DPLA still clinging to ‘Public’ in name—despite risks to the franchise and branding of America’s public libraries

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imageWhen is a library truly “public” in the traditional American sense, the one on which thousands of genuinely public libraries have built their branding? Should the Digital Public Library of America protect public libraries’ franchise and branding by dropping the “Public” from the DPLA’s name? Most emphatically.

imageAnd along the way, the DPLA should reorganize its otherwise-superb wiki to avoid conflating the organization per se and national digital library goals. Read on—for our reply to DPLA’s Robert Darnton (photo), author of The Voices of Librarians and the DPLA (his commentary just posted on the Library Journal site). Similar words appear in my LJ comment.

As a national digital library advocate since the early 1990s, I hope that the Digital Public Library of America draws massive funding from the foundation world. But first the organizers need to to clarify the group’s role. An excellent first step would be to drop “Public” from its name—at the very next Steering Committee Meeting, ideally—so the DPLA does not unwittingly weaken the franchise and branding of existing public libraries.

While the DPLA has commendably reached out to librarians and others, LibraryCity Coordinator Thomas Peters and I continue to see a disturbing contradiction. On one hand, the original DPLA statements focused on Prof. Darnton’s excellent Republic of Letters vision, which, yes, is rather limited and encompasses just a fraction of existing public library content and services, regardless of the vision’s considerable merits. On the other, now as well as back then, the DPLA keeps saying it is not just for the elite. So what assurance do we have that it won’t in time become a public library substitute online, especially with “public” in its name? Tom and I agree with Oleg K., a public librarian in Lancaster, Louisiana, whose concerns Prof. Darnton was fair-minded enough to quote in his collection of librarians’ reactions: “Simply calling the project a digital public library because it is on the open web is misleading; a truly public library should be designed and built from the beginning with a general audience in mind.” The DPLA itself should merely originate and distribute content without actually being the public system or even risking that possibility in the future. Librarians, as experts in taxonomy, need to appreciate the more-than-minor details here. Here’s to precision!

In the spirit of the sentiments above, the DPLA’s valuable wiki should be divided into the three parts, with the suggested name change in effect—no “Public” or “P”:

–Part I of the wiki would be for DLA-specific activities, such as Prof. Darnton’s stellar Republic of Letters vision—zin other words, the creation and dissemination of items that would enrich public libraries via links and content exchanges rather than be used to compete with the existing public system. Yes, the public should be able to access the DLA directly. But to avoid confusion, the group, as noted, should drop the P and clarify the organization’s role in its mission statement so that public library foes in the future cannot say: “Who needs public libraries? We have the DPLA.” Some misguided people are already saying that about Google and Wikipedia as substitutes. Please, DPLA; don’t complicate matters with an otherwise-useful wiki conflating the organization per se and national digital library goals.

–Part II would offer recommendations specifically for a PUBLIC organization such as the Library of Congress, a far more logical host for a universal online public library system than the DLA/DPLA, given all the important governance issues here and the civic-related functions of public libraries here in the United States (they play a special role keeping the citizenry informed–in person and in print and electronically).

–Part III could deal with common issues, including those technical ones related to interoperability, other standards, human interface options for different kinds of users, and ideally distributed and highly redundant archiving in different media. The end result of a coordinated, standards-centric approach would still mean a very seamless system for end users.

Also, the current DPLA’s workshops at Harvard should be open to the public without the Chatham House Rules in effect. Having attended an actual workshop through the kindness of Harvard’s Berkman Center, I believe even more than before that more-open discussion would far outweigh the negatives. Maybe certain participants would not be as direct in their statements. But so be it. Shouldn’t librarians be in favor of openness in major projects like this? As a writer, I certainly am. Ideally the workshops would have formal, open discussion sessions for librarians and others–encompassing both remote electronic participation and the in-person variety.

Meanwhile, for another vision that could still include extremely useful involvement from the hoped-for DLA—no P, please—see librarycity.org and a related essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education at:


The LibraryCity site also includes a collection of links to past writings at TheAtlantic.com and elsewhere:


David Rothman
Cofounder, LibraryCity.org
and founder of TeleRead.org

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