If users of a physical library could see the thousands of ghost trucks containing all the works that the library didn’t buy backing away from the library’s loading dock, the idea of a library would seem much less plausible. Rather than seeming like a treasure trove, it would look like a relatively arbitrary reduction.
It’s not that users or librarians think there is some perfect set (although it wasn’t so long ago that picking a shelf’s worth of The Great Books seemed not only possible but laudable). Everyone is pragmatic about this. Users understand that libraries make decisions based on a mix of supporting popular tastes and educating to preferred tastes: The Iliad is going to survive being culled even though it has far fewer annual check-outs than The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Curating is a practical art and libraries are good at it. But curating into a single collection that happens to fit within a library-sized building increasingly looks like a response to the weaknesses of material goods, rather than as an appropriate appreciation of their cultural value. Curation has always meant identifying the exceptions, but with the new assumption of abundance, curators look for exceptions to be excluded, rather than to be included. In the Age of the Net, we’re coming to believe that just about everything deserves to be in the library for one reason or another.
It seems to me there are two challenges here. The first is redeploying the skills of curators within a hyper-abundant world that supports multiple curations without cullings. That seems to me eminently possible and valuable. The second is cultivating tastes when there are so many more paths of least cognitive and aesthetic resistance. And that is a far more difficult, even implausible, challenge.
That is, our technology makes it easy to have multiple curations equally available, but our culture wants (has wanted?) some particular curations to have priority. Unless trucks are physically removing the works outside the preferred collection, how we are going to enforce our cultural preferences?
The easy solution is to give up on the attempt. The Old White Man’s canon is dead, and good riddance. But you don’t have to love old white men to believe that culture requires education — despite what Nikolas Sarkozy believes, we don’t “naturally” love complex works of art without knowing anything about their history or context — and that education requires taking some harder paths, rather than always preferring the easier, more familiar roads. I won’t argue further for this because it’s a long discussion and I have nothing to say that you haven’t already thought. So, for the moment take it as an hypothesis.
This I think makes clear what one of the roles of the DPLA (Digital Public Library of America) should be.
Ed Summers has warned that the DPLA needs to be different from the Web. If it is simply an index of what is already available, then it has not done its job. It seems to me that even if it curates a collection of available materials it has not done its job. It is not enough to curate. It is not even enough to curate in a webby way that enables users to participate in the process. Rather, it needs to be (imo) a loosely curated assemblage that is rich in helping us not only to find what is of value, but to appreciate the value of what we find. It can do that in the traditional ways — including items in the collection, including them in special lists, providing elucidations and appreciations of the items — as well as in non-traditional, crowd-sourced, hyperlinked ways. The DPLA needs to be rich and ever richer in such tools. The curated works should become ever more embedded into a network of knowledge and appreciation.
So, yes, part of the DPLA should be that it is a huge curated collection of collections. But curation now only has reliable value if it can bring us to appreciate why those curatorial decisions were made. Otherwise, it can seem as if we’re simply looking at that which the trucks left behind.