Notes from the field: One library science student’s take on the DPLA

Posted by Kenny Whitebloom on October 12, 2011 in Blog.

As a graduate student studying library and information science at Simmons College, and as a research assistant for the Digital Public Library of America initiative, I have a confession to make: libraries were my second love. Before I ever established any significant connection with the local library, I was online. Though I loved actual physical books and read quite a bit, I nevertheless grew up believing that reference was a patient and well thought out Google search query, and that the serendipitous discovery of titles, topics or authors otherwise unknown was a sequence of intriguing hyperlinks. The Web, not the library, was my portal for searching and discovery.  And for the most part I still feel that way.

However, what I eventually came to realize was that the deeper parts of the Web—digitized monographs and broadsheets buried in the collections of university and institutional digital repositories, open access public databases, and privately curated webpages that combined the two—was where the truly unique items of our cultural heritage were to be found.  Aided by subject headings and professional cataloging standards, materials in digital libraries provide a sort of contextual markup of the materials’ larger cultural significance.

Still, the discovery of these materials requires a certain degree of hard work, as most open access digital libraries exist in isolation from one another. While I find the process of discovery to be more enjoyable than actual retrieval, others see the disjointedness of the digital library landscape as a deterrent to any sort of sustained engagement with digitized cultural heritage materials. Or, even worse, they don’t start looking for lack of a clear understanding that the materials are online in the first place.

From my perspective as a library science student, it seems to me that the DPLA has an opportunity to become a catalyst for a large-scale turn in how we as a society choose to organize and contextualize our collective knowledge online. From a technical standpoint this would mean finding an agreed upon framework for employing linked open data and other metadata standards. Nate Hill, writing for the PLA blog, shares my personal vision for what a ‘first-generation’ DPLA may look like:

I believe that the first iteration of the DPLA will be an intentional, measured venture into creating a semantic web for all things ‘cultural heritage’, and that it’s underlying structure and standards are going to let libraries, museums, and archives put their metadata and assets on the web in such a way that fabulous new discovery, social, and remixing tools (and the developers who build such tools) will have access to them. What does that mean?  That means it’ll be much easier for professionals or even hobbyists to build interfaces and curate collections like Old SF, an amazing local history site built from resources at the San Francisco Public Library.  It means that projects like LibraryCloud can ingest your data and make it available through the fascinating social discovery interface called ShelfLife.  It means that you can use slick and powerful curatorial tools like extraMUROS to do even simple things, like building slideshows of library and web content for an iPad on the fly.

The prospect of an enhanced and simpler method for discovering materials across library collections is a powerful concept for both library patrons and general users of the Web. A search for NASA’s work on understanding planetary science, for instance, could provide the user with not only an encyclopedic narrative of the field’s history and findings (a la Wikipedia), but also every single NASA report on their deep space satellite programs, monographs on the planets, lecture notes from a course at MIT on astrophysics, interviews with leading scientists, and any number of other relevant materials and formats. If you’re still a little skeptical about the practical, everyday application of this type of stuff, I urge you take a few moments to play with the ShelfLife demo.

All things considered, the idea of a web entity in which “the cultural and scientific record” is organized, presented, and eventually curated in a coherent manner is breathtaking in its ambition. In its grandest manifestation, the DPLA could even become something like a digital third place apart from commercial titans like Google and Amazon, a digital public space that could bring patrons together online in a non-commercial, civic-minded fashion. For a current library science student I find this to be an extremely exciting period, not only for the prospect of the DPLA but for other digital library projects as well.  What do you think? What’s your own personal vision for the DPLA?

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