DPLA steering committee adds local librarians, women, minorities, per LibraryCity recommendations—and here are other friendly suggestions

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imageimageWhat’s a “public” library without public librarians?

Responding to us—and others—the Digital Public Library of America has added three highly respected public librarians to what was a 14-member steering committee without any local librarians.

imageimageOne of the trio, Carla Hayden, former ALA president as well as CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore (above photo of Pratt), is an African-American. A second female newcomer is Amy E. Ryan, president of the Boston Public Library, while a third member, Luis Herrera (left photo below), head of the San Francisco Public Library, is Hispanic.

Yes, LibraryCity.org had raised ethnic, race, and gender issues, not just librarian-related ones, especially since nonHispanic whites will be a minority in America long before the turn of the century.

imageimageThe committee expansion is a big step forward—thanks to John Palfrey (right photo), committee leader, for taking seriously his promises to us!—but we would still like to see more members of racial and ethnic minorities.

The DPLA also needs small-town or rural librarians (particularly from “flyover” country) where the cultural and technological landscapes can differ starkly from those of university and urban communities. And a library-smart K-12 educator, ideally someone at the “grunt” level who is a reading specialist, would be a good addition, too (considering the academic possibilities here), as would a scientific, medical or technical librarian and someone well regarded in the publishing community.

imageIn our opinion, moreover, the DPLA should not just care about the composition of the Steering Committee but also the extent to which the committee members will actually participate in and influence the organization. Furthermore, diversity- and librarian-related outreach should happen outside the committee as well; the DPLA ideally will also show similar attention in such areas as staffing and use of consultants. Otherwise the laudable appointments to the steering committee will have been mostly just cosmetic.

But before the DPLA is too far along, we suggest an immediate and thorough revision of the concept statement, which right now is too partial to older books of interest to scholars and not sufficiently responsive to the needs of the typical public library users; hence, the statement clashes with the “Public” in the group’s name. Library items from all eras will count, especially contemporary ones. In addition, with both academe and the general public in mind, the DPLA should undertake major organizational changes as soon as possible, making use of the same accomplished people now serving on the Steering Committee:

image1. Harvard Librarian Robert Darnton and other eminent academics on the DPLA could focus on a Scholarly Digital Library of America, mostly privately funded, as he originally envisioned the DPLA itself. The SDLA could include his estimable “Republic of Lettersvision and develop not just collections of valuable books and other items, but also communities of scholars and—as some have called them—citizen-scholars. Perhaps Prof. Darnton himself could serve as the first Librarian of the SDLA. Ideally he could bring in top librarians and academics from the worlds of science, medicine, and technology, so far underrepresented (as noted) in the current DPLA. The vision for the SDLA and the two other proposed organizations mentioned here would be in line with Elinor Ostrom’s eight design concepts for sustainable institutions sharing resources, especially the need for boundaries and respect for the priorities of individual community members. One monster-sized library project, mixing up scholarly and public libraries, helter-skelter, would very likely end up as the library equivalent of the ill-conceived AOL-Time Warner merger. An appreciation of differences in organizational cultures, please! The Alfred P. Sloan foundation, the DPLA’s current funders, could sponsor workshops online and in person for academic library specialists in such areas as collection development, so the SDLA closely reflected actual needs.

2. The public librarians could work with an existing group, perhaps the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies, the Library of Congress, or both, and form the National Digital Library of America to serve the library world, with mostly public funding, much of which could be diverted from money now going to rent books whose future accessibility is far from completely guaranteed (also see Simon Barron’s perspective, on related matters, from the UK). We strongly believe that Harvard’s Berkman Center and its talented people, the organizational hosts of the DPLA, should facilitate but not oversee or preempt public librarians; a national digital public library system needs to be separate from the scholarly system for reasons this site has already described in detail. Here, too, workshops could go a long way, as they could with the infrastructure organization mentioned below.

3. A third organization, tapping the considerable brainpower of Berkman’s David Weinberger among others, with participation from both the scholarly and public library operations, could focus on the creation and development of a technological infrastructure serving both of the systems, in accordance with the needs of the systems as expressed by their people. We would strongly suggest that the National Library Infrastructure of America reach out to techies at all levels within the public library world and the private sector alike, as well as standards-setting bodies such as the International Digital Publishing Forum. The NLIA could be extremely helpful on library-related broadband issues and in educating policymakers about the technical, and it could also investigate indirect cost-justification of the online library system, an issue related to the availability of suitable hardware for enjoying e-books and other content.

The scholarly and public systems could exchange links and content and otherwise cooperate in countless ways and each be accessible by the entire country, with consolidated searching and browsing; but we really need to establish the three independent organizations described above—a more advantageous arrangement for funding, staffing, and overall administration. As further evidence of the different priorities of academia libraries and others, consider that 40% of books in the studied academic libraries have never even been cracked open and the same percentage have been checked out fewer than three times. Thanks to the efficiencies of new media, as well as patron-driven acquisitions, academic libraries may well improve matters. But we wonder how many public librarians would have stood for percentages as low.

Meanwhile books in the library of one Tennessee elementary school were said within the past decade to average 36 years in antiquity, and in high school libraries in the Nashville area, the average age was a mere 25. Think, especially, of all the obsolete information in scientific and technological books, popular and otherwise.

In other words, do we want to pit the priorities of universities against those of K-12 and public libraries (which so far have not even been able to pay for all basic needs despite the obvious benefits of a wide selection of books for K-12 students)? Even within the Scholarly Library, there will be conflicts between, say, humanists focused on older books and scientists keen on up-to-date knowledge in books and other media; why aggravate matters by lumping together potential acquisitions of content at different levels? And that doesn’t even consider that academics may not be enchanted with the idea of paying young librarians to promote vampire novels to teenagers who otherwise might not be reading at all for recreation. Let all that blood-sucking serve a purpose.

Beyond the countless business complications, an onerously consolidated approach would bring about other negatives—for example, less variation in the range of books chosen, especially fiction. Academic and public librarians may show rather different sensibilities, which is all to the good; and different business models—the mainly foundation-funded Scholarly Library and the mainly publicly funded National Digital Library—could add to the variety. And then there is the ticklish issue of the Patriot Act, a topic dear to Carla Hayden, going by her past record. The foundation-funded library could be a bastion of free expression if somehow politicians interfered with the National Digital Library (even though there are no guarantees, given the the reliance of charities on tax breaks).

Within the public library community, we know that many will be concerned about the continued justification for the existence of so many bricks and and all that mortar. Librarians should take comfort that paper books will not vanish immediately. But, yes, as Borders and Barnes & Noble have so painfully discovered within the retail sector, the e-book revolution is happening much more quickly than many were expecting. Astutely or not—opinions will differ—a new B&N commercial talks up reading in a general way without showing paper books or traditional stores. “The hopeful message?” says a New York Times article. “Reading is not going away.” Exactly. Libraries need to evolve rather than be the equivalent of railroads that failed to understand they were in the transportation business and branch out into aviation. Worry less about the status quo and more about protecting the main franchise. Public libraries, for example, could downsize branches somewhat, while still keeping them open as community gathering places and as safe homework-centers where students could receive onsite mentoring and inspiration from librarians. Meanwhile the libraries could grow mindshare for their digital collections and services through means such as the Outpost concept that Nate Hill has advocated—perhaps even running video trailers to promote the best authors at the local, state, and national levels. Public libraries could also expand digital content and services for the fast-growing elderly population (especially in the medical and financial areas), not to mention new Americans who are pulling down two or three jobs and so often lack time for in-library visits but want to improve their job-related skills.

The above is the optimal future—the way we see it here at LibraryCity.org—as opposed to American libraries fading away for want of a strategic vision. A well-stocked national digital public library system, intertwined with a mostly privately financed scholarly counterpart, might ultimately be the difference between public libraries failing and surviving. All this is no small reason why we are hoping for open minds among both the academics and the public librarians within the current Digital Public Library of America.

Related: Thoughts on a DPLA, where prominent  librarians present their visions. They are Peggy Rudd, Texas State Librarian as well as a DPLA Steering Committee member; Dr. Danielle Plummer, prominent in the online public library world in Texas; LibraryCity.org Coordinator Tom Peters, a veteran librarian and consultant; and Jim Scheppke, State Librarian of Oregon, long active in COLSA. Also see COSLA’s report on the current e-book scene within the public library world.

Note: Consider this post  a first edition, so to speak. We may be making refinements.

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