Press: What the DPLA Can Mean for Libraries

Posted by Vicky Zeamer on January 11, 2013 in Press.

This is the second in an occasional series of articles from John Palfrey that will explore issues surrounding the efforts to launch and expand the Digital Public Library of America. Below is an excerpt:

“One of the concerns expressed about the planning initiative to create a Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) is that its very existence might threaten public libraries. While I credit this fear—no outcome to this initiative could be worse—the DPLA is designed to do precisely the opposite: to establish a platform and resources that will help libraries and other cultural heritage institutions, both public and private, to succeed in a digital era.

The DPLA, once built and at scale, can help libraries, archives, and museums in ways that we can foresee and in ways that we can’t, today. The DPLA can help bring materials to people through public, academic, and special libraries. The DPLA can also free up time for librarians to spend more time directly helping people. The DPLA can provide access to code and applications that will do extraordinary things for people through libraries. And the DPLA is already providing an open source platform on which others are developing exciting new applications that will help people in ways we can’t predict today—which is the true promise of a generative platform, much like the web itself.

“Into the future, information will increasingly reside in the cloud, and library users will increasingly rely upon digital materials. In this future, the way we get there and use information can and should still be mediated, in part, by libraries. That means libraries must make a digital shift, charting a course that is different from our present direction. No one should fear (or act like) libraries are going away, but we need to continue to strive to change the services they provide and to build the case for them in a digital era. We can, through the DPLA, provide a lot of content and metadata that will allow libraries to do cool and deeply useful new things that will define the public and academic libraries of the coming decades.

“Terry Plum of Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science recently defined the library as “a shared commons around information.” Terry went on: “You could look at the library as a community defined by the exchange of books, but it’s more. It is a community defined by the exchange of information to create knowledge.”

“If Terry’s right, then the role of the library will continue to change from its monastic roots as a warehouse for physical materials (under lock and key) and toward vibrant community spaces that serve a variety of functions related to information. Many libraries, from the largest to the smallest, are already well into this shift. The DPLA is designed to be an important partner to libraries during this period of reinvention.

“At the simplest level, the DPLA will provide access to materials that libraries will not have to purchase. These materials include tens of millions of library records (including more than 14 million catalog records from Harvard, for instance, freely licensed for use by libraries and others) as well as images, books, sound recordings, and more. These materials can be curated for local usage by libraries to serve specific communities. No one will need to ask permission; librarians can simply take what they like from this national resource and make use of it. Over time, if we are successful, free, digital resources will come from states and cities and towns all over the country, as well as from the largest cultural heritage institutions. These materials will be useful in ways we cannot anticipate today, for school children doing research projects to job seekers to the elderly to the most sophisticated of humanities scholars. Access to these materials is especially important, insofar as libraries continue to struggle to gain access to published works in copyright in a digital format. If there is, in fact, a savings for collections budgets from this process (which is not certain to be the case), money today spent on collections that are redundant can be redirected to unique materials and other services.”

READ THE FULL ARTICLE: From John Palfrey’s article for the Library Journal’s The Digital Shift, What the DPLA Can Mean for Libraries

Palfrey is President of the DPLA Board of Directors, and will be serving as a periodic columnist for Library Journal to discuss the “issues surrounding the efforts to launch and expand the Digital Public Library of America.”


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