I just wish the cared more about born-digital content in the era of blogging.

      2. The endowment proposal does in fact call for some of the money to match locally raised funds. Moreover, it would pay for such locally oriented efforts as the hiring and professional development of minority librarians. We’re talking about a lot more than the current DPLA efforts. Later this month Education Week will publish a summary of the endowment proposal (Jim Duncan collaborated with me on the EW article). Now let’s hope that the White House policy people and others will read EW and understand how much really needs to be done!

      3. Yes, ILS systems could be better at metadata. But then the vendors’ needs are so often coming ahead of those of librarians and patrons. By contrast, the DPLA is noncommercial.

      David Rothman



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