Building a Digital Public Library of America

Yes, well, another day, another talk: Building a Digital Public Library of America, Harvard Law School. This event is being webcast live, which means right now, 3 pm Eastern. (Since the event is now over, the webcast is probably over. I don’t know if an archive is available somewhere.)

The fellow speaking is Robert Darnton, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and Director of the Harvard University Library, who is also involved in the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). They estimate the DPLA will be up and running by April 2013. Using technology, we can give everyone access to information as a public good. We’re altering the model a bit from making information commercial or using commercial information. Imagine a digital library as every bit as great as the Library of Congress. It will help people across America and the world. Imagine the resources we can provide to people in communities that lack good libraries, how we can supplement the materials available to small colleges. But we, of course, have many hurdles, like copyright law, digitizing materials, getting buy in from folks who own information we want to share, setting up coalitions for support.

Google Book Search inspired this project.

The DPLA is one of John Palfrey’s projects. Palfrey, of course, has been one of the Berkman Center’s leaders and is vice dean of library and information resources at Harvard Law School. He’s going to say a few things about the DPLA, too.

Palfrey begins by acknowledging the Harvard Library Strategic Conversations committee. This presentation is one of their events. He also references the grand reorganization happening to Harvard’s librarians now.

Palfrey mentions he gave this talk in Washington, DC, this morning.

He shares an image of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ library and how many younger, tech savvy people today won’t think of this beautiful, space-efficient library as a place to learn. Challenge #1 is to convert our book libraries to exciting, accessible online resources. Challenge #2 is highlighted by a photo of the Boston Public Library’s doorway: free to all. Digital libraries have costs. How do we keep them free to library users? Challenge #3: designing online spaces suitable for libraries. Palfrey points out the room we’re in now, the Ames Courtroom in Austin Hall, was the law school’s original library. There’s a gorgeous, tall ceiling and a fancy fireplace in the back. Now, it looks more like a courtroom with a bench in the front where judges would sit, lecterns, and sloped seating for a large audience.

“What’s the DPLA?” Palfrey asks somewhat rhetorically, then surprises us by replying, “We don’t know yet!” He explains how they’re opening the discussion to try to figure out what it is, what it should do, etc.

Palfrey shows a picture of a panel I noticed at Berkman the other week that people have drawn on to illustrate what aspects of libraries are important to them. “Keep Public Funding.” “Content & Scope” in a big heart. “Free content for all.” “Cater to Standard User.” “Where’s our Carnegie of today?” “All mechanisms for aiding the DPLA in this initiative.” “Blueprint for libraries.” “Explore.”

Palfrey breezes through the five elements of the library: code, metadata, content, tools and services, and community.

Why are libraries competing with each other to build wicked mobile device apps instead of collaborating on one universal one that would be truly awesome?

They want to use the Scannebego–a camper built to be a mobile scanning unit that could pull up in front of libraries and tell them to bring out the materials they want to scan, but don’t have the resources to scan. The Scannebego can make two digital files: one for the library, one for the DPLA.

Palfrey wants to have a Wikimania equivalent for the DPLA: a giant conference where librarians could come together for a few days of intense collection management work on the DPLA: adding metadata, scanning, etc.

The DPLA asked beta sprinters to create technology for the DPLA with the understanding that they would be furthering people’s ability to use the library, but would probably never get paid for their work. Forty groups sent code.

The US is not the world. Harvard is incredibly lucky to have the amazing collection it has.

Utopia keeps coming up. It’ll be a challenge to build a utopia, but it’s worth trying.

Let’s aim for building something better than all other libraries. If we work together across institutions, our pragmatic spirit will bring it to fruition.

Palfrey and Darnton begin taking questions from the live audience and the question board on the Internet.

European models for digitization and ambition are very helpful. Scandanavia supposedly has amazing libraries. Let’s use them for inspiration.

Q: Do you think Google will ever see the errors of their ways?
A: Darnton: Well, I’ve written letters to Google people asking for help and resources. They haven’t answered the letters, but some Googlers have attended meetings.
Palfrey: They might be like other companies lurking around the DPLA trying to figure out what’s happening and what their role(s) could be. We welcome participation.

Q: What are your thoughts on making scientific and medical data more available?
A: Palfrey: Join our committee and get involved to help! We can do more than many places currently do to provide access. We want to push those boundaries. Business models might or might not be a good answer. Could the DPLA pay creators … ? Could we accept donations … ? There’s a lot of material in copyright that has no commercial value any more, but could be incredibly valuable to the scientific and medical communities.
Palfrey puts Professor Charlie Nesson on the spot to have him and his dog Sweetpea take the question to discuss his public domain registry. One of the biggest threats to the library is the threat of a copyright suit. The burden of handling copyright issues falls on the accused: she must hire a lawyer, prove she was not violating anything, etc. That gets expensive. Nesson proposes a curatorial function of a registry for public domain works. The registry allows content creators and owners to declare current work to be in the public domain, as well as possibly housing lists of works already in the public domain. They’re also looking for legal partners who would lend pro bono services to aid in the legal issues of the registry and its defense. Now is the time to think big. The DPLA is in a global domain. Nesson emphasizes balancing the needs/desires of the DPLA and copyright law.

Q: A student admits prefering to buy paper books because he likes to write in the book, use it as he sees fit, and take advantage of its physical form in ways electronic tools don’t permit. How will the PDLA permit those kinds of uses?
A: Darnton: People tend to think of physical books and digital books on opposite ends of the spectrum, but I don’t see that. We are in a transitional period, but it won’t undercut the power of the printed word. The future looks very digital, but paper books might not be going anywhere. Each year, more books are printed than the year before. We have all sorts of interesting things happening. We’ll take advantage of useful technology as much as possible.
Palfrey: Be sure to check out Darnton’s book The Case for the Book. A poll of the ~300 people in the room shows only about 10% (~30 people) would prefer a digital copy of a book to a printed copy. Palfrey put a law student on the spot by asking his preference regarding case books. Until he can write in a digital book and put sticky notes on its pages, the student doesn’t not want to switch to a digital format. Palfrey observes students in the law library all the time with their case books open next to their laptop and them scribbling with ink pens and highlighters on the case book while only taking sparse notes on the laptop.
Can the DPLA be a place of experimentation? Can various developers use DPLA material to try to invent a better interface for digital books?
Palfrey gives a shoutout to his father and mentions how sometimes his mom comes to his talks, too.
Darnton: Can the DPLA earn the interest of the public library?

Q: What’s the impact he DPLA might have on local libraries?
A: Palfrey: Content curation is key to making lots of libraries and library functions work. The DPLA can work with local institutions, just as local institutions can work with the DPLA. Instead of parents scooping up all the local resources on, say, caterpillars for a kid’s project, the DPLA could work with local librarians to learn about student projects and resource needs, then come up with ready reference guides to such DPLA materials.

Some more quick polls of the room show the majority of attendees are Harvard librarians, but there are also quite a few folks from libraries outside of Harvard, students (more non-Harvard students than Harvard students, people who work elsewhere at Harvard, and so on. Palfrey didn’t ask about unemployed people, so I didn’t raise my hand for any of his counts.

Q: … ?
A: Darnton: When a library gets a book, it often feels its role is to make the book as available as possible. We want to reinforce the public libraries via the DPLA and we don’t want to alienate the publishers. If people were truly greedy, they wouldn’t go into publishing in the first place. For a Norwegian-type solution, we would want publishers as a group to go in together on a process. Perhaps it could be something like creating an escrow fund for content creators whose materials are used via the DPLA.
Palfrey: Many publishers have been involved in the process of developing the DPLA.

Q: Will public domain content be available?
A: Palfrey: Yes. Brewster Kahle and other organizations are and have been involved. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel. We want to grab what we can and bring it together. The whole should be great than the parts.

Comment from Nesson: He’s teaching poker to librarians next Thursday and invites us all to participate. Law is poker.

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