The Digital Public Library of America launches!

April 18, 2013 : The DPLA launches!

As part of the ever-expanding role of libraries in the digital age, the launch of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) must count as a remarkable event. Fully open, that is, without any gated components whatsoever, the DPLA will provide platforms for contributors to build on, with the almost mystical goal of amassing and making available all manner of information sources, with an emphasis on that which is not currently accessible, thus multiplying the benefits of the Internet for generations to come.

Anyone of us who at some time has valued primary sources—correspondence, working papers, diaries, minutes, inventories, genealogies, photographs, maps, blueprints, sound recordings, in sum the documented traces of human history—has occasion to celebrate this “greatest digital history project of all time” as those steering at the helm envision it. Inspired by Europeana Library and the Trove Project of Australia, and vastly more capacious than commercial initiatives such as Google Books, the DPLA not only has partnerships underway with a myriad state and university archives, but also with the national libraries of France, Ireland, Great Britain, Netherlands, Germany, and Norway.

Innovations such as “Workstream” collectives charged with governance, finance, and constructive channeling of input, to say nothing of the idea of the “Scannebago” (a mobile scanning unit designed to be sent out to digitize local archives), have engendered a certain excitement. A chronicle of how the idea got off the ground, owing to the efforts of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, has been cheerfully and succinctly outlined by Robert Darnton in the New York Review of Books:




Quid futurum litterarum? : will there be a Digital Public Library of America? Part 2.

The impact of a universal public library today can be compared to that of Gutenberg’s printing press, in that it could provide an unprecedented number of people speedy access to a wealth of information.  It makes a vast collection of rare resources readily available to people who, without such a service, would seldom be granted such access, not to forget that a digital copy is less vulnerable to decay and may be used indefinitely, allowing unrestricted access to even the rarest materials.  “The [Digital Public Library of America] must respect copyright,” writes Robert Darnton in the April 28th issue of the New York Review of Books. “In order to succeed where Google failed, it will have to include several million orphan books; and it will not be able to do that unless Congress clears the way by appropriate legislation.”

Darnton, director of the Harvard University Libraries, is among many supporters of the DPLA that are invigorated by this premise.  “This is an opportunity for those of us who care about creating a non-commercial public digital library to get on with it.”  Evidence that such an enterprise can thrive is apparent in Europe, where several digitization projects have already garnered much success.  Europeana, a rather young but well-structured pan-European digital library, functions more or less as a hub for integrated collections throughout Europe rather than a unified collection. Europeana is modestly funded by the European Union, while the chief financial responsibility falls on the participating libraries, which are centralized and operate on government subsidies.  In the United States the obvious challenge is that “we have many different kinds of institutions and many different funding streams,” says Library of Congress’s Deanna Marcum, a member of the steering committee. Darnton is more optimistic: “Americans benefit from something that Europe lacks: a rich array of independent foundations dedicated to the public welfare.”  While a concrete budget estimate is arguably senseless at this stage, it is feasible that enough funding could be drummed up for the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) to get off the ground.

The DPLA can learn much from Europeana, even if it is still a young enterprise, but there are numerous other European digital libraries in the works that lead the way in innovation.  National digital libraries in Norway and the Netherlands have found cooperative ways to reconcile copyright holders with the premise of digitizing their books without the threat of legal ramifications.  Perhaps more challenging is the conundrum of observing international copyright law—something that Google ignored at the onset of its digitization journey.  As a possible solution, Darnton suggests: “The copyright problems connected with the works produced outside the United States might be resolved by agreements between the DPLA and Europeana as well as by similar alliances with aggregators on other continents.”

In the general scope of things, a non-profit venture such as the DPLA faces less scrutiny than a money-hungry Google and may find fewer legal road blocks thanks to its non-commercial nature. Furthermore, much can be learned from Google’s faults, awarding the DPLA a far more advantageous starting point, and a greater likelihood of success.

As far as the settlement, the conversation continues and Daniel Clancy, engineering director at Google, has vaguely promised to support the DPLA by granting access to some of Google’s digital archives in an effort to “continue to stay engaged and try to be supportive.”  There is still much work to do and many kinks to iron out, but whatever becomes of the Digital Public Library of America project, the advent of the Kindle and the iPad is evidence that the face of print media and library services is experiencing some notable changes.   If we choose to learn from the past, a universal digital library appears inevitable.

Quid futurum litterarum? : will there be a Digital Public Library of America? Part 1.

When the Romans disposed of the scroll in favor of the newly invented codex early in the first century, few would have foreseen its predicament some two thousand years later.   A derivation of the writing tablet commonly used in the ancient world, the codex presented multiple bound signatures—creating pages that one could turn—and by the sixth century it had entirely replaced the scroll as the medium for the written word.  Nine centuries later Johannes Gutenberg introduced the printing press, and the once rare medium of the book became a household item.

Today the debate that has nationwide book lovers in throes with one another surrounds a medium much more abstract—the virtual book.  In an era during which the average person has become dependent on the internet, online social media, and instant gratification, it may not come as a shock that the printed book is ceding ground to the e-book.  The e-book has been the recipient of its own criticism of late, as e-publishers have lobbied to enforce expiration dates on their titles, after which their customers are forced to repurchase the e-book—the attribute of a rental rather than an acquisition.

We have seen this type of controversy before and it has been consistently scrutinized and defended.  Napster revolutionized a new outlet for the distribution of music, and while it ultimately surrendered its original premise to the grips of intellectual property, it brought forth a platform without which iTunes is not likely to have emerged.  The online streaming of motion pictures provides a convenient, instant venue for movie-lovers worldwide, much to the chagrin of the motion picture studios, whose response to a decline in retail DVD sales has been to stagger release dates and customize no-frills discs for movie services such as Netflix and

So, it is no surprise that we have returned to the courtroom, arguing for and against a “universal public library” of digitized volumes—an endeavor that, while still in its developmental phase, in the form of Google Books has been in various stages of progress for nearly a decade.  The New York Times’s Miguel Helft reports that a 2005 copyright infringement lawsuit inspired the very collectives of authors and publishers that sued Google Books to explore and develop this undertaking that now bears the working nameDigital Public Library of America (DPLA).  Recently this project appears to have reached a point of arrested development, since a settlement that would have allowed public libraries nationwide to grant access to Google’s 15 million digitized books, was rejected on March 22, 2011 by federal judge Denny Chin in New York.

The snag in this venture is what has been the common thread in the efforts of digital revolution—intellectual property. While Google’s proceeds from selling access to these materials were to be shared with copyright holders, the settlement would have permitted Google to share in the profits, barring protest from the author and publisher of a particular title—an attempt by Google to “conquer and divide a lucrative market,” writes Robert Darnton in April 28th’s New York Review of Books.    Particularly grey are the areas of public domain titles, and “orphan works” whose copyright holders remain unknown.  “Any database that excluded them would be disastrously deficient, but any enterprise that included them would expose the digitizer to ruinously expensive lawsuits,” adds Darnton.  These books, numbering in the millions, were originally slated to cede exclusive copyrights to Google.  In the Amended Settlement Agreement of November 2009,  Google is responsible for compensating any emerging copyright holders of orphan works, but simultaneously exempt from litigation.

According to Pamela Samuelson, professor of law and information management at the University of California, Berkeley, the issue is not whether the DPLA would serve a great purpose.  The crux of the matter is that in order to make virtual books available, a digital copy of the original must first be made, which in plain language violates copyright law.  Public libraries make print materials legally available to its clientele and respect intellectual property law by consciously refraining from making reproductions.  In order for a digital library to even exist, the scanning of hardcopy titles is essential, and so an exemption must be permitted—hence the legal wrangling.  With hopes to launch a prototype in 18 months, a steering committee is working toward the possibility of a digital public library, but at present, it is not apparent whether one is in our future. Harvard Law professor and chairman of the committee, John Palfrey admits “it may well fail. But it is worth the effort.”

Continued in Part 2.

Libraries in the news: Library Company of Philadelphia

Just around the corner from UArts, at 1314 Locust Street (between Broad and 13th), is a Philadelphia treasure, the Library Company of Philadelphia. A feature article in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer highlights the Library Company’s outstanding collection of African American history.

Library Company interior, 1878, when it was on Fifth Street.
Library Company interior, 1878, when it was on Fifth Street. ImPAC image file ATI-p030a

Originally a private membership library founded in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin, the Library Company is now free and open to the public and runs exhibitions and other public events. Check out their collections, and browse through ImPAC, their digital collections catalog.

Right next door to the Library Company is another outstanding research facility, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. If you’re ever doing research on Philadelphia, find out what these stellar libraries may have to offer.