For at least a decade, librarians, technologists, and academics have been discussing an idea that seems as inevitable as it is challenging: a centralized, digitized public library that would contain all of the country’s books, images, and archival materials, and be accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. It would be like having the Library of Congress—plus every local library branch and museum and archive in the country—right on your laptop, smartphone, or tablet. Last December, the Sloan Foundation funded an initiative to study this proposal in earnest, and the Digital Public Library of America committee began meeting at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
A steering committee met again last week to discuss what needs to happen next to make the DPLA a reality; the meeting was off the record, but the moderator blogged about some of the big questions that were raised, such as, What will this mean for the public library system as it exists now? What will the infrastructure look like, and how will they actually go about scanning and digitizing everything in the country? Who will be in charge?
In addition to the questions listed there, we had some more: What would will this mean for the authors of copyrighted material? How is the project different from what Google is trying to do by scanning the world’s books? And who’s going to pay for it? To find out more, assistant editor Lauren Kirchner spoke with Maura Marx, a fellow at the Berkman Center who is also executive director of The Open Knowledge Commons, and this is an edited version of that conversation.
What kind of consensus did the conference last week bring among all the various groups involved? Did you decide what it the DPLA would look like on the user end, and who might actually be in charge of the organization, etcetera?
Some rough consensus came out, such as: a DPLA has multiple uses, not distinct users, for instance. We had the conversation: Who are our users? Are they research users, or public users? And really what the group said loud and clear was, we shouldn’t be building something channeled at specific users. We should be building an open platform so that any type of use, any type of service, could be built on top of this infrastructure. We should really be exposing data and content in such a way that unforeseen uses can be accommodated in the future. That’s an important architectural distinction.
How decisions will be made hasn’t been scoped out yet; currently there is a Steering Committee to steer the project, and one of the major work-streams we’ve identified [to look at next] is on the subject of governance: How are people going to be represented? How will decisions be made? All of these things will be looked at, and right now the period of April to June, we’re going to use to plan out those next eighteen months of work in each one of those work-streams.
What are other countries doing in this area, and what have you learned from looking at those projects?
Europeana is a pan-European aggregator, a portal that you can go to to search all of the European digital libraries. It’s kind of a meta-aggregator; it’s aggregating from local aggregators, like the National Library of Austria (which is aggregating from libraries in Salzbur, Vienna, and Innsbruck), for instance. So you can search, in theory, the entire European output through Europeana. So we have learned from them—they’ve built this portal, and now they’re going about trying to transition into that kind of open platform that I mentioned earlier. They want to make sure that people can pull content into where they live. So they want to be available for Flickr and all kinds of social media, to pull content in, rather than users having to go to the portal to search for this stuff. So that was a very valuable lesson. Part of it is timing: they started working on that five years ago, and that’s how the world looked then.
Is the assumption that this project would involve public funding at some point, as the European version does?