The Digital Public Library of America

05/10/2011 § 10 Comments

It’s not every day that I’ll take the time to stay up late to blog something – but I think this is important and wanted to share it with our readers. I’m sure you’ll hear and read many things about the Digital Public Library of America in coming days(weeks, months, years), if you haven’t already. That said, let me explain why I think this is important.

I’ve been following the development of the DPLA for about a year now, and the conversations surrounding it have been almost as exciting as the idea itself. So what exactly is the idea? In their own words,

No project has yet succeeded in bringing these different viewpoints, experiences, and collections together with leading technical experts and the best of private industry to find solutions to these complex challenges. Users have neither coherent access to these materials nor tools to use them in new and exciting ways, and institutions have no clear blueprint for creating a shared infrastructure to serve the public good. The time is right to launch an ambitious project to realize the great promise of the Internet for the advancement of sharing information and of using technology to enable new knowledge and discoveries in the United States.

What this sounds like to me, and the reason it feels so important, is that a group of capable and brilliant folks from a variety of reputable institutions (libraries, institutes, universities) have identified a need, and have initiated a grand idea to address that need. There are and will continue to be many issues that’ll need to be explored, as they note on the website, including Governance, Content and Scope, Legal Issues and More. However, I still think the matter at hand rings out loud — that information is invaluable and that it is our duty to provide access to it, to the best of our ability, with the tools available to us, always and forever. 

A few key points I think Library School students should pay attention to:

1. Someone else already wrote this, and I can’t remember where I read it… but… there’s something to be said about the name, “Digital Public Library of America.” “Digital.” “Public” “Library.” “America.” There’s has been considerable discussion about the inclusion of “Public” in the title, and since it’s stayed I think it is worth interrogating for a second. When we hear about a public library we have very specific ideas about what that means, correct? Will this body be living into the ideal of a public library, or will it be something entirely new? Is that a positive or a negative thing for all the public libraries out there? And, America. Already bold, seeking to include all of America is nearing brash. I do hope that this will truly be representative of America as the project grows, but again, it’s incredibly complicated and too early to know. Lastly, digital. That makes sense… utilizing the growing web of connections through technology to allow access to great resources. And yet, we still are fighting to solve the digital divide. Collecting every great resource into one central location of the web is amazing, but there will still be tons of folks who will not be able to see it, use it, or learn from it.

2. Who is involved? I’d encourage you to look over the list of names associated with this project. There are many people included in this that I personally have a huge amount of professional respect for, but you should formulate your own opinions. Are these people accurately representative of the future of what our great grandkids may know as the “public library”? The DPLA has worked to include many voices, by opening a public listserv (the 1st I’ve ever subscribed to), and a wiki. As Governance is solidified, this body could grow the DPLA in one specific way or another.

3. The technical infrastructure of the DPLA will affect all libraries and many information institutions (again, my opinion). There’s been a lot of talk lately about Linked, Open Data, and developing one standard by which these gigantic collections will be pieced together. If this goes as planned, we all (librarians) will need to have a real, solid working knowledge of how Linked Open Data functions in order to continue to make our work as information professionals useful to our user/patrons. (Also, check out Linked Open Data in Libraries, Archives and Museums – LOD-LAM)

I could go on, but following a great Twitter conversation Zack and I had while I was writing this — I’d love to hear your thoughts. Is the DPLA all hype? How will this affect our profession? Our graduate education? Should we revolt against MARC and DCMI? Against Library of Congress and NARA? Why isn’t this thing called “Digital Archive of America”?

I’d encourage you to take the time to read these posts – one from Jessamyn West and one in Library Journal.

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