Warp and woof

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Spring has sprung, and my thoughts turn to my love for the idea of a national digital public library (NDPL) for the 21st century and beyond.  Recently many people have been writing and speaking about a national digital public library for the U.S., especially Robert Darnton from Harvard, who is spearheading the Digital Public Library of America initiative (DPLA).

Earlier this week the New York Times ran an opinion piece by Professor Darnton, where he calls for renewed efforts to create a national digital public library, especially in light of Google’s recent legal setback.  I agree with most of the opinions Darnton expresses, such as his call for a noncommercial effort that is passionate about serving the public good.  His vision for the DPLA, however, seems to be lacking some key components of a true national digital public library for the U.S.

If a NDPL wants to be a rich, complex, warm, and welcoming counterpane for all Americans, I think it needs the following essential components:

  • CONTENT:  While a coalition of research libraries, working with the Internet Archive and other organizations – perhaps even Google – certainly could supply millions of books for a NDPL, that content alone would not be sufficient to meet the information needs of all Americans.  A true NDPL will need all types of content, including content created by all Americans.  I’m thinking about human utterances of all types – music, videos, written works, and more.
  • METADATA:  Again, librarians and other metadata experts will contribute mightily to this need for meaningful, useful metadata for a true NDPL, but let’s neither forget nor fail to encourage user-created metadata, including not only lowly types of metadata such as five-star ratings and tags, but also richer metadata, such as reviews, rebuttals, connections, and content clusters.
  • SERVICES:  Content may or may not be king, but it would be a threadbare NDPL that failed to offer a rich array of services.  Reference service and homework help immediately come to mind.  A national reference service could level the playing field and complement reference services offered by local public libraries across the nation.  A NDPL reference service should be accessible from just about any type of computing device, including mobile phones and tablet computers.  My Info Quest, a great multi-state SMS-based reference service, could serve as a model for a NDPL reference service.
  • PUBLIC PROGRAMS:  The possibilities for public programming through a NDPL are almost limitless, covering the entire canvas of vocational and avocational interests.  Book discussions, instructional sessions, lectures, performing arts, and more could make the NDPL a rich social and cultural experience.  These public programs should be held live online and also recorded, so that anyone can place-shift and time-shift to meet their busy schedules.
  • COMMUNITIES:  Every library serves one or more communities.  The NDPL will serve hundreds and thousands of communities, not only geographic communities but all of the communities of interest and affinity that spring forth from well-designed only information systems.

counterpaneFor me, these five threads constitute the essential warp and woof of any rich, warm, comfy NDPL counterpane.  Based on what I read and hear about the DPLA initiative, it seems to be focused almost exclusively on content and metadata.  That’s a good start, but a true DPLA must provide services, offer programs, and support communities in a myriad of ways.

Other things are important, of course, such as preservation.  Personally, I think one of the redeeming qualities of the digital era is that finally we can separate the issues of preservation and access and work on them separately.  I believe the NDPL would serve the public good better by focusing on access, rather than on preservation.  Other initiatives can and are working on the formidable preservation issues.

Accessibility is another component of an embracing National Digital Public Library that needs our attention.  Making a NDPL truly accessible by all Americans is a huge challenge, including many technological divides, making all Americans aware of how the NDPL can improve their lives, and ensuring that Americans who are blind, experience low vision, are deaf, or experience hearing loss can have meaningful access to the content, services, and programs offered.

There are a host of other “backroom” components of a NDPL, such as funding, governance, and management.  The DPLA initiative that Professor Darnton champions is examining and discussing these foundational needs, and my colleague David Rothman has done an excellent job over the years in articulating and clarifying the importance of these infrastructural decisions that must be made carefully.  A short list of Rothman’s writings on these topics can be found here.

The DPLA initiative articulated by Professor Darnton is a fine project, but it does not meet the five essential components for a true national digital public library for the 21st century and beyond.  It seems to have given short shrift to true user participation in a NDPL, through user-created content, metadata, programs, and communities.  Only if a NDPL is designed to encourage deep, meaningful user participation, so that the entire nation feels like we are building a NDPL, rather than having it built and presented to the American people as a gift, will it truly be accepted, used, and embraced.  Such a true NDPL will accelerate the rustication of expertise, thus realizing a true, broad-based Republic of Letters.

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