As most PLA blog readers are probably aware, the folks at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society have assembled “a large and diverse group of stakeholders to define the scope, architecture, costs, and administration for a proposed Digital Public Library of America”. There’s been a lot of listserv discussion, and the Library City blog and the Library Renewal group have responded to this initiative, all helping to steer it in a way that should truly benefit our incredibly diverse public libraries and their patrons. I thought I’d take a stab here at defining what I believe would be a useful DPLA for real public libraries and real public library patrons across the USA. No, I’m not the *most* experienced public librarian out there by a long shot, but I’ve worked in libraries on both sides of this country, and I’ve traveled around the U.S. visiting libraries large and small. I think I have a pretty good understanding of the differentiating and uniting factors you’ll find in a large, multi-branch urban library system and a tiny, one-room village library.
A few weeks ago, a web developer asked me “If you took all of the (physical) books out of a library, what would you be left with other than a community center?” After begging him not to take all of the books out of the library, I explained to him that libraries are about 1) collections of knowledge, 2) conversations about knowledge, and 3) creating context for knowledge. I hope readers agree, because I’m going to operate under that assertion for the entirety of this post. I’d suggest that because books have been the primary medium for knowledge storage and transfer for a such a long time it has become really easy to focus on and market to our users only the first of those three pieces. Merely offering library collections has become our default mission, and we sort of think “oh, yeah, whatever, we do that too” about conversation and context. Really, whether we are speaking of the ancient library at Alexandria or the early libraries in the USA those other two components have always been there. In my opinion, we need to regain some focus on the other components of our mission.
Increasingly, we are applying physical library paradigms to our digital library spaces. The website that I manage at the San Jose Public Library is considered our ‘digital branch’. We offer collections of knowledge in our digital branch via Overdrive, MyLibrary, and NetLibrary. We support conversations about knowledge with open commenting forums on all librarian-generated content, and by providing easy tools to push conversation out to Twitter, Facebook, or other social media channels. Finally, we create context for knowledge by creating original blog and multimedia content and publishing research guides: our library staff make the collections relevant to our community. The SJPL digital branch is anything but perfect, just like our library buildings need to be refreshed, the site does as well (and arguably much more frequently). Regardless, it is a digital space that addresses all three aspects of the public library mission.
I propose that we should work backward from this three-point perspective to imagine a suitable architecture for a Digital Public Library of America. The website at SJPL is reflective of a user-centered design process; the site is targeted specifically toward our users (both the content producers and the content consumers), here in San Jose. Creating a DPLA platform through a user-centered design process that is truly reflective of the service populations of both mammoth urban library systems and beloved, smaller rural libraries is an enormous challenge. In my opinion, this can only be accomplished by building a dashboard that public library staff can use to curate, display, and filter both DPLA ‘objects’ and ‘commentary’ for public consumption on their own web properties, within their own brand identity. To be clear, when I say ‘objects’ I mean eBooks, documents, images, video or any other media item in the DPLA ‘collection’. When I say ‘commentary’ I mean any user-created text comment, uploaded image, video, or remix of an ‘object’.
For contrast, let me give you an example of an excellent digital library project that would not make a useful DPLA. The Oregon Digital Library Project is an excellent solution to the problem they state on their ‘about’ page: “As libraries and archives within Oregon have created digital collections rich with content, the ability for the general library user not associated with a specific campus/organization community to find and access digital content has become more difficult.” When a user performs a search on the Oregon Digital Library site, they are returned results from collections across the state. They are then able to click through to the catalog entry for the object and see it in the context of the institution that owns the object.
This is a really nice discovery layer. Serious, engaged researchers must be very pleased with this. The problem is that providing a discovery layer for a collection is only one facet of what public libraries do for their patrons, and within the current web ecosystem it has become a far less important facet. If you don’t believe that statement, look to the figures about how many people choose to start their searching for *anything* on a library catalog or website vs. Google. It would be tempting for the Digital Public Library of America to take the same approach as the Oregon project; why not leverage open metadata standards and build a DPLA interface that pulls in objects and hosts commentary from library, museum, and historical society databases across the country? This isn’t a valid solution though: a DPLA can’t just aim to address library collections, it needs to address conversation and context as well. Libraries and librarians are uniquely positioned to confront the latter two of these mission components, and a well-realized DPLA would help them do a better job.
To best illustrate what I’d like to do for my users with a DPLA as a public librarian, I’ll present you with a ficticious case study.
I’m a public librarian who lives and works in a mountainous, coastal region of California with redwood forests and a rich local history. In fact, it is such a rich local history that my library has countless patrons with varying degrees of expertise who simply can’t get enough of it. I’m regularly building research guides and helping intriguing quirky historians with their book projects. I wish I could find a way to get them all working with each other and step out of the mix from time to time. Fortunately, I know that through the DPLA I have access to a lot of other collections from around the country and I should be able to put that into a package that helps everyone out.
So I log into the DPLA site as an admin from my library, and start searching for content. I find 3 eBooks, 6 photographs, and a video on the subject. I add all of these to my cart as items that I’m going to want to add to my own library website. When I do this, I receive a prompt that one of these books has 6 commentary objects associated with it, two of the photos also have commentary objects, and so does the video. The DPLA admin interface then asks me “how large of an area do you want comment objects to display from?” and I select 50 square miles.
Of course these existing comment objects are already associated with the content I selected because a museum in Michigan was doing an exhibit on logging and they had used some of the very same items from the DPLA collection I plan to. I’m pretty sure that my local users here in California don’t care what was going on in the conversation in Michigan, so I set up my 50 mile radius geofence on the comment display. Now, despite the fact that on a national scale there may be comments associated with the things I want to display on my local site, I’m only showing users the local conversation.
When I go to check out from the DPLA admin interface, after tweaking various settings on my book, image, and movie objects, I am presented with bits of embed code for each item that I simply need to cut and paste into my own site. All of the heavy lifting coding work has been done for me. If a user from my library chooses to comment on one of the items, not only does that comment display on my site, it is automatically ported back to the DPLA site and made accessible from there as well.
The next day, when one of my regular patrons comes in and asks about an obscure logging equipment catalog from a local company that existed in 1867, before I pull my hair out trying to find it, I show him the new DPLA-powered addition to our digital branch collection. I suggest that he should really log in to this easy-to-use site himself, and start a forum with the other two regular patrons who come in looking for this type of material. By chance, this particular guy is such an expert on local lore and legend around the subject matter in this micro-collection I curated, and when I show him an image he recognizes the attribution and caption to be incorrect. I show him how to make a comment and submit a request for correction.
The potential for a Digital Public Library of America to change public library services is really pretty amazing. The scenario I’m describing above pulls content from collections around the country made available via the DPLA, and it allows local patrons to have conversations around the collection in a localized context. As the conversation about a realistic, achievable DPLA architecture continues, I think this kind of scenario prototyping is absolutely essential if we hope to make something that will be the game-changer that libraries and the American people deserve. I’m inviting readers (at least those who made it to the end of this lengthy blog post) to create and post their own scenarios in the comments here, in hopes that your story might inform an ideal user-centric DPLA. It would also be great to get some feedback- does the approach I’m suggesting make sense to you, at your library? I’d ask that you *don’t* post issues lamenting the current lousy state of eBook access or rant about antiquated copyright law, or actually complain about anything. Let’s reserve this space for folks in public libraries to make positive suggestions.