Why the DPLA is not a public library, despite its many virtues and the P word in its name

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Editor’s note: This is Part One of Duncan's LibraryCity series on the Digital Public Library of America and public libraries. Part Two is here. Related: Why the DPLA should focus on being a stellar academic library: Check out these statistics. For Alexa's Web traffic numbers for the DPLA, including some demographics, go here.

ADPLA home page screenshot, October 2013 decade ago, doomsayers insisted that the Internet would kill off public libraries. They said we were looking into the maw of an enormous digital beast, and libraries were just the appetizer.

So what’s actually happened? Libraries here and abroad have reinvented themselves. Many of us say this is the most exciting time to be involved with libraries as an industry because of the diverse ways we provide services and deliver an array of materials. Some libraries have even reconfigured the spaces within their physical walls to accommodate evolving patron needs. This isn’t your grandmother’s library, and the American public knows it.

“Fully 91 percent of Americans ages 16 and older say public libraries are important to their communities; and 76 percent say libraries are important to them and their families,” according to the Pew Research Center. This poll shows strong, continuing interest in libraries as lenders of books, with many respondents calling for a broader selection of digital titles. In addition, the poll reveals the ongoing value of ask-a-librarian reference services, free access to library computers and the Internet, and free literacy programs targeted to young children. Closer coordination between libraries and local schools is also high on the list, with 85 percent of respondents calling for such collaboration.

Which leads me to a key question, whether the current Digital Public Library of America, a laudable project intended to aid scholarly research and enrich the collections of libraries, can adequately address the typical public library patron’s priorities as indicated in the Pew poll.

Based on the current name, you might think, “Here’s a chance for my public library to get even better!” If you haven’t yet discovered this shining portal on the Web, the DPLA provides multiple entry points for a person to search or browse phenomenal collections of primary-source material, including scientific papers and audio recordings and images. It offers an exciting discovery interface. Browse by way of a map, or through a timeline. Dive directly into the digitized records of dozens of archives across the U.S.

In fact, I absolutely agree on the importance of exposing these digital artifacts, because they represent swatches from the diverse and colorful fabric of America’s cultural and scientific heritage. I also want to acknowledge the talents and accomplishments of those involved with birthing DPLA—with degrees and experience from leading universities, applying their top-tier credentials in areas ranging from copyright law to social media.

But the DPLA is not a public library, even after expending millions of dollars and thousands of hours of effort on the planning and construction of the current production-level site.

Does the present DPLA even offer the potential to serve the primary needs of the typical public library patron in the future? I don’t believe so. The DPLA would be better off as a precisely focused academic system, rather than trying to be all things to all people.

The present DPLA is valuable in many ways. It represents the keen and important interests of academic disciplines. It provides improved access to digital archives and special collections from several highly-regarded research libraries and research collections. It also offers access to selected research papers from the scientific community, which makes the DPLA (in aggregate) a living, growing archive and institutional repository. In my opinion, the DPLA would be better named the Digital Public Archive of America (DPAA)—if it in fact wants to keep the "P" word.

It’s time for the DPLA to drop the “Public” from its name.

What’s in a name?

If you consider the definition of public as “accessible to all,” then the “P” in that DPLA name fits. If you consider the definition of a library generally as a “collecting body,” then the “L” in the same title also fits. But bring the two words together, and the “Public Library” concept breaks down.

In theory, planners behind the DPLA envision the site as a great democratizing force, “providing open and coherent access to our society’s digitized cultural heritage.” In practice, this web site is an aggregator of archival records targeted to a discrete audience of academic researchers and students in higher education. Yes, it really is a great portal to a lot of digital archives.

“Wait,” we’re told. “This is still an important resource for kids, for our future.” In theory, planners envision K-12 teachers using primary-source resources found through the DPLA—in their physical and online classrooms, and in their school libraries. In practice, the DPLA Web site lacks the tools necessary to help those teachers provide context, and it lacks connecting points to help teachers align resources they find through the DPLA to the Common Core State Standards, which “are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers.” Admittedly, the current site is stage one in a longer-term effort. But the DPLA has not demonstrated sufficient commitment to tackling the challenges of typical public libraries, despite all the resources available to it and the ambitious timelines and the diverse voices of DPLA community members shaping its future.

Don’t get me wrong; the DPLA really is wonderful in its own way. To members of the academic community, to historians, genealogists and archivists, discovery of these kinds of primary-source assets through the DPLA is the start of something great. But to the average patron of the average public library, the DPLA is irrelevant.

Meeting a need, but not what most public libraries want

In its current incarnation the DPLA does not address the immediate challenges of public libraries. Nor does it focus on their future pressing needs. The direction in which I’ve seen the DPLA develop just does not match up with the evolution in public libraries, like what we’re seeing here in Colorado.

According to Library Research Service, Colorado public libraries in 2012 checked out 66 million items. Of those, more than 22.5 million were items for children. I know of several libraries here in Colorado where children’s material accounts for higher than 50 percent of all checkouts. In contrast, I have yet to find resources in the DPLA that directly serve early literacy needs in public libraries, or that bolster learning development or critical thinking skills in children. Looking to popular fiction, if a you want to check out the latest young adult novel from Rick Yancey or pick up a copy of Ship Breaker from Paolo Bacigalupi (a Colorado author), you won’t find those titles at the DPLA.

Adult and children’s programming demands are extensive in today’s public libraries. Patrons can’t get enough. Yet these lively, community-gathering events (which drive business to the typical brick-and-mortar public library) aren’t represented anywhere in the DPLA. Is the human resource and technical infrastructure behind the DPLA prepared to deliver online services to aid local programming efforts or offer other local support? Is the DPLA developing online forums, including subject-related ones, showcasing in tangible, practical ways, how teachers and youth services librarians can utilize DPLA content in their lesson planning, their teaching and their early-literacy services? Not that I’ve seen, because here’s a reality check: the DPLA isn’t equipped to do so—not through its existing content/subject material, through its academic-focused organizational structures, or its system architecture. The DPLA isn’t built to serve those public library and school library needs.

Here in Colorado, we’re big believers in well-done, targeted content, including videos, and we even use such assets to educate parents in how to read to their children, teach them songs, and otherwise improve their kids’ literacy-related skills. I’ve yet to see the DPLA serve up any such resources or design approaches to serving those patron populations.

More evidence of the disconnect between the DPLA and America’s public libraries

Looking broadly, public libraries are integrating with their communities and becoming gravitational centers for their communities in ways that would surprise the average person. Still, the kinds of innovative services and diverse outreach programs we see developing in public libraries are not reflected in the DPLA.

Kids & Teens: For decades, public libraries have stretched beyond Story Times (and even those kinds of staple programs have evolved to integrate proven early-literacy techniques). Now we see STEM programming for kids, and writing programs for third-graders. Many libraries are reaching out to a lost generation (the teens), and have been creating spaces and programs focused on specific needs of those patrons.

Business Community: Public libraries have moved beyond support of the Chamber of Commerce, serving as small business incubators, sponsoring small business MeetUps and networking events, even putting high-quality business resources and competitive intelligence tools in the hands of entrepreneurs.

Brick and Mortar + Technology = Creative Engagement: Public libraries are designing innovative, flexible spaces for a variety of creative activities. Many libraries (we see it even in rural Colorado) are developing “creation stations” and semi-pro production spaces, equipped with tools and technologies where individuals from the community can create media and new content (individually or collaboratively)—even to the extent of publishing their e-books through the library (Douglas County Libraries, for example).

Meet ‘Em Where they Live and Work: Libraries are advancing their services and using technologies strategically to reflect the changing demands of their time-strapped customers. Some larger public libraries with multiple branches in Colorado actually operate full-blown, central “call centers.” These libraries are cost-effectively providing responsive and coordinated service through phone, e-mail, and live chat channels.

Open On-Ramp: When it comes to online access, public libraries continue to serve a crucial role as Internet on-ramp, especially since more than100 million Americans are said to lack broadband Internet access at home. Patrons with or without alternate access to the online world use their libraries’ computers to search and apply for jobs, utilize “e-government” services, make online purchases, find resources for health and school work, and much more.

Do you see the disconnect? All of the above activities, services and resources reflect a vibrant, engaged, connected public library. None of the above are reflected sufficiently in the DPLA. From what I see as an outsider, the emphasis in developing the DPLA has been to unify and highlight interesting and valuable assets from academic libraries and special research collections.

I have yet to see the DPLA stake out an adequately significant role in today’s non-academic publishing ecosystem—specifically, establishing relationships with publishers or authors of major interest to public libraries.

The traction issue: An indication it exists–as suggested by the results of an informal Colorado poll

To test my theory that the Digital Public Library of America lacks good traction with public libraries, I informally polled a group of people I deeply respect: directors of small public libraries in rural southeast Colorado. Why approach this population of library leaders? More than 3 out of 4 public libraries in the U.S. serve communities of less than 25,000 people.

I asked two questions: “1. Have you heard of the DPLA? 2. If you’ve seen or used it, does it serve your community’s needs?”

Within a day I received five responses. Two of these five directors wrote: “I have not heard of it.” Two more wrote: “Yes, I heard about it when it launched, but haven’t had the time to tinker with it yet…” and “I’ve only played with it a few times, so I’ve not had a real-life test of it. I’ve probably had the opportunity but didn’t think of it as a resource. I shall try to now.” The last director wrote: “I have seen—and heard of it. Always seems cool, but don’t know how our patrons would respond. I asked [staff member] and she too has ‘heard’ of it, but doesn’t know much about it either.”

Dedicated librarians like the ones quoted above face huge challenges and have deep needs. My takeaway is this. If the DPLA really filled a crucial need for the typical public library, these are the very people who would seize on such a resource with enthusiasm.

It’s time for the DPLA to listen and change its course. The DPLA should not camouflage its approach—delivery of university-oriented digital material—as a viable solution to the growing needs of public libraries operating in an increasingly digital future. I understand that DPLA organizers bill the site as a means to augment public library content and otherwise help. But I’m concerned that this could change under different DPLA and political leaders, especially given the hostility of some DPLA supporters toward mass culture, as shown by the comments posted on the Web in the wake of NPR Correspondent Laura Sydell’s segment on the DPLA. No library gentrification, please, or other threats to the popular content and services valued by typical public patrons.

Sure, the public library can play a role in establishing new intellectual and creative spaces, and sure, this may involve scholarship and new intellectual opportunities. I’m not suggesting that public libraries primarily “pander to the lowest common denominators in their communities.” But to suggest that public libraries are somehow pandering or less valuable as cornerstones of a literate society because they check out popular DVDs, bodice-ripping pulp novels, and the latest self-help books—well, that smacks of elitism. Stop the condescension.

If nothing else, public libraries need a wide variety of patrons, spanning the age range from cradle to grave, to maintain support in this era of cash-strapped cities and states. Guess what—that means appealing to romance readers, too, not just lovers of Charlotte Bronte or E. M. Forster’s novels. Maybe those groups even overlap.

One of the best strategies current DPLA leaders should consider—as suggested by evidence given earlier—is to drop the P word from the organization’s name. This would also help avoid blurring the DPLA’s higher-education-related mission with that of brick-and-mortar public libraries. What’s more, the DPLA would no longer be unwittingly aiding anti-library activists who want to replace community libraries with the virtual variety. Actually we need both, and the DPLA can assist. I agree with David Rothman’s views that the DPLA should work with public librarians—ideally through the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies—to create two separate systems, public and academic, backed by an endowment to help fund them both. Part Two of this series explores some of the specifics while urging close cooperation between the systems.


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).

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