Q. & A. with DPLA leader John Palfrey on closed meetings, the controversial P Word and other governance issues

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imageWe’re indebted to the Digital Public Library of America, hosted by Harvard’s Berkman Center, for raising interest in the national digital library issue.

At the same time, questions persist on topics ranging from the DPLA’s closed steering committee meetings to the “Public” in the organization’s name. Ahead are replies from DPLA Chair John Palfrey. Thanks, John. I remain open to publishing thoughts from other DPLA committee members in response to the same questions already e-mailed to all members. Separately I’ll soon share further recommendations for the DPLA and Harvard to augment my earlier suggestions. For now, here are John’s replies to the questions (shortened).

1. Can you kindly pass on the copies of the minutes from the June 13 since this is the Digital “Public” Library of America and actual library boards are generally covered by open meetings laws, regardless of whether or not the DPLA is? Care to share any other copies of any other minutes that have not been publicly released?

JP: Yes, minutes will be posted shortly to the public listserv, if they have not been already. In response to your previous queries along these lines, I responded that we will release minutes for all Steering Committee meetings. There are no other minutes that have not been publicly released. 

The question of the "open meetings laws" is one that we’ve discussed in brief already and will continue to take up, especially as part of our governance track. As you know, this is currently a project of the Berkman Center at Harvard, not an organization; there is no governing body or mode of governance as of yet.  There is a workstream that we plan to devote to this important matter. As ever, we will welcome broad public input to what mode(s) make sense for this project.

2. Are you in favor of keeping the public out of DPLA steering committee meetings, and if so, under what circumstance should the meetings be behind closed doors? Should routine meetings be closed? However you feel, what are your justifications? Any votes taken or planned to be taken on the secrecy matter? Should committee meetings be broadcast on the Net, especially given member Carl Malamud’s expertise in netcasting, and why or why not? I can’t help but observe that Public.Resource.Org, his organization, is devoted to “Making Government Information More Accessible.”

JP: The Steering Committee has not yet taken up this issue, but it will be an important part of the governance discussions that we have planned.  Speaking personally, I would favor a blend: some meetings should be completely public and open (including webcast); at the same time, I think that organizations need spaces where people can talk off the record. Even "open meetings" laws tends to make provisions for such discussions on sensitive matters, as you know, since you cite them above.

3. Was a vote held, or will a vote be held, on the continued existence of the word “Public” in the DPLA’s full name? When? Just what were the results if the DPLA voted? How did you vote or will you vote? Got any particular variants of the name you prefer? Are you aware that the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies has officially opposed the “Public” in the name, fearing that it “might have unintended consequences of undermining support for public libraries in their states”? A PDF of the resolution is here.

JP: In each of the Steering Committee discussions, we have spent time on this issue of the name. No decision has been reached. That’s because there’s no consensus among the group. We’ve decided that the matter will be resolved by the October 21, 2011, public meeting that we plan for this fall.  

4. When will the next committee meeting be held? Where? Or will the meeting happen just by phone or another electronic medium?

JP: Most likely, the next Steering Committee meeting will be held in conjunction with our October 21 public meeting, set for Washington, DC. We may well meet telephonically before then as needed. If there is a meeting in telephonic or in-person form, we will release the minutes, at a minimum, as I’ve described.

5. Who are all the current officers of the committee by name, title and institutional affiliation, and, if you know, their dates of assumption of office? Any other key committee members by name and title such as heads of committees? Have there been any changes in the committee membership since June 3, the date of the list I have, and if so, who was added or has left?

JP: No, there are no committees and no officers. I (John Palfrey) chair the Steering Committee.  Don Waters is stepping off the Steering Committee. Any and all changes to the list of Steering Committee will be made on the public web page devoted to the Steering Committee’s membership, of which you are aware.

6. Any budget discussions or actions, and if so, can you pass on the information? Do you know of any contractors or employees by function and name, and if so, do you have payment information? I’m aware that the committee members are volunteers. But are they paying others for DPLA-related specialized services?

JP: There is no organization and no budget. This is a project of the Berkman Center. It is funded by a $125,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation made late last year, as well as smaller grants from the Open Society Foundation (travel budget for our Amsterdam meeting on Open Linked Data) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (travel funding for our Washington, DC meeting on technical issues). So far, the money has paid just for travel for outside parties, including yours, to the three meetings we’ve held, and for a modest amount of staff time from a Berkman Center research associate.

7. While the committee is said to be informal, does it have any bylaws or other written or unwritten rules governing its operation? Any specific references to secrecy and the reason for it? In the past, as I recall, the DPLA said it wanted public and foundation officials to feel comfortable, but this rationale does not work for typical “public” libraries.

JP: No, there are no bylaws or any rules for governance. That’s part of our plan for the governance track of the project. We will certainly take into account the norms of a broad range of actors in our governance plans. This is still a "project" of the Berkman Center.

8. Why would a prestigious, resource-rich organization like Berkman, the DPLA’s organizational host, still have an “informal” committee for this “Public” Library group even months after the committee’s formation?

JP: This sounds like a statement and not a question. If this project turns into a long-term organization, it will no doubt need to have a more formal mode of governance.

9. I assume that no committee members of the DPLA have or have had connections with intelligence, security or law enforcement agencies—for example, through full-time employment or paid or unpaid consultancies?

JP: I’m not sure why this question belongs in this list. I have no such connections myself.

(Note: This question is here because of the library-related parts of the Patriot Act and, of course, is at the end of the list—not a featured query. I simply felt it would be healthy to ask for the record, not because of suspicions toward any DPLA members. In a nonlibrary, nonPatriot Act context, the Instapaper situation is the latest civil libraries controversy with a cyber twist. – D.R.)

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