The Digital Public Library of America needs a public-facing laboratory; an experimental beta space where we can prototype ideas, curricula, interfaces, strategies, and experiences.
I’m home again after a very interesting session about building a National Digital Public Library at the Los Angeles Public Library and I’d like to recap it while offering a few of my own opinions for the readers. Public librarians reading this post: a national digital library movement is most certainly underway, and quite frankly I think it may be the only thing that will prevent our libraries as we know them from simply fading from relevance. I’m aware that my opinions on these matters may be a bit controversial for those libraries and librarians kicking back out there, those that believe providing access to books for public consumption will remain a useful, supported service that your community will tax themselves to keep around.
Before going any further, I think it’s worth stating for clarification that this #NDPL conference was an IMLS-funded gathering that was the product of a concurrent vision overlapping with another project that’s been the talk of the town lately, that being the Digital Public Library of America (#DPLA) initiative. I’d like to thank Martin Gomez for having the foresight to put this meeting into the works a year ago, and IMLS and the Library Foundation of Los Angeles for supporting it. I’d also like to thank him for closing the conference with a statement endorsing the DPLA movement as something vital and of imminent importance, something that public libraries must become deeply involved with in order to steer it in a direction that serves their users’ needs. With that, I will stop switching between the NDPL / DPLA nametags and return to DPLA consistently when I refer to this movement; I hope others will too because clear messaging and good communication are important components of this (or any) movement.
It was excellent to have so many strong voices from public libraries pondering the difficult predicament libraries find themselves in as content lenders in the digital environment. There were library directors and state librarians as well as public library technologists present, not to mention representatives from OCLC, The Sloan Foundation, the Gates Foundation and many, many more. That said, as much as the room was brimming with public library leadership talent and as encouraging as it was to see those representatives, I was reminded of the reason why I rushed to become involved in the DPLA immediately upon hearing about the idea not quite one year ago. I saw the DPLA as a chance to inform, influence and leverage change in my profession from the outside, rather than change it from the inside as I’ve been trying to do for years as a public employee. After working for public libraries for 13 years now I don’t believe that the type of fundamental change that we need to make to the very definition of what a public library IS could ever happen from the inside. That’s regrettable, but true.
So, indeed, I believe that our era of digital content replacing print content requires a much larger re-visioning of what public libraries can and should be in their communities. I’d describe public libraries’ current approach to the future as ‘people want their books as eBooks now, so lets fight an uphill battle to provide eBooks to patrons as a new media format the same way we’ve always done so’. That is not going to happen, and if that’s what the goal of the DPLA is then I’m sorely disappointed and I’m sure it’ll fail. Instead, let me suggest for public libraries and the DPLA a new mission and vision, one that taxpayers WILL support for many years to come because no other competitor does it, and because if it is explained and implemented properly (see: nationally) it will build stronger, smarter communities, and ultimately build a stronger, smarter country. In one sentence: public libraries need to support information production with the same level of commitment that they’ve always treated information consumption. For a while now I’ve been preaching this like a scratched record on an old turntable, but it’s important to continue to reiterate it. Libraries have always been read-only institutions, offering access to media for consumption. Card holders can read library-lent books, watch library-lent movies, listen to library-lent music. If the public library is to succeed in this new digital era, card holders (hopefully meaning everyone in your community) need to be given access and education so they can create and contribute to culture, and gain the skills to produce things like the new media creations that will be the successors to the things we call eBooks now. Library cardholders should be equipped to participate in the incremental construction of end-product multimedia packages (eBooks, web platforms and services, or others) through conversation and single-channel media production, and public libraries CAN and SHOULD be the intermediaries making that possible.
The meeting in Los Angeles was not about this path. This meeting focused on the preservation of culture, on digitizing our past rather than supporting the creation of new culture. Now I hope someone will correct me if I’m wrong here, but in my experience this revelation that our unique, historically significant holdings hidden in public library basements and attics are our most important materials is actually quite new. My impression is that only five years ago the trend was to try to sell or gift these materials to other agencies who think of ‘preservation’ as a piece of their mission. I can remember quite a few meetings in quite a few different contexts where librarians of all levels agreed that the mission of the contemporary public library has very little to do with ‘preservation’, and that the only responsible thing we can do is get these materials into the hands of others who can deal with them responsibly. I had an excellent conversation with Helene Blowers of the Columbus Metropolitan Library on this topic. We both agreed that while preservation of existing cultural artifacts is important, there’s an immediate need to imagine a framework that supports both the creation and archiving of current and future knowledge. We both hoped that the DPLA could carry a torch along that road, rather than merely shine a light on the dusty corners of our past.
For me, the highlights from the meeting in Los Angeles came from Ben Vershbow of New York Public Library’s Labs team and Peter Brantley of the Internet Archive. Peter asked the group to think further ahead, and to consider the future of digital reading and what eBook packages will look like in 2-5 years. This is something I’ve been deeply concerned about lately as well. For example, with Amazon now acting as publisher, platform, and device they’ve completely monopolized the eMedia life cycle. There’s no reason Amazon couldn’t work directly with the author of an upcoming ‘novel’ and provide them with the tools create a rich, multimedia work that would only ‘read’ or ‘play’ on the Kindle Fire, or perhaps would have enhanced features that are only available when using a Kindle Fire. Peter retweeted a statement from Michael Colford, Director of the Boston Public Library at one point, saying “if we don’t deal with access to contemporary books, we risk losing relevance for libraries.” I appreciate that, yet I remain completely unconvinced that the future of libraries rests solely or even largely on awkward content lending arrangements. Librarians have made it about that, but it doesn’t have to be about that. I think it’s time to move away from a model that places value in consumptive transactions, and toward an experiential learning model that supports creativity and contribution. I’m reminded of the final sentence in an old blog post by Aaron Schmidt from 2009 called Libraries Might Not Provide Content in the Future & it’s Okay, where he says “If anything, we should consider books, movies, music and computers loss leaders and show people what we can really do for them once we’re lucky enough to have them in our buildings.”
Ben Vershbow did more than just show off the jaw-droppingly amazing digital projects he manages at NYPL Labs; he was the one speaker who offered a glimpse of a realistic vision for the future of a DPLA working in harmony with our existing public library infrastructure. Ben briefly moved conversation away from digitize, digitize, digitize and brought up the Make Magazine article from earlier this year about public libraries as hacker spaces or fablabs where people can create projects for their own personal growth, for the benefit of the community, or both. He also pointed to the project in Fayetteville NY, where the librarians have actually set up the first public fablab. Friends, it’s not an accident or a weird coincidence that writers, technologists, entrepreneurs, futurists, hackers, artists, and intellectuals of all sorts have been either expressing interest in a ‘new kind of public library’ or even trying to make such things themselves. It’s not a coincidence that there’s a group of hackers voluntarily building a mobile app for the Tulsa Public Library in Oklahoma, while there’s also a group of hackers doing work in the Washington DC Public Library, or while a ‘TechRaising’ event in Santa Cruz brought together developers who were happy to help the library realize a new digital project. It’s a sign of the times that efforts like the Read/Write Library in Chicago will be featured in a talk at SXSW this year, and that popup portable reading rooms like the Uni project run successful Kickstarter campaigns and have mass appeal.
What I’d really like to hear at future meetings are some ideas about how the DPLA movement can incorporate the ideas and the energy that all of these other independent projects have, and how that kind of work can be supported on a national scale without losing the local flavor that remains so important in communities. I’d like to hear less about digitization, which is not to say it is unimportant, but it is to say that preserving the past is probably the least imaginative step forward public libraries can take into the digital future right now. So, in conclusion, here’s what I believe this movement needs next: the DPLA needs a public-facing laboratory; an experimental beta space where we can prototype ideas, curricula, interfaces, strategies, and experiences. I know I’m not alone in wanting this, I’ve had many conversations in which this has come up. Look for future posts describing this beta space.