On ‘Open Mind’ PBS program: DPLA proposer’s inconsistencies show why we need TWO national digital library systems—one academic and one public

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Quiz! Which of these direct quotes came from a public-TV interview with Harvard’s Robert Darnton, the original proposer of the Digital Public Library of America?

image1. “Now the DPLA…those of us who are trying to organize it, haven’t yet reached a decision about how close to the contemporary market we want to come. Some would say, ‘Make everything available,’ including books published yesterday…” So the DPLA might offer modern best-sellers, in competition with the digitized incarnations of local public libraries—thus reinforcing my concerns and COSLA’s about the “Public” in the DPLA’s name? Of course, if the DPLA does not include best-sellers, then why should it qualify as a “Public Library” in the first place? Not to mention other reasons, such as the harm to the franchise and branding of full-service brick-and-mortar public libraries.

2. “…This great digital library will like a backroom, a digital backroom to your small town public library or city neighborhood library. It will give all the citizens access to the entirety of literature in all fields. But, it’s not going to provide them with the current best seller, the current DVD, the sorts of things that most people go to libraries for… aside from the services of libraries which are very important.” So the DPLA isn’t for the majority of library-users? And COSLA and I need not worry, except about the misuse of the P word?

3. “Another objection is they say, ‘Oh, this elitist. You’re thinking of a library for other researchers and college professors.’ That’s not the case at all. There…this will be a library for K to 12 schools, for community colleges, for individuals who want access to books.”  But aren’t best-sellers “books”—in fact, among local pubic libraries’ main draws?

So which of the statements came from the DPLA’s main founder? All three.

I’m grateful to Bob Darnton for his valiant fight against the more obnoxious parts of the now-dead Google Books settlement, and to the DPLA tech side for helping to advance metadata and cataloguing, and for the valuable Beta Sprint effort in general. But the Darnton interview, conducted in June and aired on the Open Mind program this month, leaves us more confused than ever about the DPLA and its goals.

The real solution is for the DPLA to share e-books and other content with an intertwined but separate public digital system. Just don’t get in the way of the creation of a national system focused more on the needs of the masses rather than of the academic elite. We need both kinds of systems. And the very existence of the D”P”LA could long delay or maybe even forever rule out the dual-system approach. No need for a fork immediately. But the DPLA needs to commit to it happening in X months, barring unforeseen complications.

There would and should be overlaps. But the priorities and styles of the two different species of libraries differ just too much to lump them together. If nothing else, I’d love to know how the DPLA can set a sterling example for young civics students when it refuses to hold routine open meetings. All the public dazzle at the Washington meeting on October 21—and I am looking forward to it, being a DPLA booster despite my concerns—can’t make up for the DPLA’s insistence on hiding public library business from the public.

Please, DPLA. Think about planning for two separate systems, without academics subsuming the public side, as would most likely be the case with the “one big tent” approach. And about the public’s business, please keep an “open” mind, and consider open meetings as well if you don’t want people to call the DPLA “elitist.”

Slightly tweaked on October 12, 2011 to expand on the P word issue.

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