My Chronicle of Higher Education essay: ‘It’s Time for a National Digital-Library System. But it can’t serve only elites’

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imageUpdate: Gary Price’s INFOdocket post on the Chronicle essay

Hello to the Chronicle of Higher Education readers dropping by—in the wake of my essay, It’s time for a National Digital-Library System. But it can’t serve only elites.

John Palfrey, head of the steering committee for the valuable Digital Public Library of America initiative at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, as well as co-author of a highly relevant book about the Born Digital generation, does not agree with everything I wrote. But he was still gracious enough to send me a complimentary note about the essay and share his thoughts with the DPLA e-mail list. I’d urge people to participate in the list and wiki. The organization’s people, especially steering committee member Robert Darnton, an eminent historian and Harvard’s library director, have helped enlighten foundations and the mass media about the possibilities of a national digital library system.

imageIdeally, now, the DPLA will drop the “Public” from its name, so people won’t see it as a replacement for our public library system. The optimal scenario is that DPLA not be the actual national digital library system or encourage another nongovernment group toward similar aspirations; instead I envision a “DLA” supporting the public system through links and content exchanges, financial assistance and in other ways. The national digital system itself should use traditional public governance and exist within the Library of Congress, as long as the Library does not interfere with a truly democratic and distributed approach involving many librarians in many locations. Well run, a public system could be highly responsive to community needs.

While I worry about the DPLA name’s use of the word “Public,” it’s mainly because I’d hope that the organization would not unwittingly preempt traditional public libraries and the system I’ve just described. I fervently believe that “DLA” content should be directly reachable by ordinary citizens—one way to help encourage a diversity of accessible content and reduce the risk of censorship of the actual public library system, since there would be no central chokehold for the library world. Also, the DPLA/DLA efforts should strive to make books and other items available internationally when complications such as copyright do not arise.

Here are a few of the ideas I have in mind for the DPLA in particular: more of a focus on content of scholarly interest than the library system at large would have, even though the public side could pick up the DPLA’s work and add its own twists; innovative experiments, which might be fiscally or politically risky for the public library system; specialized technical help for the public system; and, of course, library advocacy. I don’t see the DPLA as simply serving the elite. But I do believe that group would be truer to its own values and priorities if it did not position itself or an allied group as a full-service public national digital library system. Meanwhile the actual public system could focus on access, content and services for the masses—everything from family literacy efforts to the development and curation of multimedia content for workers seeking to upgrade their skills. It could work closely with the federal government’s broadband efforts and also the cost-justification ones I’ve described on the Atlantic’s Web site.

Detail #1: Someone—I don’t know who—accidentally dropped the “not” when I said in the Chronicle essay that culture in a library shouldn’t be viewed as the equivalent of a condiment in a school lunch. I was alluding to the ketchup-as-a-vegetable debate from many years ago. The Chronicle almost immediately corrected the online version, thereby reminding me of the virtues of online media. By the way, the Chronicle people were a pleasure to work with. At the same time I was hardly surprised to see the essay draw a crowd of trolls from universities with well-stocked paper libraries. Pretty par for the course. I’m grateful to people on campus who are more capable of understanding the needs of the nation at large; of, for example, the residents of small towns with underfunded libraries and no bookstores, unless you include the bookracks at the local Walmarts.

Detail #2: The Palfrey book is relevant since I myself envision K-12 needs as a major justification for the creation of a national digital library system. Here’s one passage—about “Digital Natives”—that resonated with me: “Research once meant a trip to the library to paw through a musty card catalog and puzzle over the Dewey Decimal System to find a book to pull off the shelves. Now research means a Google search—and, for most, a visit to Wikipedia before diving deeper into a topic.” Exactly! I’ve been writing out similar thoughts for years. We need to weave libraries into the fabric of the Net, through links and otherwise, and reach the young people who mistakenly see Google as a substitute for the authoritative information that libraries offer. An anti-Web approach? Actually just the opposite. Via good links from the library site, people will be enriching the Web, including social networking sites. Also, we can also teach young people how to evaluate material on the Web and in the library; and an extensive collection of easily searchable and well-linked library content, along with extensive interactivity and well-developed communities on the library site itself, with participation from topic experts, would make this easier. I love Wikipedia but it is a library not.

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One comment to “My Chronicle of Higher Education essay: ‘It’s Time for a National Digital-Library System. But it can’t serve only elites’”
One comment to “My Chronicle of Higher Education essay: ‘It’s Time for a National Digital-Library System. But it can’t serve only elites’”
  1. Pingback: A National Digital Library? | Slant of Light

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