Bringing the power of digital history to the Mountain West

Bringing the power of digital history to the Mountain West

Posted by Vicky Zeamer on April 10, 2013 in Blog.

A guest post from Annie Schutte, a librarian, teacher and consultant for the Knight Foundation.

The following is part of a series that looks at The Digital Public Library of America  – the first national effort to aggregate existing records in state and regional digital libraries so that they are searchable from a single portal. It is written by Annie Schutte, a librarian, teacher and consultant for Knight Foundation. Above: Copy of a woodcut showing the completion of the transcontinental railroad, May 10, 1869, at Promontory, Utah. From the Classified Photographs Collection of the Utah State Historical Society.

The Mountain West Digital Library brings together repositories in Utah, Nevada, southern Idaho and Arizona, and is the only regional collaboration currently serving as a DPLA service hub. Mountain West’s growth over the past 11 years has had a network effect. Program Director and DPLA service-hub Director Sandra McIntyre explains that it began with a core of academic libraries interested in learning about digitization, then spread into the communities around each of those institutions, bringing 120 cultural-heritage groups into the aggregation over the past decade, including public libraries, historical societies, county and state archives and even local museums. But there is much more Mountain West can do, and McIntyre hopes that its position as a DPLA service hub will “help to accelerate the preservation and … access [to] valuable materials around the region.”

The Mountain West Digital Library‘s position as a regional collaborative brings unique challenges, particularly with regards to funding, but it also allows users to see how topics play out across a larger area.

In this interview, McIntyre talks about what DPLA‘s mission to forge links between libraries, archives and museums could mean for the cultural memory of our society; how it could help erase arbitrary lines between disciplines and democratize information in the United States; and the challenges involved in this ambitious undertaking.

Could you tell me about your organization and how you became involved with the Digital Public Library of America?

S.M: The Mountain West Digital Library is a collaborative effort about 11 years old now. We have over 60 partners—and we’re about to expand to another 60—who came together through the academic library consortium in Utah to learn about digitization, to support each other, to share tips and tricks and ideas and to share the expertise and experience at different tier levels in our region. We have 20 different repositories throughout Utah, Nevada, southern Idaho, and now Arizona, that support all of our partners in digitizing and hosting their projects and making them available from one, central search portal—an aggregated search portal called the Mountain West Digital Library.

We got involved with the Digital Public Library of America thinking about how we could contribute some ideas about regional-level collaboration among memory institutions. When the DPLA put out a request survey of different state and regional collaboratives about a year ago, we spent some time filling that out and thinking about the history and our mission, and where it might go into the national context. And the experience that we have had with aggregating resources and thinking about standards building across a number of different organizations seemed like something that could help the national effort and that we could benefit from in the national effort. But once we decided to get onboard, it seemed like the doors just kept opening to more and more interesting aspects of this.

A lot of the other partners in DPLA are state digital library projects, and you’re dealing with something that’s regional. Are there unique challenges that go along with being a region?

S.M: There are some, and I’m still learning what those differences might be versus our colleagues who are running the state-based ones. But certainly the way funding comes together when you’re looking at a broader region is one of those puzzles that we have to work through. Our partners in Utah receive a lot of funding from the state legislature, and I’m sure that’s common for a lot of the state collaboratives around the country. But we have to look at funding models that take us beyond just state funding and think how to support the region.

There also are a lot of content themes that span our whole region. We have a lot of collections that focus on American western migration—what that has meant for settlers of European origin who have come to the Mountain West, but also what it has meant for the native peoples of the region, what it’s meant for other states, other countries, that have colonized in our area. Utah, for example, was temporarily part of Mexico for awhile. And so, those content themes are important to us.

We have things like mining and sheep ranching—and sheep ranching is a disappearing craft, for example, and a lot of the folks who can tell us about that are in their 90s now. So, to capture some of the history of the topics that matter to the shaping of our region seems to be something of some urgency now for all of us, and it goes beyond any one particular state. We obviously have a lot of questions about the role of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in our region and how that has shaped both the pioneer expansion and the growth of industry and population.

Could you tell me a bit more about what’s unique about the collections that you’ll be bringing to the DPLA and unique about some of the services that you’ll be offering in your area?

S.M: I think our collections deal with some topic areas that perhaps aren’t as well represented by other parts of the country, having to do with national parks and other public lands, with Native-American tribes. We have some interesting collections having to do with the nuclear-freeze movement and the puzzle during the Cold War era over the growth of our defense industry and where to put missile systems in the West—things like that that are unique to our area.

We have a large number of collections that have to do with scarcity of water, management of water, and water law — competing demands of water from different constituencies in the West and the tension that population growth in a dry land creates. And then quite a number of collections that have to do with the growth and influence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—the Mormons—and how they have shaped a particular view of American culture and Western culture. Those are probably some of the main things that will be different.

Can you give me a sense of the different types of partners you have—historical societies, public libraries, who are the people involved in your organization?

S.M. The Mountain West Digital Library started out with a lot of strong support from academic libraries, so we had pretty much every university and college in Utah, and quite a number of them now in our surrounding states. But each of those academic institutions has gone on to support a range of other cultural-heritage institutions in their network of influence, and that would include public libraries, historical societies, county archives, the state archives, the state historical society and now the state Division of Arts and Museums. And now we have some local museums and art museums, as well.

We are seeing a real expansion area into government agencies of all sorts—local conservancy districts all the way up to state agencies. And we see a lot of overlap between the concern that libraries and archives have for preserving and sharing access to important materials that we are stewards of with the mission of government agencies to have greater transparency. As we can mature that overlap into a common understanding of what it means to share access to records, I think we’ll see a real strong partnership there, as well.

What effect do you think the DPLA launch in April will have nationally—for librarians, for users, for information providers?

I think there are several different aspects that are really important for the DPLA launch, and the first is just the sheer power of the wealth of information in this country, that audiences of all sorts—educational audiences, research audiences, all kinds of folks—will have access in one place, in a really powerful way, to the cultural memory of our society. I think that dream that DPLA has put forth from day one is a really powerful one, and this launch will start making that real. People will have access to millions of resources with this launch, and the power of that will come from DPLA.

I almost wonder, though, if behind that there’s going to be another huge wave that will almost be even more powerful for our society in terms of the linkages that DPLA is forging across libraries, archives, and museums. And all of the audiences of all three kinds of institutions, because we haven’t had this kind of strong collaboration before where the same vocabulary starts being used, and the same mission is being pursued, and where the power and the strength of funding institutions is all behind being able to do this.

I don’t even know how to characterize that yet, but I know our experience in the Mountain West Digital Library is that when you put together people from all these different types of organizations, amazing things can happen. I think that will just be accelerated so much more when it happens on the national level. And if we can help knit that together and help in any small way to move that collaborative power forward, it’s going to be really amazing.

What do you see as the major challenges as DPLA continues to grow and expand after the April launch?

I think a major challenge, but one that DPLA is doing a very good job of, is to just manage the scope. The tendency is to want to do everything all at once. I think the organization has figured out ways to take on a very ambitious agenda, but to say: we’re going to do this in stages, and we’re going to make sure we do everything we do well, and do it in the context of broad community engagement across all these different communities of stewards and curators, and also across all these communities and audiences. That commitment, I think, means the most to the people who are involved.

I think there are going to be some challenges about explaining this to the American public—what does it mean? What does each word in Digital Public Library of Americamean? How will people deal with new ways of knowledge creation in a responsible fashion—how will they grab on to this? People may just take it and shake it, and there might be some earthquakes going on about what it can be used for and who can co-opt it. But I think the groundwork has been laid very solidly. I don’t see that causing any real problems.

Other challenges? I don’t know. I think it’s a tremendously exciting time, and I have confidence that we have the right people involved and the right people leading the effort.

So what’s your big hope moving forward for DPLA?

I hope DPLA will create a true knowledge commons for the United States and beyond—for scholars and amateurs and students and people who care about knowledge creation from all kinds of different aspects. And that we’ll see a real democratization of access to information.

I see DPLA complementing some of the efforts of groups like the Gates Foundation to ensure that everyone has access to the Internet and to all the information it provides. DPLA will help give shape to that and to provide tools and methods for people to use the actual content that we can provide.

And then I hope that some of the artificial lines between our disciplines—I’m talking about librarians, archivists, and museum curators—I hope some of those lines that seem to be somewhat artificial now will melt away completely and that we’ll see how we truly are all on the same mission and collaborate powerfully together.

I have a lot of passion about the democratization of information in this country. Certainly, those of us in libraries have been really frustrated in recent years with the challenges presented by what seems to be a collapsing publishing model, and DPLA to me is libraries, museums, and archives stepping in and saying: we know how to solve this problem, and we’re going to do it by opening up access again to everything that people need in order to move the knowledge in our country forward. If DPLA can do that, and I think it can—if anything can, it can—that will be a powerful contribution to our society.

By Annie Schute, a librarian, teacher and consultant for Knight Foundation.

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