What Scholars Want from the Digital Public Library of America

[A rough transcript of my talk at the Digital Public Library of America meeting at Harvard on March 1, 2011. To permit unguarded, open discussion, we operated under the Chatham House Rule, which prevents attribution of comments, but I believe I’m allowed to violate my own anonymity.]

I was once at a meeting similar to this one, where technologists and scholars were discussing what a large digital library should look like. During a breakout session, the technologists huddled and talked about databases, indices, search mechanisms; the scholars, on the other side of the room, painted a vision of what the archive would look like online, in their view a graphical representation as close to the library as possible, where one could pull down boxes from the shelves, and then open those boxes and leaf through the folios one by one.

While the technologists debated digital infrastructure, the scholars were trying to replicate or maintain what they liked about the analog world they knew: a trusted order, the assurance of the physical, all of the cues they pick up from the shelf and the book. If we want to think about the Digital Public Library of America from the scholar’s point of view, we must think about how to replicate those signals while taking advantage of the technology. In short: the best of the single search box with the trust and feel of the bookshelf.

So how can this group translate those scholarly concerns into elements of the DPLA? I did what any rigorous, traditionally trained scholar would do: I asked my Twitter followers. Here are their thoughts, with my thanks for their help:

First, scholars want reliable metadata about scholarly objects like books. Close enough doesn’t count. Although Google has relatively few metadata errors (given that they handle literally a trillion pieces of metadata), these errors drive scholars mad, and make them skeptical of online collections.

Second, serendipity. Many works of scholarship come from the chance encounter of the scholar with primary sources. How can that be enhanced? Some in my feed suggested a user interface with links to “more like this,” “recent additions in your field,” or “sample collections.” Others advocated social cues, such as user-contributed notes on works in the library.

Third, there are different modes of scholarly research, and the interface has to reflect that: a simple discovery layer with a sophisticated advanced search underneath, faceted search, social search methods for collaborative practice, the ability to search within a collection or subcollection.

Fourth, connection with the physical. We need better representations of books online than the sameness of Google books, where everything looks like a PDF of the same size. Scholars also need the ability to go from the digital to the analog by finding a local copy of a work.

Finally, as I have often said, scholars have uses for libraries that libraries can’t anticipate. So we need the DPLA to enable other parties to build upon, reframe, and reuse the collection. In technical terms, this means open APIs.


I’d be shocked if ANY library catalog had FEWER metadata errors than Google Books.

If scholars aren’t skeptical of library catalogs (and maybe they are), then it’s either simply because of habit, or because it’s so hard to find anything in a library catalog anyway that you don’t notice the metadata errors! It’s sort of like how many libraries only notice the quality problems in their own metadata when they try to put a fancy new ‘next generation’ interface on top — gee, it turns out 5% of our corpus has the machine-readable publication date wrong, but in our old interface nobody noticed.

Bibliographic metadata is hard and expensive, no way around it.

Hugh Cayless says:

Something that is often not considered in libraries for a variety of (sometimes political, or turf-defending) reasons, but is incredibly important, is the ability for researchers to improve on the data and metadata they find.

When I was doing research for my Master’s thesis, I remember having to read a fairly hefty book in French that was a somewhat poorly-edited second edition. There were (important) cross-references to page numbers that had clearly worked in the first edition, but didn’t in the current one. We didn’t have the first edition. But some kind soul had (in pencil) updated a lot of these to work in the edition I had. I would have had a hard time doing the same with my newbie academic French, so this really helped me.

Given the chance, I think a lot of scholars will channel their rage at the discovery of error into fixing that error rather than into complaint. It’s not like we’re stuck with the old, rigid, library catalog we used to access with telnet—there are ways to do this now.

@Jonathan: you left out a -s in your URL, and that’s a NSFW site 😉

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