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Questions from and for the Digital Public Library of America workshop

I got to attend the Digital Public Library of America‘s first workshop yesterday. It was an amazing experience that left me with the best kind of headache: Too much to think about! Too many possibilities for goodness!

Mainly because the Chatham House Rule was in effect, I tweeted instead of live-blogged; it’s hard to do a transcript-style live-blog when you’re not allowed to attribute words to people. (The tweet stream was quite lively.) Fortunately, John Palfrey, the head of the steering committee, did some high-value live-blogging, which you can find here: 1 2 3 4.

The DPLA is more of an intention than a plan. The DPLA is important because the intention is for something fundamentally liberating, the people involved have been thinking about and working on related projects for years, and the institutions carry a great deal of weight. So, if something is going to happen that requires widespread institutional support, this is the group with the best chance. The year of workshops that began yesterday aims at helping to figure out how the intention could become something real.

So, what is the intention? Something like: To bring the benefits of public libraries to every American. And there is, of course, no consensus even about a statement that broad. For example, the session opened with a discussion of public versus research libraries (with the “versus” thrown into immediate question). And, Terry Fisher at the very end of the day suggested that the DPLA ought to stand for a principle: Knowledge should be free and universally accessible. Throughout the course of the day, many other visions and pragmatic possibilities were raised by the sixty attendees. [Note: I’ve just violated the Chatham Rule by naming Terry, but I’m trusting he won’t mind. Also, I very likely got his principle wrong. It’s what I do.]

I came out of it invigorated and depressed at the same time. Invigorated: An amazing set of people, very significant national institutions ready to pitch in, an alignment on the value of access to the works of knowledge and culture. Depressed: The !@#$%-ing copyright laws are so draconian and, well, stupid, that it is hard to see how to take advantage of the new ways of connecting to ideas and to one another. As one well-known Internet archivist said, we know how to make works of the 19th and 21st centuries accessible, but the 20th century is pretty much lost: Anything created after 1923 will be in copyright about as long as there’s a Sun to read by, and the gigantic mass of works that are out of print, but the authors are dead or otherwise unreachable, is locked away as firmly as an employee restroom at a Disney theme park.

So, here are some of the issues we discussed yesterday that I found came home with me. Fortunately, most are not intractable, but all are difficult to resolve and, some, to implement:

Should the DPLA aggregate content or be a directory? Much of the discussion yesterday focused on the DPLA as an aggregation of e-works. Maybe. But maybe it should be more of a directory. That’s the approach taken by the European online library, Europeana. But being a directory is not as glamorous or useful. And it doesn’t use the combined heft of the participating institutions to drive more favorable licensing terms or legislative changes since it itself is not doing any licensing.

Who is the user? How generic? Does the DPLA have to provide excellent tools for scholars and researchers, too? (See the next question.)

Site or ecology? At one extreme, the DPLA could be nothing but a site where you find e-content. At the other extreme, it wouldn’t even have a site but would be an API-based development platform so that others can build sites that are tuned to specific uses and users. I think the room agrees that it has to do both, although people care differently about the functions. It will have to provide a convenient way for users to find ebooks, but I hope that it will have an incredibly robust and detailed API so that someone who wants to build a community-based browse-and-talk environment for scholars of the Late 19th Century French Crueller can. And if I personally had to decide between the DPLA being a site or metadata + protocols + APIs, I’d go with the righthand disjunct in a flash.

Should the DPLA aim at legislative changes? My sense of the room is that while everyone would like to see copyright heavily amended, DPLA needs to have a strategy for launching while working within existing law.

Should the DPLA only provide access to materials users can access for free? That meets much of what we expect from public libraries (although many local libraries do charge a little for DVDs), but it fails Terry Fisher’s principle. (I don’t mean to imply that everyone there agreed with Terry, btw.)

What should the DPLA do to launch quickly and well? The sense of the room was that it’s important that DPLA not get stuck in committee for years, but should launch something quickly. Unfortunately, the easiest stuff to launch with are public domain works, many of which are already widely available. There were some suggestions for other sources of public domain works, such as government documents. But, then the DPLA would look like a specialty library, instead of the first place people turn to when they want an e-book or other such content.

How to pay for it? There was little talk of business models yesterday, but it was a short day for a big topic. There were occasional suggestions, such as just outright buying e-books (rather than licensing them), in part to meet the library’s traditional role of preserving works as well as providing access to them.

How important is expert curation? There seemed to be a genuine divide — pretty much undiscussed, possibly because it’s a divisive topic — about the value of curation. A few people suggested quite firmly that expert curation is a core value provided by libraries: you go to the library because you know you can trust what is in it. I personally don’t see that scaling, think there are other ways of meeting the same need, and worry that the promise is itself illusory. This could turn out to be a killer issue. Who determines what gets into the DPLA (if the concept of there being an inside to the DPLA even turns out to make sense)?

Is the environment stable enough to build a DPLA? Much of the conversation during the workshop assumed that book and journal publishers are going to continue as the mediating centers of the knowledge industry. But, as with music publishers, much of the value of publishers has left the building and now lives on the Net. So, the DPLA may be structuring itself around a model that is just waiting to be disrupted. Which brings me to the final question I left wondering about:

How disruptive should the DPLA be? No one’s suggesting that the DPLA be a rootin’ tootin’ bay of pirates, ripping works out of the hands of copyright holders and setting them free, all while singing ribald sea shanties. But how disruptive can it be? On the one hand, the DPLA could be a portal to e-works that are safely out of copyright or licensed. That would be useful. But, if the DPLA were to take Terry’s principle as its mission — knowledge ought to be free and universally accessible — the DPLA would worry less about whether it’s doing online what libraries do offline, and would instead start from scratch asking: Given the astounding set of people and institutions assembled around this opportunity, what can we do together to make knowledge as free and universally accessible as possible? Maybe a library is not the best transformative model.

Of course, given the greed-based, anti-knowledge, culture-killing copyright laws, the fact may be that the DPLA simply cannot be very disruptive. Which brings me right back to my depression. And yet, exhilaration.

Go figure.

The DPLA wiki is here.

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