On Robert Frost, fences, and electrons: Why we need two separate digital library systems for academics and the rest of America—and content exchanges and other neighborliness

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Update: A related article has appeared at LibraryJournal.com. A direct LJ link is here.

imageimageIn Mending Wall, a 1914 poem blessedly in the public domain, Robert Frost gives us a classic dictum for literature and life, and maybe for inter-organizational politics in particular: “Good fences make good neighbors.”

On the whole Frost is anti-fence. But he understands his neighbor’s side; what’s more, “Mending Wall” resonates even in this era of global networks and sharable digital files. Frost died at 88 on January 29, 1963, just a little over two years after his poetry recital in the chilly Washington air at John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s inauguration; but on the Web you can still hear him reading Mending Wall and more.

Might the right set of fences be one way to keep the Harvard-hosted Digital Public Library of America from unwittingly weakening the franchise and branding of America’s public libraries in their online incarnation—while we still promoted neighborliness between and among institutions? That’s the solution I’m mulling over right now. Perhaps a National Digital Library of America could serve the public in general and a Scholarly Digital Library of America could enrich the campus community. Both “civilians” and academics could use each other’s library systems for free, at least when copyright and licensing agreement allowed; and each could pick up the other’s exportable content and share a common infrastructure and standards. Searching for books simultaneously in both systems would be Kindle-seamless. But fences between the pair could exist on most acquisitions issues and practices, interface priorities, most staffing matters, and in various other respects. Hence, the purchases of monographs on Henry James wouldn’t be pitted so directly against, for example, shorter wait times for Stephen King novels, assuming that patron wait times were necessary.


In San Jose, California and in Mount Vernon, Iowa, and perhaps elsewhere, town and gown do share the same library buildings and even Web entrances and can enjoy other’s libraries on and offline; but at least in San Jose most of the pages on the sites have different looks, with the public one relying on a more colorful, somewhat less text-reliant approach. Furthermore, San Jose treats the two kinds of visitors differently in certain cases, with their respective priorities in mind. A common Web interface just didn’t cut it. Moreover, apparently for license-related budget reasons, San Jose State does not let non-university people access some databases and some e-books remotely. Instead the townies must visit the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Library in person. The upside is that by not paying for home access to certain academic content of limited general interest, the San Jose townies most likely have more resources for bestsellers or popular-level databases.

Significantly, charges for commercial electronic resources tend to reflect actual levels of usage one way or another, even if this means simply buying more copies for one-user-at-a-time access. Yes, paper books by necessity are themselves one-user at a time. But thanks to remote access, especially if digital interlibrary loans take off nationally, the chances dramatically grow that more than one library patron will want the single copy. So a greater possibility exists of conflicts between public and scholarly users. Do we really want Iowa high schoolers and Harvard professors to compete for, say, immediate access to the same e-books or other content? Paradoxically there is also issue of whether a common library system would be able to address the oft-starkly-varying needs of such different groups, but, yes, as in the case of databases in San Jose, the scholarly and public communities may prefer to go their own ways in the interest of cost-related accountability.

Librarians may not like the greater reliance on usage-sensitive charges on which many digital content providers insist, but without agreeing to this approach if need be, it would be harder to acquire content. Currently, given that most books in the collections are on paper, the university and public libraries in San Jose can enjoy integration far, far more easily than they would with e-books the norm.

Granted, DPLA boosters talk about the avoidance of tiers of access, a noble cause with which I strongly sympathize. But I wonder what will happen in real-life budgeting situations, the reason why we should not just merrily throw together the academic libraries and the public libraries without an iota of separation between the two. The possibility exists that the glamorous, much-publicized DPLA could unwittingly preempt the creation of a genuine national digital public library system focused on the needs of America as a whole. And do universities really want to pay, by institutional subscriptions or otherwise, for James Patterson potboilers or job-training videos? To help academic and public libraries coexist gracefully online, I’ll serve up other specifics, but first here’s some background for latecomers to these issues.

A thoughtful Wikipedia page carefully defines a typical “public library”—for example, a place with public financing and public employees. The Digital Public Library of America, however, is proposing a national digital library system that very possibly would be dominated by foundations, nonprofits and academics rather than emulate genuine public libraries focused on providing practical information and, yes, some entertainment to the average American. The DPLA people will note that their group is still in transition and mentions public-library needs in its writings. But based on the composition of the DPLA steering committee so far and the focuses of discussions online and at a March 1 workshop in the Harvard Faculty Club, I would not count on balance definitely happening in reality (April 28 update: the DPLA has made progress in the composition of the steering committee in regard to ethnicity and gender and inclusion of some public librarians, but major questions endure, particularly in its March concept note–still tilted in favor of scholarly interests). Academic libraries and publibs, in fact, come with built-in differences. Scholars don’t want their libraries to pander to grubby public tastes, while many a taxpayer would bristle if bestsellers were not available on the publib shelves, with or without a wait. Public libraries rely on popular content to maintain public support. All the changes in the world on the DPLA Steering Committee will not alter that truth.

On top of that, to borrow a Clintonian phrase, our campuses and academic libraries do not necessarily look “like America.” As the DPLA Steering Committee leader John Palfrey commendably acknowledged when I asked him, few of the more active DPLA participants are members of racial minorities. John promises to address that issue, a crucial one, since nonHispanic whites will be a minority of Americans long before the end of the century; furthermore, I’d hate to see the DPLA having to cope with racial quotas for, say, authors. Still, the severity of the current DPLA’s diversity problem is just one more illustration of the gap between academic/research libraries and those of the vast majority of our libraries–the public and school kinds. (Update: While progress has been made, there is room for more.)

imageCould the answer, however, be the creation of two separate library systems—a National Digital Library of America for the public in general and a Scholarly Digital Library of America building on the HaithiTrust and reflecting the predominantly academic priorities of the DPLA members? I see some hope in the thinking of David Weinberger, coauthor of The Cluetrain Manifesto, a seminal document in the annals of Internet culture and online business—where he, Rick Levine, and Christopher Locke sagaciously talk about virtual communications, in a marketing context, as a series of conversations. That more or less jibes with my vision of online library systems rich in interactivity, with forums and annotation capabilities. So what does David W., now a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, the organizational host of the DPLA, say on the library debate?

He suggests that the Digital Public Library of American should be thought of a platform for content from individual libraries, and that institutions of different kinds could build modules and cherry-pick the best content for their purposes rather than march lockstep in one humongous system. A great start. But I believe that with strong national digital library systems, it would be easier for libraries to enjoy more clout in such areas as copyright and purchasing. That said, I really like David’s infrastructure-centric approach (complete with opportunities for independent developers to use APIs and thus, in some cases, dramatically transform libraries for the better); and perhaps a neutral organization rather than DPLA could focus on that, while the National Digital Library of America and the Scholarly Library of America concentrated separately on the actual content instead of directly fighting each other over a common money pot. In many ways, they could actually be the best of virtual neighbors; imagine Harvard's prestige melded with the publibs' outreach and connections with the masses.

Here are just some of the possible areas for neighborly cooperation:

1. The public and academic systems sharing content and services, directly or through links. So often, in so many fields, Harvard and other DPLA-linked institutions lead the world. I'd love to see brilliant people at universities—the constituencies of the Scholarly Digital Library of America—not only help annotate classics but also create and maintain related forums at different levels. Public libraries could have their own and also guide people to appropriate forums on the academic side, just as scholarly forums might point to relevant user-created content on the publib side. Imagine the present and future benefits in disciplines such as histories and American Studies. Here's to a diverse approach, then, a win for all. What's more, the Scholarly Digital Library could help bring worthy literary titles to the attention of both the National Digital Library and individual public libraries, and formally and informally assist in other ways in content development. Academics would not be read by all public library users. But those who cared about literature, culture, and learning in general would be endlessly appreciative.

2. Consultation and cooperation with each other on experimentation with business models, so that, for example, publib patrons aren't as crimped by Digital Rights Management and more books are available. HarperCollins recently imposed an onerous limit of 26 borrowings on copies of e-books it made available to public libraries. By contrast, libraries can loan paper books as many times as they would like. Now suppose that the two library systems can develop new models, one of which might be based on the number of downloads, with fair compensation for content providers (a concept I explored years ago, and which I’m pleased to see some DPLA supporters discussing).

3. Genuine cooperation in fundraising efforts (update: see my appeal for a national digital library endowment). If the Scholarly Digital Library of America knew ahead of time that its items would very likely enjoy widespread distribution through the public National Digital Library and individual libraries in the system, the SDLA (not to be confused with the Special Libraries Association) would be more attractive to funders. Public libraries would not only benefit from enriched content but also be able to play up their direct pipelines to some of the world's most respected institutions of higher education. All that would help public libraries with their own fund-raising, locally and otherwise. Instead of quarreling without break over fund-rising and branding—very much related—everyone would be pushing together far more often than otherwise in the same direction. The Ivies and near-Ivies would not usurp the publibs, and meanwhile the public libraries could bring Harvard and the like closer to Middle America.

4. Joint work on technology, interoperability and other standards, as suggested earlier. In a related vein, I'd like to see separate public-library and DPLA/Scholarly Library wikis to help organize national digital library efforts, but the two groups could also share a common one on topics of mutual interest, especially those related to the organizations' working together in areas such as archiving (e.g., what kind of redundancies will contribute to preservation and freedom of expression, and what will be just plain wasteful?). Public librarians, some of whom have already discussed a possible national procurement system for library books, maybe could organize or help organize the public library Wiki. Or they could employ a forum format instead if they preferred.

5. Perhaps the library equivalent of the Teach for America—where recently graduated young people from good schools would learn about the library world and also share their own ideas and go on in some cases to graduate work for public library careers. They could help in areas ranging from technology to content (not just the usual library offerings but also library Web sites and forums).

6. University-based enrichment programs for public librarians (not to be neglected, with or without the infusion of TFA-style talent). Imagine a chance for a gifted mid-career librarian to take time off to study literature at Harvard, with the understanding that this person would then return to the publib world. If memory serves, hasn't the New York Public Library started enrichment programs with a partner university or universities?

7. Combined legal efforts on issues such as copyright. With closer ties to public libraries than—and even if we had two library systems rather than one—the campus libraries would enjoy more clout, more moral authority. The more popular became modern classics, the more likely Congress would repeal or at least mitigate education-hostile laws such as the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Protection Act. In the wake of a court’s rejection of the Google Book Settlement, this is an opportune time for different kinds of librarians to put aside differences and fight for the public domain.

Those are just a few of the possible synergies that would benefit the Scholarly Library, the National Digital Library, individual university and public libraries alike, and, most importantly, our schools and society in general.

Note: These are my personal views—as a small grassroots group, LibraryCity does not release official position papers—and I may be refining the above.

Update, April 6: I’ve just added a reminder that searches of both the National Digital Library of America and the Scholarly Digital Library of America could be Kindle-seamless. Also, let’s keep in mind that some K-12 educators might prefer three systems—not just the Scholarly Library and the public NDL but also a school-oriented system. I’d be curious how others felt—I’m still considering pluses and minuses.

Update, April 28: In the mention of the shared arrangement in San Jose, I've added an explanation of why the growth of e-books might actually complicate sharing arrangements between academic and public libraries—given that some publishers are so keen on usage-related charges.

Update, May 20: I should have mentioned earlier that an adaptation of this post has appeared in LLRX, the respected online magazine for people in the legal and library professions and others.

Update, July 31, 2013: The more I think about it, the more I believe that even the academic side should be a public body, in the interest of accountability and transparency. On another matter, don't be surprised if the LibraryJournal.com link from my LibraryCity post here fails to work—a real disappointment, since I wrote the essay expecting it to remain on the open Web permanently. 

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2 comments to “On Robert Frost, fences, and electrons: Why we need two separate digital library systems for academics and the rest of America—and content exchanges and other neighborliness”
2 comments to “On Robert Frost, fences, and electrons: Why we need two separate digital library systems for academics and the rest of America—and content exchanges and other neighborliness”
  1. Thoreau said in Walden, “Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.”

    Like your references to one of my favorites, Bob Frost, however somehow the discussion on dpla has turned into a realm of anecdotes and very little vision. Everyone seems to be charging ahead with all kinds of 20th century ideas and projects that I feel have little to do with the needs of the 22nd century. Yes, the 22nd is the future when the Universal Digital Library will exist in the minds of both men and machines.

    The inheritance of our times and those before will seem rather basic to the knowledge of 88 years hence, so it’s really important in my estimation that we get on with a discussion which avoids all of the trappings of libraryville today.

    I believe the mission is to incorporate all the different systems that exist today by establishing a vehicle which will provide access to knowledge for all. Obviously there are those out there now who are dreaming dreams of future systems which provide access for the generations ahead. The iPad existed in the minds of some Apple engineers in 1980. There are articles out there that were written about how a student would be able to sit under a tree and using an electronic tablet access all of the knowledge of the world.

    So, how can we develop a system which will make universal access possible? It should make it easy for anyone to find the “book” they need at the time they need it. Instead of trying to impose one system or another on top of what we have, we need to set our futurists free to develop something much more that that which the dpla discussions entail.

    It’s time to return to mission statements before we try to kludge all of the present into the future.

    • Many thanks for your thoughts, Don. Actually and stubbornly, however, I think the “good fences” metaphor is apt. I would rather that there be one universal system, but I have found that too many academics want to impose their priorities on others. The answer, then, would be separate systems, with everyone able to use both except when copyright got in the way. In that sense access to books would still be universal. I can even envision multiple-system search engine options to keep things simple for users–not to mention the seamlessness of links. That said, I believe that separate libraries and separate budgets would be a form of good fences.


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