It’s been more than half a year since the Digital Public Library of America project was formally launched, and I’m still trying to figure out what the project organizers really want it to be. The idea of “a digital library in service of the American public” is a good one, and many existing digital libraries already play that role in a variety of ways. As I said when I christened this blog, I’m all for creating a multitude of libraries to serve a diversity of audiences and information needs.
At a certain point after an enthusiastic band of performers says “Let’s put on a show!”, though, someone has to decide what their show’s going to be about, and start focusing effort there. So far, the DPLA seems to be taking an opportunistic approach. Instead of promulgating a particular blueprint for what they’ll do, they’re asking the community for suggestions, in a “beta sprint” that ends today. Whether this results in a clear distinctive direction for the project, or a mishmash of ideas from other digitization, aggregation, preservation, and public service initiatives, remains to be seen.
Just about every digital project I’ve seen is opportunistic to some extent. In particular, most of the big ones are opportunistic when it comes to collection development. We go after the books, documents, and other knowledge resources that are close to hand in our physical collections, or that we find people putting on the open web, or that our users suggest, or volunteer to provide on their own.
There are a number of good reasons for this sort of opportunism. It lets us reuse work that we don’t have to redo ourselves. It can inform us of audience interests and needs (at least as far as the interests of the producers we find align with the interests of the consumers we serve). And it’s cheap, and that’s nothing to sneer at when budgets are tight.
But the public libraries that my family prefers to use don’t, on the whole, have opportunistically built collections. Rather, they have collections shaped primarily by the needs of their patrons, and not primarily by the types of materials they can easily acquire. The “opportunistic” community and school library collections I’ve seen tend to be the underfunded ones, where books in which we have yet to land on the Moon, the Soviet Union is still around, or Alaska is not yet a state may be more visible than books that reflect current knowledge or world events. The better libraries may still have older titles in their research stacks, but they lead with books that have current relevance to their community, and they go out of their way to acquire reliable, readable resources for whatever information needs their users have. In other words, their collections and services are driven by demand, not supply.
In the digital realm, we have yet to see a library that freely provides such a digital collection at large scale for American public library users. Which is not to say we don’t have large digital book collections– the one I maintain, for instance, has over a million freely readable titles, and Google Books and lots of other smaller digital projects have millions more. But they function more as research or special-purpose collections than as collections for general public reference, education, or enjoyment.
The big reason for this, of course, is copyright. In the US, anyone can freely digitize books and other resources published before 1923, but providing anything published after that requires copyright research and, usually, licensing, that tends to be both complex and expensive. So the tendency of a lot of digital library projects is to focus on the older, obviously free material, and have little current material. But a generally useful digital public library needs to be different.
And it can be, with the right motivation, strategy, and support. The key insight is that while a strong digital public library needs to have high-quality, current knowledge resources, it doesn’t need to have all such resources, or even the most popular or commercially successful ones. It just needs to acquire and maintain a few high-quality resources for each of the significant needs and aptitudes of its audience. Mind you, that’s still a lot of ground to cover, especially when you consider all the ages, education levels, languages, physical and mental abilities, vocational needs, interests, and demographic backgrounds that even a midsized town’s public library serves. But it’s still a substantially smaller problem, and involves a smaller cost, than the enticing but elusive idea of providing instant free online access to everything for everyone.
There are various ways public digital libraries could acquire suitable materials proactively. The America.gov books collection provides one interesting example. The US State Department wanted to create a library of easy-to-read books on civics and American culture and history for an international audience. Some of these books were created in-house by government staff. Others were commissioned to outside authors. Still others were adapted from previously published works, for which the State Department acquired rights.
A public digital library could similarly create, commission, solicit, or acquire rights to books that meet unfilled information needs of its patrons. Ideally it would aim to acquire rights not just to distribute a work as-is, but also to adapt and remix into new works, as many Creative Commons licenses allow. This can potentially greatly increase the impact of any given work. For instance, a compellingly written, beautifully illustrated book on dinosaurs might be originally written for 9-12 year old English speakers, and be noticeably obsolete due to new discoveries after 5 or 10 years. But if a library’s community has reuse and adaptation rights, library members can translate, adapt, and update the book, so it becomes useful to a larger audience over a longer period of time.
This sort of collection building can potentially be expensive; indeed, it’s sobering that America.gov has now ceased being updated, due to budget cuts. But there’s a lot that can be produced relatively inexpensively. Khan Academy, for example, contains thousands of short, simple educational videos, exercises, and assessments created largely by one person, with the eventual goal of systematically covering the entire standard K-12 curriculum. While I think a good educational library will require the involvement of many more people, the Khan example shows how much one person can get accomplished with a small budget, and projects like Wikipedia show that there’s plenty of cognitive surplus to go around, that a public library effort might usefully tap into.
Moreover, the markets for rights to previously authored content can potentially be made much more efficient than they are now. Most books, for instance, go out of print relatively quickly, with little or no commercial exploitation thereafter. And as others have noted, just trying to get permission to use a work digitally, even apart from any royalties, can be very expensive and time-consuming. But new initiatives like Gluejar aim to make it easier to match up people who would be happy to share their book rights with people who want to reuse them. Authors can collect a small fee (which could easily be higher than the residual royalties on an out-of-print book); readers get to share and adapt books that are useful to them. And that can potentially be much cheaper than acquiring the rights to a new work, or creating one from scratch.
As I’ve described above, then, a digital public library could proactively build an accessible collection of high-quality, up to date online books and other knowledge resources, by finding, soliciting, acquiring, creating, and adapting works in response to the information needs of its users. It would build up its collection proactively and systematically, while still being opportunistic enough to spot and pursue fruitful new collection possibilities. Such a digital library could be a very useful supplement to local public libraries, would be open any time anywhere online, and could provide more resources and accessibility options than a local public library could provide on its own. It would require a lot of people working together to make it work, including bibliographers, public service liaisons, authors, technical developers, and volunteers, both inside and outside existing libraries. And it would require ongoing support, like other public libraries do, though a library that successfully serves a wide audience could also potentially tap into a wide base of funds and in-kind contributions.
Whether or not the DPLA plans to do it, I think a large-scale digital free public library with a proactively-built, high-quality, broad-audience general collection is something that a civilized society can and should build. I’d be interested in hearing if others feel the same, or have suggestions, critiques, or alternatives to offer.