The Digital Public Library of America: First Things First

Today and tomorrow I’m at the Digital Public Library of America meeting in Washington, DC. I’m a “convener” (I’m hoping that means “judge, jury, and executioner”) of the “Audience and Participation Workstream,” which is trying to assess who will use the DPLA and why. Others are working on technical, legal, financial, and content questions. Questions at today’s small meeting of  conveners loomed large in all of those areas: the DPLA may or may not have in-copyright materials, it may or may not be an meta-platform or a centralized resource, it may focus on popular content or the long tail. Obviously these are all questions that will have to be resolved over the next 18 months.

But at today’s meeting I kept coming back to a more basic question, a question faced by any new website or digital project: Why would anyone use it? For something as ambitious (and potentially as expensive) as the DPLA, there is the further question: Why would anyone choose to visit the DPLA first, rather than, say, commercial providers like Google or Amazon, or non-profit entities such as the Internet Archive’s Open Library or OCLC’s Worldcat? Or as Ed Summers more succinctly put it last spring: In what way will the DPLA be better than the web?

Because of these critical root questions, I believe the DPLAs faces a huge uphill battle upon launch. Today, I started a list of elements that could help draw an audience to the DPLA—in the same way that public libraries continue to attract huge numbers of patrons. This list represents a shift of my views about the DPLA from the meeting at Harvard in the spring, where I advocated for advanced research modes. (For this reason, I think some of the data-mining DPLA “beta sprint” prototypes are headed in the wrong direction, at least for this initial phase.) I now think that, at least at first, we have to focus on the P in DPLA.

So what are the characteristics of public libraries that we can leverage for the DPLA?

1) Trust. Why would your average reader or researcher go to rather than Because people trust their public library enormously; they understand that the library isn’t out to profit from them, but to serve them. The DPLA should capitalize on this, and posters for the DPLA should end up in the entryway of every public library in America.

2) Local and relevant. Just as people visit the local library or historical society to learn more about their town or neighborhood, they should see, when visiting, digital collections of local content (old photographs, genealogies, etc) in addition to lists of books, videos, and other global content. Google or Worldcat may direct you to your local library for a copy of a book, but they don’t curate and present true local content.

3) Fully open and hopefully fully free (at least to the reader), or at least less expensive for popular materials. If by some miracle the legal workstream is able to acquire digital copies of popular books from large publishers, in a way that works better than the maddening Overdrive (where the one digital copy of a book you want is always checked out), then that would be a major extension of a traditional advantage of the public library into the digital age.

4) Easier. Starting research on most topics on the web is still maddening. Bing‘s launch marketing campaign against Google (“you can’t find anything”) was onto something. Can the web presence for the DPLA somehow replicate (or act as a middleman for) the experience of asking a trusted, knowledgeable librarian for help, and direct students, curious people, and serious researchers to an array of materials that help them better than a Google search?

I’m likely missing other initial “magnets,” and am happy to take other suggestions in the comments below. But in short, it seems to me that for the DPLA to be the first choice on the web, it has to take maximal advantage of trust, relevance, and ease versus the general (and mostly commercial) web.


Brett Bobley says:

Dan – I’m looking forward to the meeting tomorrow. I’ve also been thinking a lot about this issue of whether the DPLA will ultimately be a meta-platform (“portal?” — are we still allowed to use that word?) or might it also hold its own collections? When I go back and re-read Robert Darnton’s series of articles that inspired DPLA, he focuses a lot on mass digitization. The idea of a central, national library that scans books, assigns to them very high-quality metadata, and makes them available to the public. Sort of a digital version of the Library of Congress. A library that isn’t run by a commercial company that could suddenly decide to get out of the business of books (exactly what Microsoft did a few years ago). It seems like the conversation has shifted somewhat away from that model to more of a meta-platform for finding resources found in other places on the web.

I’m quite interested to see where DPLA will go. Will it scan its own content? Will it be a trusted place that others can deposit copies of scans for long-term care? Or will it be mainly a meta-platform for finding stuff?

Caroline Bordinaro says:

Either you’ll need live librarians doing the intake, or you’ll need to build in some powerful spell=checking features. Most people’s spelling is so atrocious these days, many search engines have no idea what the end user is looking for.

Will there be ‘real-life’ digital librarians to help direct library-goers via email or live chat? Will Amazon-like ‘you might be interested in this book’ recommendations be integrated into the system? If we could replicate the role of librarians and the act(s) of browsing, we’d be pointing toward a more digital library experience.

John Muccigrosso says:


Have you ever the experience of Google asking you if you meant one word when you had spelled another?

I guess I’ve really been hoping that although it would have some nice frontend like Europeana, the DPLA would primarily be powerful as other than a destination. Rather the way use of RSS readers isn’t all that common (and is I think declining), but it’s still key that RSS feeds exist for various weird uses. If that’s clear. Still, if it’s even possible to bring people to a DPLA website, what you outline might well work.

Michael Hancher says:

Brett Bobley asks the right questions (no. 1 above).

Cristina Ramos says:

My question is even simplier: will everyone be able to search within this DPLA? I mean people in other countries, as for example Spain, because we are not allowed to download from many webs that are completely open for American people… Absurd, but it happens.

I believe that the four principles for successful DPLA could be applied also to physical libraries as well, if they want to be successful.

@Brett Bobley
I doubt it would be a mass digitization project of that kind but rather a meta-data aggregation project, like The European Library and, subsequently, Europeana. DPLA announced collaboration with Europeana and it says on DPLA web site (under About) “The DPLA will aggregate existing library data and create new data; it will operate as part of a global linked data environment.” We will see, anyway, but the idea is interesting and ambitious.

Oleg K. says:

My feeling is that only by crowdsourcing metadata development in creative ways will the breadth of materials we envision being made “accessible” by the DPLA actually be “findable”.

The Internet Archive, for example, has tons of stuff but so much of it is basically dead because the metadata is so spotty (I’ve run into this particularly when looking for specific issues of modernist magazines). If IA made it easy and worthwhile for average folks to fix it, then they will.

Public libraries, unlike academic libraries or most archives, have direct access to the patrons. The DPLA has to reach out on a personal level to library systems and persuade them to devote staff to promoting the DPLA. Otherwise, unless it fits into the everyday workflow (read: helps answer reference questions, etc.) of librarians and its quick to use, it’ll have a difficult time fitting into the everyday information landscape of both public librarians and everyday searchers.

[…] Creepy Why Indoor Navigation is so Hard Building Windows 8 Download Windows 8 Developer Preview DPLA: First Things First Copyright Office on Mass Digitization Economics of Open Access […]

[…] collection belong to them and are available for their use. So it should also be with DPLA, Dan Cohen wrote, claiming that public libraries engender trust, localness, relevance, and familiarity. The ultimate […]

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