Promising DPLA debut—but please don’t confuse special-collection items, exhibits and APIs with a full-fledged ‘public library’ demo

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dplaLiveA caveat first. The Digital Public Library of America is evolving.

What’s more, I’m a booster of the organization and of the people behind it, including the new executive director, Dan Cohen, who so decently reacted after the Boston Marathon bombings.

But for now, the academic-and-hacker mindset is prevailing at the DPLA over the traditional public library one, judging from the demo’s worthy but rather limited debut today. Not necessarily a bad thing, mind you. But then, why insist on the P word in the organization’s name? Also, the K-12 appeal so far is not quite as great as I’d hoped despite some terrific exceptions. More positively, the DPLA has given us a promising blend of special-collection items, mixed with welcome wrinkles such as ways to narrow a search by a timeline or geography. I’m looking forward to many more items in the same vein, just like those of Europeana, which links to more than 22 million books, films and other digital content at participating libraries. One of my favorite novelists, the not-so-fashionable but (to me) readable Sinclair Lewis, even shows up in the DPLA catalog by way of correspondence with his actress girlfriend.

Let me note the DPLA’s other strengths—for example, still more goodies which you’ll never find at a typical local public or K-12 library, and which might be excellent additions to its collection, by way of APIs, linking, or pickups of unencumbered source content from institutions ranging from the Smithsonian to Harvard. The DPLA stores relatively little but rather links to its gems and laudably shares the Web addresses of the target pages—it offers more than two million items. Especially I appreciated an app that would let me search both the DPLA and Europeana collections at once. I did not find a single item on George Gissing, the Victorian novelist, within the DPLA itself. But 14 results popped up from Europeana.

That experience, however, reminded me of the downside of such heavy reliance on links: the PDF of Gissing’s masterpiece New Grub Street took forever to download, perhaps because of the U.K. isn’t exactly next door to Alexandria, VA, though the cause could have been different. Now, imagine a DPLA with far, far more books on its own speedy servers—endlessly backed up and otherwise protected against risks, including perhaps those of the cyber-terrorist variety. Yes, I can see national libraries backing up each other’s unencumbered holdings, among the powerful arguments for the DPLA’s focus on free.

So—what about K-12? The DPLA’s presentation more or less missed the boat here. If you search for items by and about Mark Twain, you don’t start out on the first results page with a little bio and a list of his major works; instead you plunge directly into the links in no immediately apparent order. Granted, there are some “by subject” links on the lower left, with more on another page. But guess what the first are? Recreation (because of the existence of Mark Twain Forest in Missouri), timber management (same), Fire (fire crews in the forest), Camp sites, facilities, etc. (obviously) and Boats and boating (a river apparently flows through the forest). You have to drill down one more level within “subjects” until you find Twain, Mark, 1835-1910, and even then you’ll see just 11 results (though I’m happy to find two good guides among them, one for readers at large, one for teachers). Why didn’t the DPLA do a better job of sorting out the material for humans?

Certainly students should learn to search through not-so-well-organized items—life isn’t always well structured, and they’d better get used to it—but this robotic craziness will tax even the patience of adults. Granted, many library catalogs suffer from similar sins. But I thought that the DPLA could learn from others’ mistakes and at least use the disambiguation techniques of Wikipedia, also funded in part by the Sloan Foundation. While I love the idea of teachers and kids searching the DPLA for original texts, images and sounds, I’ll also remember the fourth of the Five Laws of Library Science: “Save the time of the reader.” Time is precious in K-12, given all the territory that public school teachers must cover to prepare the kids for standardized tests.

Has anyone used the term “library kit” or “library component”? In a sense that is what the DPLA prototype is rather than the somewhat incomplete but still more polished site I was hoping for. I’m reminded of an an observation by Donald R. Smith, the veteran teacher-librarian and Apple Distinguished Educator, that teachers are looking for solutions they can adapt to meet students’ daily needs. The current DPA, with exceptions, such as the Twain guides, isn’t offering enough of them for the typical U.S. school despite all the gigabytes of source material.

Of course, the current site is just a demo project, with which the DPLA hopes to raise money and reel in more volunteers and learn plenty along the way, and I wish it lots of luck. I applaud the DPLA’s eagerness to attract API developers and other good-hearted techies. Still, the DPLA more or less telegraphs its present organizational mindset when the top of the home page fails to mention the magic words that could be a major part of the organization’s reason for existence and eventually a separate public system’s: “For students” and “For teachers.” I just see a general “Get Involved” and “For Developers.” Not the best way to court K-12 folks and benefit from their feedback. The DPLA needs to hear in detail from all kinds of people—techies, educators, librarians, passionate library-patrons, you name it.

The site does offer some Exhibitions of possible interest to educators and discerning members of the public, and I loved the choices of some topics ignored or mangled by the mainstream media, such as Activism in the U.S. and Bread and Roses Strike of 1912: Two Months in Lawrence, Massachusetts, that Changed Labor History. Yes, that is part of what a library should do. But it is not enough by itself. As of May 1—I've updated this—I can find only five or so items related to F. Scott Fitzgerald (not even his public domain books—though at least I spotted two teacher’s guide). What a shame. There’s “content” and then there’s “content.” Even with a deadline, why didn’t the DPLA flag someone as prominent as Fitzgerald for special attention? Wouldn’t at least some young readers identify with Amory Blaine, the protagonist of This Side of Paradise?

At least Fitzgerald fares better than Philip Roth, present in only one of those two-million-plus items. If you search for "Philip Milton Roth" or "Philip M. Roth" between quote marks, moreover, you will find nothing. Even given that this is only a prototype, and that the DPLA had to work with the limitations of copyright and resources, I find the treatment of Roth to be bizarre. The DPLA, despite its many positives, seems currently driven far more by the interests of its volunteers and participating institutions than by a desire to reflect the highlights of American culture. We need both approaches.

On top of that, the DPLA site has a museum-type look that most likely won’t draw in typical public library patrons—or at least those outside the museum-going set. Stay-at-home PBS regulars might demand more dazzle. Why aren’t there videos on the home page, for example? Granted, the typical public library system doesn’t have them there. But then it lacks the DPLA’s resources.

For now, let’s appreciate the the DPLA as an extremely promising demo project with a grab bag of interesting content and root for the organizers to heed some wise advice from one of its participants: Don’t try to be all things to all people. Please. Drop the “Public” and rename the group “the Digital Academic Library of America” or something similar. As the DALA, the current DPLA could succeed big time. Furthermore, it could still partner up with real public libraries and share content and technical resources and even people. But again—don’t risk letting elite academics, however brilliant and however well intentioned, dominate the nation’s public library systems in time. Public libraries are another world. Be part of it but don’t act as if you’re preparing to invade it. Respect the wishes of the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies, which didn’t want the DPLA to use the P word. Talk about ways for the DPLA to grow closer to the public library community! Work with COSLA on a separate public system.

Both systems, I believe, could benefit from a national digital library endowment, with the Institute of Museum and Library Services overseeing or helping to oversee the distribution of the money. A foundation-aided purchase of OverDrive, hardly flawless but still the biggest and probably the most experienced provider of e-books to school and public libraries, certainly could help, too, as could a choice of an academic interface or an easier-to-master one for those with simpler needs. Just don’t confuse the missions and typical users of the two kinds of systems; avoid “one big tent”! The DPLA, in failing to give K-12 its full due even by demo standards, has unwittingly illustrated the pitfalls here.

Update, April 19, 2013: See Public library, not public domain, from The Legal Genealogist. While the DPLA favors the unencumbered, many of the resources it points to come with limitations. For a round-up of reactions to the demo, see Librarians Respond to DPLA Launch at—especially reactions from Jessamyn West, who correctly describes the site as more for librarians than for the public. On the whole, I think librarians have set their expectations too low. Especially since the DPLA wants to call itself a “public” library, people need to evaluate it by the accompanying standards.

Tweaked on April 21 with the Roth example and other refinements.

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2 comments to “Promising DPLA debut—but please don’t confuse special-collection items, exhibits and APIs with a full-fledged ‘public library’ demo”
2 comments to “Promising DPLA debut—but please don’t confuse special-collection items, exhibits and APIs with a full-fledged ‘public library’ demo”
  1. Excellent review of the nascent D(P)LA e-resource. I agree with all your major points. Tis a pity that the usual suspects (Twain, Fitzgerald, Cather, et al.) are so under-represented at the launch, but hopefully that will improve with time and growth. I too wonder if one library can embrace and fully serve the richness and diversity that is America.

  2. Pingback: Promising DPLA debut—but please don’t confuse special-collection items, exhibits and APIs with a full-fledged ‘public library’ demo | The Travelin' Librarian

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