Joho the Blogdpla Archives - Joho the Blog

August 8, 2017

Messy meaning

Steve Thomas [twitter: @stevelibrarian] of the Circulating Ideas podcast interviews me about the messiness of meaning, library innovation, and educating against fake news.

You can listen to it here.

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March 6, 2014

Dan Cohen on the DPLA’s cloud proposal to the FCC

I’ve posted a podcast interview with Dan Cohen, the executive director of the Digital Public Library of America about their proposal to the FCC.

The FCC is looking for ways to modernize the E-Rate program that has brought the Internet to libraries and schools. The DPLA is proposing DPLA Local, which will enable libraries to create online digital collections using the DPLA’s platform.

I’m excited about this for two reasons beyond the service it would provide.

First, it could be a first step toward providing cloud-based library services, instead of the proprietary, closed, expensive systems libraries typically use to manage their data. (Evergreen, I’m not talking about you, you open source scamp!)

Second, as libraries build their collections using DPLA Local, their metadata is likely to assume normalized forms, which means that we should get cross-collection discovery and semantic riches.

Here’s the proposal itself. And here’s where you can comment to the FCC about it.

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May 11, 2013

Hangin’ with Secretary Kerry

Back when the Digital Public Library of America was gearing up, I oddly got invited to participate in a day of brainstorming about what could be done to make the US. State Department Diplomatic Reception Rooms more accessible to the public.

diplomatic reception room

About twenty of us spent the day talking in the Rooms themselves, and we also got a tour of some of the inner offices on Secretary Clinton’s floor. I don’t know how much the day helped the State Department, but it was certainly an interesting day for me. I think my only contribution was suggesting (along with Martin Kalfatovic) that State give the DPLA its spreadsheet of objects + metadata, which I think they are getting close to doing.

The Rooms are ornate and even palatial, which strikes a discordant note for a humble democracy. On the other hand, are we supposed to pretend to visiting dignitaries that the U.S.A. can’t afford to do up a room real nice? And, most important, the rooms are filled with 5,000 museum-quality pieces of furniture, paintings, ceramics, and bric-a-brac, many with particular historic significance, such as the desk on which the Treaty of Paris was signed. You could spend days there just admiring the objects on display…if you were lucky enough to be invited to a workshop held in these rooms. Or, I suppose, if you were a visiting head of state with a surprisingly light schedule.

Treaty of Paris desk (cc) Martin Kalfatovic

But what’s perhaps oddest about the Rooms is that they are stuck inside the Harry S. Truman Building, the State Department’s headquarters.

Harry S. Truman building

The building was designed in the 1950s, was dedicated in 1961, and from the outside looks like an upscale high school. Its large open lobby is quite pleasing, and must have been more so before all the security machinery was installed. Then the elevators open onto the 8th floor and you’re in a dream of the 18th century.

So, last night I went to a reception in the Rooms for people who had contributed to them. Very much a pinstripe and wingtip affair for the guys, and whatever is the suitable generalization for the women. There were perhaps 100 people there, and I can guarantee that every person there contributed far more to the Rooms than I had. Many had donated very substantial sums of money, for the Rooms are paid for and maintained entirely by donations; no tax payer money was harmed by these rooms. Other people have put in considerable time and effort. Not me. But I was in DC for the morning, so I had accepted the invitation.

It was a big enough occasion to rope Secretary Kerry into attending. He appeared about twenty minutes after it began, and the experienced handlers at State immediately had us form a line. As you approach Sec. Kerry, you hand a card with your name on it to an assistant; you were given this card when you went through security. You approach the Secretary as your name is read, alas, with no trumpets. The Secretary says something placeholdery to you if he doesn’t know you from Adam, puts his arm around you, and smiles for the camera. What a job.

To me the Secretary pleasantly said — having just heard my name announced — “Dr. David Douglas Weinberger. That’s a very long name.”

I’d say that that was the most insipid thing I’d ever heard, but I’m afraid I topped it. “I voted for you many times,” said I.

I was surprisingly flustered. When he put his long arm around me, I put mine around his waist, which I think violated both protocol and security procedures. I was not wrestled to the ground, and the Secretary handled it like a pro. Not me. I’m pretty sure I was staring at his collar when when the photo was taken. The man wears a beautiful collar.

Smile. Click. Next.

John Kerry speaking
Click to see a bigger but still blurry photo of Sec. Kerry speaking

After the reception line, Secretary Kerry gave some quite appropriate remarks about the importance of our history despite its comparative brevity, and about the good in the world the US does, pointing specifically to the seven-fold increase in the number of kids in school in Afghanistan, and the rise from single digits to 40+% enrollment of girls. If you’re going to pick examples of US beneficence, that’s a good’un. John Kerry is smart and serious and I am happy to have him as our Secretary of State, although I’ll be happier once Ed Markey wins the election to be his replacement in the Senate.

Then it was time for massive mingling, which is never my strong suit. There was a table of excellent all-American cheeses, and a variety of all-American wines. As the bartender pointed out each wine’s state of origin, she noted that wines are made in every state. “Even Nebraska?” I asked rather randomly. “I didn’t say they were all good,” she replied, thus confirming that she is not a State Department employee and never will be.

I spent a lot of time in the comfort of Martin [twitter: UDCMRK] and Mary Kalfatovic, DPLA buddies and people I am enormously fond of. After about 30 minutes of post-Kerry mingling, we went out for Thai food.

Thus we departed the locale of what certainly should be an upcoming Nicolas Cage movie — National Treasure: Diplomatic Reception — with the Abigail Adams tiara in my pocket and no one the wiser.

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December 19, 2012

DPLA looking for an executive director

The Digital Public Library of America is looking for an executive director. This is an incredible opportunity to make a difference.

I think it’d be fantastic if this person were to come out of the large, community-based Web collaboration space, but there are many other ways for the DPLA to go right. The search committee is pretty fabulous, so I have confidence that this is going to be an amazing hire.

The DPLA team gave a presentation at Berkman yesterday, and has been showing some initial work, including a collaboration with Europeana and wireframes of a front page. It’s looking very good for the April launch date.

Our little group, the Harvard Library Innovation Lab, is working on a visual browser for books within the DPLA collection, so we’re pretty excited.

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October 11, 2012

[dpla] DPLA looking good

After attending today’s working meeting of the DPLA (I’m unable to attend tomorrow’s more public-facing session), I’m quite encouraged. The DPLA is now in execution mode, and I believe the pieces are in place.

The Content workstream is well along in securing a range of content, including heritage collections and copyright-free books from the Internet Archive and Hathi Trust. The processes and relationships required for accessing and maintaining the metadata are well along.

The Tech workstream is in very good hands. Jeff Licht is heading it up, and there are external groups working on the required pieces for ingesting metadata, normalizing it, and presenting it through a prototype front end. The Tech team is following roughly the architecture that we’d prototyped Jan-April, and while there are daunting problems — getting the various types of metadata talking to one another, and weighting it so that the results reflect user desires, just to take two — I’m confident it’s going to work well and scale.

And the Governance group is well along in turning this open-edged movement into a an organization built for the long-term. The Board is looking great, there is a search for an Executive Director, and it’s going to be a flexible and responsive organization.

Definitely on track.

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[dpla] DPLA afternoon session

It’s the end of the workstream day of the DPLA Midwest meeting. Each of the three workstream meetings is reporting back to the general group.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Emily Gore from the Content stream: What kind of guidance should we develop for interested content providers? The group wants to have a strategic collection development plan draft by the end of December. “What is our role with regard to advocacy” for content currently under copyright? Also, the group talked about the hub pilot project. Various participants in that pilot were in the room.

SJ Klein from the Technical workstream: There was a lively discussion this afternoon, primarily about the design of the front end. How to make the frontend experience help people become contributors? They also talked about the Chatanooga hackathon Nov. 8-9. Tools for making working with metadata easier. Packaging tools that match potential contributors with a hub. Metadata purgatory for metadata that has been contributed but doesn’t meet the standards.

Maureen Sullivan and John Palfrey report on the Governance group: The next steps are to take the barebone by-laws and flesh them out. There were many discussions about whether DPLA the 501(c)(3) should be a membership organization, but the general consensus is no. (Paul Courant made the point that many institutions shy away from becoming members because that makes them liable.) Rather, it would be good to have participation from groups and people with specific areas of expertise. There was a lot of energy about expanding on the statement of principles, including adding an explicit commitment to accessibility. There was strong support for continuing to see the DPLA as a public/private enterprise. John Bracken made the point that DPLA should view itself as a network, not as a heavyweight organization.

Maureen points out that the workstreams have converged. She says that “contributor” seems to be a better word than “member.” We need to be flexible about how people will come together to do the work that’s required. And we should be thinking of ourselves as advocates, a force for change to improve the lives of people in this country and around the world.


[dpla] DPLA opening session

Today is the first day of the third national plenary of the Digital Public Library of America. We’re in the Chicago Public Library where Brian Bannon has welcomed us. Brian is Chicago’s new Library Commissioner, and I am a huge fan.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

John Palfrey, the chair of the DPLA, tells us that what makes him happiest about the DPLA meeting is the wide range of people who continue to work on the project. He tells us that this is the first time the DPLA has live-streamed the workstream day; tomorrow is the big public confab. (Hashtag: #dplamidwest.) JP tells us that the DPLA is working across workstreams; the meetings today are not focused on workstreams but topics.

One session will be on content. JP reminds us that Emily Gore is working fulltime on acquiring content. That session is going to talk about strategic planning, and about the digital hubs pilot project that is under development. (The hubs project apparently will give access to the Hathi Trust and Internet Archive, which means there will be books in the DPLA!) JP tells us that there are two federal funders and one not-yet-announced private funder.

The second simultaneous group is the technical workstream. Martin Kalfaltovic, SJ Klein and Jeffrey Licht.

The third is on the future of the DPLA with JP and Maureen Sullivan.

JP announces that the the DPLA non-profit org is on the way. He also congratulates PAul Courant of the Hathi Trust for the judicial decision yesterday. JP asks how we can keep the DPLA’s inclusiveness and openness even as it moves to a more formal structure.

“This is the last of the entire days to roll up your sleeves and figure out what the ‘it’ is before we launch the ‘it’ in April 2013,” JP says.

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June 11, 2012

DPLA West meeting online

The sessions from the DPLA Plenary meeting on April 27 in SF are now online. Here’s the official announcement:

…all media and work outputs from the two day-long events that made up DPLA West–the DPLA workstream meetings held on April 26, 2012 at the San Francisco Public Library, and the public plenary held on April 27, 2012 at the Internet Archive in San Francisco, CA–are now available online on the “DPLA West: Media and Outputs” page:

There you will find:

  • Key takeaways from the April 26, 2012 workstream meetings;

  • Notes from the April 27, 2012 Steering Committee meeting;

  • Complete video of the April 27, 2012 public plenary;

  • Photographs and graphic notes from the public plenary;

  • Video interviews with DPLA West participants;

  • And audio interviews with DPLA West scholarship recipients.

More information about DPLA West can be found online at

Folks from the Harvard Library Innovation Lab and the Berkman Center worked long and hard to create a prototype software platform for the DPLA in time for this event. The platform is up and gives live access to about 20M books and thousands of images and other items from various online collections. The session at which we introduced, explained, and demo’ed it is now available for your viewing pleasure. (I was interim head of the project.)

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June 6, 2012


I learned yesterday from Robin Wendler (who worked mightily on the project) that Harvard’s library catalog dataset of 12.3M records has been bulk downloaded a thousand times, excluding the Web spiderings. That seems like an awful lot to me, and makes me happy.

The library catalog dataset comprises bibliographic records of almost all of Harvard Library’s gigantic collection. It’s available under a CC 0 public domain license for bulk download, and can be accessed through an API via the DPLA’s prototype platform. More info here.

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January 4, 2012

Starting on the platform for the Digital Public Library of America

For the past 1.5 years or so, I’ve been co-director, along with Kim Dulin, of the Harvard Library Innovation Lab. Among the projects we’ve been working on is LibraryCloud, a multi library metadata server. (You can see it at work, running underneath ShelfLife, another of our projects, here.) Today the Digital Public Library of America announced that initial (and interim) development work on the DPLA platform will be done by the LibraryCloud team — Paul Deschner and Matthew Phillips — plus our Berkman friends, Daniel Collis-Puro and Sebastian Diaz. I’m the team leader, or whatever you call the person who knows the least. We’ll do this as openly as possible, relying upon the community to help at every phase, but this will be our core work during the first phase of the platform’s development, leading up to an April 26 DPLA Steering Committee meeting.

The DPLA platform will enable developers to write applications using the metadata (primarily about content hosted elsewhere) the DPLA will be aggregating.

We’re excited. Thrilled, actually.