Make the DPLA a world-class academic system, let public libraries form their own e-system, and create an endowment for both, says Jim Duncan

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Editor’s note: This is Part Two of Duncan’s LibraryCity series on the Digital Public Library of America and public libraries. Part One is here.

boyreadingpoe.jpgThe U.S. needs two intertwined digital library systems and a national digital library endowment. One system should focus on the needs of academics and other researchers. It should be guided by academic librarians and archivists. The second as-yet-to-be-developed system should address public libraries' challenges in such areas as acquisition, management and delivery of e-content to serve the needs of children, teens, their parents, small business owners, hobbyists, recreational readers, the lady down the street, and me. I’m not ashamed to say that I read young adult novels as voraciously as I do nonfiction books about leadership and innovation.

Unfortunately a majority of the patrons described above are not sufficiently served through the current iteration of the Digital Public Library of America.

The problems begin with the DPLA name. The Chief Officers of State Library Agencies has even passed an official resolution asking the DPLA to drop the “Public.” This counts if we care about the branding of brick-and-mortar public libraries.

“People have said that the age of the library is probably ending,” the mayor of Miami-Dade County recently said in a video about the proposed closure of 22 branches and lay-offs of 251 workers. Thankfully, cuts of that scale did not occur. But the long-term fiscal outlook for public libraries in communities like Miami-Dade is still bleak when uninformed political leaders fail to observe the buzz of library life right under their noses. Will some communities eventually ditch neighborhood libraries in favor of a short-sighted, virtual-only approach, and even suggest that the DPLA is “good enough for us”? All the more reason to reserve the term “public library” for the real thing. This unique brand is priceless.

Why has the nonprofit DPLA so far ignored COSLA, even though as shown in Part One of this series, the DPLA site is more of a portal into higher-education archives than a true public library?

The steady march toward its academic future continues. If you look at the agenda for the first DPLAFest, held October 24-25, you’ll find that academics and their colleagues dominate the lists of planned speakers. A true digital public library system, on the other hand, would flood the podiums not just with academics but also with savvy grassroots practitioners eager to swap ideas—K-12 teachers as well as youth services librarians, business librarians alongside reader advisor experts. The session on “DPLA in the classroom” is lost in a sea of others focused on technical topics and other academic concerns. But wait; even that session’s four featured speakers are all from higher education rather than K-12!

I’m delighted to see Greg Pronevitz, executive director of the Massachusetts Library System, appearing as one of two listed speakers in the session called “Alternative Approaches to Digital Hosting and E-book licensing.” But where are others from the public library world such as Jamie LaRue, from Douglas County, Colorado, an especially notable trail-blazer in this and related topics? No public librarians are mentioned in connection with another workshop, “Using Digital Tools to Extend the DPLA and Connect with Local Libraries.” Wouldn’t more public librarians be likely to attend if one of them helped lead the discussion and helped ask the proper questions from a grassroots perspective?

Within the agenda I see a few other public library folks. One is Nate Hill from the Chattanooga Public Library (I had the pleasure of listening to him recently at our own statewide library conference here in Colorado). Along with Jamie Hollier (now a consultant but a very well-regarded public library evangelist by background), he is leading a workshop on how the DPLA can “add value at the local level.” Great topic! Still, let’s not kid ourselves. DPLAFest ended up as an overwelmingly academic gathering.

Far more disturbing in the long term, the DPLA hasn’t sufficiently come to grips with copyrighted works being produced right now or tomorrow. Such expansion of scope is not currently palatable to today’s DPLA leaders and planners. They have made it clear that other kinds of content, such as public domain and Creative Commons works, are their main priority. The DPLA hopes that the battle between publishers, mid-level aggregator companies and libraries will shake out well for libraries. Such a wait-n-see approach does nothing to help the typical public library. Public library patrons most of all value current books, and a Pew study this year showed books to be among libraries’ main draws.

I am not on the inside of the DPLA community and by no means intend offense toward all of those individuals involved in hours upon hours of DPLA planning work, but I have yet to find evidence that the DPLA plans on reaching beyond its current academic scope. Aside from the laudable addition of Jamie Hollier to the board of directors, the DPLA continues to advance on its path as a portal to digital research assets and digital archives rather than paying sufficient attention to typical public library needs. The two distinguished public librarians on the nine-member board are both from large systems with major research operations and physical collections many times the size of those of a typical American public library, not representative of the 3 out of 4 public libraries in the U.S. The DPLA is out of touch.

Here, then, are some strategic steps to reinvent the DPLA (building on its success, marching toward its mission as a comprehensive academic library system), while also addressing mainstream public library concerns through a separate public system. I want to see academics and public librarians working closely with each other, not at cross purposes.

1. The DPLA should not only drop the problematic P word immediately but also reach out formally to COSLA and offer to partner with this group of state librarians (and invested library leaders within their territories) to plan and develop a true public system, with the understanding that seasoned public library leaders and IT folks working in public libraries would be in charge of the system. I urge COSLA to pass a formal resolution in favor of such a genuine public digital library system (COSLA’s national meeting will take place October 28-31). It is imperative that DPLA academics be facilitators, not leaders, of the public system. The two systems ideally will have overlapping boards. School librarians and other K-12 leaders should be prominent in the conversations involving the public system. In its present lineup, the DPLA board does not include a current educator from a public school system. This, despite the Pew poll showing 85 percent of the respondents wanted closer cooperation between libraries and local schools.

2. In separate but interwoven systems sharing common infrastructure, both public and academic libraries should get serious about developing service and support approaches to address unique challenges of multi-type libraries. Avoid needless reinvention. Tap the expertise of the very best people from all corners of our industry, not just academic IT. I like the DPLA’s interest in developing a network of Digital Hubs (content and service “on-ramps” as a kind of distributed infrastructure). Without sufficient grassroots participation to help planners understand the myriad of tech challenges faced by many of our nation’s public libraries, the solutions implemented through these Hubs are not likely to be practical or deliverable at the local level. Many local libraries can barely keep desktop computers functioning. I recently spoke with a rural public library director mourning the retirement of her two 13-year-old Gates-funded PCs! We need practical, easy-entry approaches to selecting/acquiring e-content, ingesting locally-produced e-content, managing e-content (rights, policies, resource sharing activities) and delivering e-content—if we ever hope to bring such public libraries genuinely into this digital future.

3. I agree with Rothman and others in their call for alternative funding strategies. For the benefit of interwoven public and academic systems, let’s establish a national digital library endowment (original proposal here, more details here). The DPLA's financial backing to date is soft money from philanthropic foundations or federal grants. The DPLA needs to diversify its funding. Excessive dependence on soft money can lead to unsustainable operations. Ultimately, chasing soft dollars can cause an organization’s direction to shift, where its focus becomes more aligned to the focus of the “grant program of the year.” Financial and operational independence from the grant-giving community should be a clear goal. No, I would never advocate for an endowment as a sole financial solution, nor would Rothman and other endowment proponents. But it could help, and not just with financial stability, but also with mission focus. A well-funded independent endowment serves as a kind of fiscal safety net while still allowing for a balance between sustainable fiscal practices and appropriate/reasonable risk taking through R&D.

4. Librarians should never forget the importance and power of good content. By focusing on special collections and research content published between the year 1002 and yesterday, the DPLA remains a historically-scoped point of entry to our country’s creative output. The librarians in both academic and public systems need to think like an entrepreneurs and grapple with the challenges and potential rewards surrounding acquisition and delivery of contemporary and future e-content, in all forms. Popular content, literary content, self-published content—you name it. And that means money. Unfortunately, as it stands now (mission, architecture), DPLA is not well-positioned to talk seriously with the Big Six (now Big Five) publishers. Even now, however, librarians of all kinds could partner with independent publishers and individual authors, or with existing operations like Smashwords that shorten the bridge between author and reader. Douglas County Libraries is leading the way.

5. Get competitive. There are lots of reasons companies buy out other companies. To gain an edge in the market. To secure intellectual property. To establish new lines of business. With backing from a national digital library endowment, the two intertwined national systems should either develop a scalable platform for managing e-books that competes with existing middle-market e-book providers, or consider outright acquisition of one of those companies. Perhaps a mix of the two strategies? Imagine if the endowment helped the public and academic systems buy out an aggregator and reseller of e-books and audio books like OverDrive, the largest/leading e-book reseller in the public library market. Imagine OverDrive managed and developed as a digital agent of responsive civic/public organizations—guided by library leaders focused on societal and public benefits and not profits.

Occupying this position, owning this technology, securing those publisher relationships as a coordinated group of libraries—well, that offers library leaders a new, powerful role in the publishing ecosystem. Not being guided or weighed down by the need for greater profit margins driven by high-percentage markups (unlike some existing middle-market companies), librarians could offer the public more value.

Working both independently and together, as justified previously, our two digital library systems could leverage the development of (or acquisition of pre-established) technical infrastructure to buy more content directly from publishers (in turn increasing the revenue enjoyed by those publishers). The systems could drive more business to partners—content providers and resellers—by way of a massive network of public library web sites and online catalogs. Consider digital library systems as brick-and-mortar franchises/outlets that do not focus on making money but catalyze those purchases anyway by increasing exposure to a combination of free and affordable e-content. Everyone wins.

Final Two Cents

We’ve seen the DPLA make a splash in the academic research community, but it is far from a household name in public library circles—for a good reason, I think. The organization’s culture is disconnected from the realities of the typical public library. If you believe, as I do, that culture drives innovation, then something needs to change soon.

The DPLA’s current path is noble. Its invested planners and developers and staff should focus on becoming the world’s biggest and best portal to and home for academic digital library content—without distractions or the loss of credibility that comes with calling the organization “Public.” Could some or most of the financing for this academic system eventually come from taxpayers? Sure, but not until that P word is dropped. An academic system's primary mission does and should differ from traditional public libraries', and the organization should be clearly labeled as academically focused.

Let’s see what could be achieved if both the public library and academic systems were brought to scale together—interwined and cooperative to ensure public value—backed by a national digital library endowment.


Jim Duncan is Executive Director of the Colorado Library Consortium (CLiC). The views here are strictly his own, not necessarily the consortium’s. Duncan can be found on LinkedIn (jamesmduncan) or Twitter (@duncanjlib).

Photo credit: The shot of the young Poe-reader is Creative Commons-licensed and is from the Unquiet Library (not associated with LibraryCity).

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