In DC this past week, the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), an inchoate set of aspirations based in the vision that every American should have digital access to as much of the world’s culture as possible, launched with the announcement of $5 million in grants from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Arcadia Fund. DPLA also announced a partnership with its more mature European equivalent, Europeana. The partnership will work together on interoperability and common technical standards and infrastructure, and more immediately curate an exhibit on stories of European immigration to North America.
Five million dollars is a substantial investment in an effort that doesn’t yet have a formal organization. On the other hand, as these things go, it’s a modest but important blessing for the attempt to coalesce U.S. public digital library collections. And, by pulling together a large portion of library and publisher leadership together in one effort, DPLA’s vision has succeeded in drawing attention to a wide range of issues for the preservation of digital access to our culture. The DPLA is the very definition of a public service, and its holdings will deliver public goods; this is precisely the kind of initiative that should garner the investment of the national government. Even if it DPLA fails in its planned scope, the effort of the DPLA reminds us that there are national goals worthy of common aspiration and effort.
Although I did not directly participate in the public plenary meetings on Friday, I was pleased to be a “convener” of one of the six DPLA workstreams on Thursday — Finance and Business, chaired by Paul Courant of the University of Michigan. The other DPLA workstreams are Governance, Legal, Content and Scope, Audience and Participation, and Technical. Through that limited window, and the end-of-day sharing of the experiences of the workstreams, I gained some sense of the most fundamental struggles in the months ahead.
One DPLA challenge is to figure out how it should work. It could see itself as a living portal providing direct access to digital books and other content, or it might serve as an collector of metadata providing data linkages and pointers to distributed digital libraries across the country. The tension between aggregating content in a central system or simply gathering information about books, film, and images held by other institutions reprises a struggle already faced by Europeana, which started out storing metadata only, and then moved slowly towards the idea that holding content permitted a richer set of services and more flexibility over policies.
One of the settled principles of DPLA is that access should be free at the point of the end-user. That doesn’t mean there isn’t money in the system, for of course there will have to be — probably a great deal of it. Instead it means that the compensation for the costs of services is embedded elsewhere, and must be developed through other mechanisms than user taxation, and probably a mix of them. This mix might include new Federal support, probably funneled through existing agencies such as the Library of Congress or the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS); continued philanthropic support; the repurposing of existing streams of funding at the Federal, State, or local levels; and some kind of optional local library participation or membership.
One vision for DPLA is that it supports the local curation, digitization, and preservation of community resources. For example, Los Angeles’s rich history could be more fully contributed to DPLA’s holdings if LA Public Library was able to take advantage of a coordinated national network of services. Although the IMLS has generously supported local digitization, it’s scale and availability could be greatly enhanced with the imprimatur of a national digital library organization. This is the kind of service that local communities interested in preserving their local history and perceiving its value in their identity and marketing might be able to help support.
Another core aspect of DPLA services is almost certainly going to be a focus on public domain content at first, slowly moving toward arrangements with rightsholders that would permit greater public exposure to more contemporary assets. The public domain allows us to glimpse the tremendous value of our country’s history and culture. The collections of our great libraries and museums, including the Smithsonian, hold tremendous riches that are already available to all. Government publications, many of which are still only available in print, are often by definition public domain and should be a high priority for access by DPLA. Government document digitization is an obvious area where the government agencies should be providing financial support.
Indeed, the enhanced visibility of photographs, film, and texts should be highly valued by content industries, who could use old film footage in new film productions or designing online games; or utilize historical images and photographs in a wide range of products including illustrated art books. Many of these will need to have their public domain status fully asserted as part of their accession by the DPLA.
Whatever the future of the DPLA, its value will be measured by what it can deliver to local communities. As Martin Gomez of the LA Public Library, one of my colleagues on the Finance and Business workstream declaimed, ultimately those of us invested in the DPLA process will have to respond to the most important question: “What’s in it for the kids?” I look forward with hope and expectation to how we shape the answer to that challenge.