The Digital Public Library Of America: How Would You Like To Access Online Resources?

It was suggested that a Scannebago should be driving around the United States scanning public library works to make them available online. (I envision the Scannebago as a cross between a Winnebago, a Google Street View car and the pickup truck from Twister, but you might picture a more creative image.) Regardless of the process, many public libraries have scanned works over the past few years and now it is time to organize the digital works for public access across the country—and eventually internationally. Last year, the Berkman Center for Internet and Technology, with funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, assembled a steering committee of library leaders to examine and improve public access to online resources. Enter the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), which just received another $5 million from the Sloan Foundation and Arcadia Fund and hopes to launch by April 2013. Led by the steering committee, the DPLA had its first plenary meeting on October 21. As a newbie in the area of digital library policy, I didn’t know what to expect out of the meeting, but I was surprised that some veterans also didn’t know what to expect. This might be a good thing. It will allow each of us, as members of the public, to think about what we want out of our digital public library and voice our concerns to the DPLA, which will hold public meetings soon.

With the desires of the public as a main consideration, discussion at the meeting centered on defining what the DPLA is and what it needs to do to provide the public with access to all information. Ideas focused on openness, interoperability, participation, and the typical user. A member of the public from a small community should be able to access any work from any library and also be able to add works to the digitized collection.

But DPLA members were perplexed by the best way to achieve this lofty goal.

One looming question involved the scope of the DPLA. Do we start the digital library with only public domain works? This might avoid a battle with people who try to squeeze every possible cent out of copyright law but the public wants copyright works available in the digital collection. In fact, many libraries currently lend digital copies of copyrighted works to their patrons and they would still be able to do so even as the DPLA digitizes or centralizes more public library works. Avoiding copyright infringement is noble, but the DPLA should not let fears that stem from legal uncertainty prevent it from achieving its goals. The DPLA should include as many works as possible in the digital library for public access—that is, after all, it’s overarching goal. Its lawyerly members can illuminate legal issues as they arise and offer suggestions to work with the law.

Another ripe question was how to grant access to the digitized works in the library. If we create a digital library on one centralized server, do we also have one central access point or should there be many access points? At first, one centralized access point seemed like a good idea since we want one big digital public library, but after further reflection, many access points will probably be in the best interest of public library users. With many access points, individual libraries will be able to provide access to information in unique ways. As Brewster Kahle of Internet Archive explained, “it would be a Darwinian approach.” There would be more incentive for libraries and tech wizards to create the best access and search tools so that curious library patrons can use the tools and declare the most fun and useful tools fit for survival.

The only question that wasn’t perplexing was how the public will benefit from access to so many digitized works. The answers span as far as your imagination. One obvious answer is an increased ability to find more information on [insert topic of your choice here]. “If it’s not online, it doesn’t exist”—or at least if you can’t find something online, you don’t know if it exists—noted David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States.

While any detailed plans for the DPLA are only in the earliest stages, thoughts of social movement, potential, and progress filled the room during the first meeting. Most importantly, everyone in the room was thinking about what we want out of a universal, digital public library. Any other public library user can join in this process and provide suggestions to the DPLA. As Lynne Brindley, Chief Execute of the British Library, wisely noted, we don’t know what the digital public library will be used for, but we do know the uses will be “infinitely more creative” the wider the library is spread.

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