Week 3: Digital Public Library of America

 “I propose that we dismiss the notion that the National Digital Library of America is far-fetched, and that we concentrate on the general goal of providing the American people with the kind of library they deserve, the kind that meets the needs of the twenty-first century.  We can equip the smallest junior college in Alabama and the remotest high school in North Dakota with the greatest library the world has ever known” (Harvard University Librarian Robert Darnton, 2010)

Darton’s vision statement for DPLA, serves as a rebuff of those who would challenge the advancement of the idea of a National Digital Library.  It is clearly evident that great care and thoughtfulness have been used in undertaking the DPLA.  Through the forming of countless committees,  seeking public input, taking pains to be transparent, and utilizing open access models for creating code, it appears that those responsible for the DPLA are endeavoring to be respectful, inclusive and on the edge of current technology.  These efforts have not squelched some rather vocal critics though.

I’d suggest that some common issues raised with DPLA surround three topics: Funding, Scope, and Branding.  These three are offered as discussion-provoking starters to get our conversation going.  I hope their are some who defend the DPLA’s vision too and can offer perspective as to why some of these reservations may be overblown.


There is certainly skepticism as to challenges faced with hiring and paying adequate staff for the amount of work proposed.  Who will prepare these vast quantities of materials to be digitized, scan them, and create the appropriate metadata?  If this is a privately funded endeavor, what influence could well-heeled corporations/institutions/universities have?  Could they end up placing their priorities above others?  Will there be attempts to monetize the library ala Google to see revenue in the future.  Will there be items within the collection that require payment to view?  Who are the future sources of funding and support for the DPLA?  Is it possible in this economic climate that the Federal Government might be involved?  Will there be some problems with incorporating materials that have already been digitized at taxpayers expense?


Is the content of the DPLA,  proposed in part to be derived from many university collections, too academic?  How likely are they to manage sticky issues like copyright and “orphaned works” any better that they are currently being managed?  Is all of this content going to reside on one server, or are there likely to be many satellite institutions that share their depositories?  There have been many who have offered up the observation that perhaps the DPLA is redundant to efforts already underway, in particular the Google Books Project and The Hathi Trust


As mentioned in Dillon’s interview with there exist some controversy over the use of the word “Public” in the branding of the library.   There was even a resolution presented by Chief Officers of State Library Agencies asking the steering committee to reconsider the name, “fearing that the inclusion of the word “public” would have the unintended consequence of giving governments the excuse to reduce public funding”. (Dillon, p. 103)  Do you think this is a valid concern?  Is the library truly public if a majority of materials made available would be better suited to academia and not your typical public library users?

Finally, for some further critique of DPLA, I recommend  Nicholas Carr’s piece  The Library of Utopia in MIT Technology Review

Looking forward to a lively discussion this week!


3 responses to “Week 3: Digital Public Library of America


    The questions you raise about funding are detailed and extremely relevant. There is often a perception for laypersons that because something (in this case a library) is digital it is free or low cost to create and maintain. While as we library students know differently, it can seem to be an uphill battle to get others, including boards of directors and other funding associations, to understand just how detailed a digital library would need to be. After a few mentions of metadata, copyright infringement, privacy concerns are detailed, listeners’ eyes glaze over. If it is digital it is cheap or free is the cry.

    While I love the idea of DPLA, I can see many pitfalls, especially in the area of funding. Unless there is a focus on long-term, stable funding, a digital library will end up lurching along trying to obtain funds to digitize this or that project, maintain the library, and attempt to stay ahead of the curve of demand.

    Then there is the entire issue of a what a library is. How often have we read that a library should reflect its community? If your community is digital, you had better have some great tools in place to constantly monitor your community’s traffic in order to address the ever-changing demographics.

  2. On the question of “public”: We live in an age where bookless libraries are touted as a way to save space and money. I’m no Luddite (love my e-books) but I do think there’s something to the state librarians’ concerns. If some politician who loves slashing public service money gets it in his or her head that DPLA can replace state library services, they will totally do that. I wouldn’t have made that argument in 2007 or so, but times have change with public library funding.

  3. Thanks for the interesting and thoughtful questions. When it comes to the issue of DPLA’s name, I think both Dillon’s interview and “The Library of Utopia” have made good explanations. Like it said in “The Library of Utopia”, “such a perception would make it even harder for local libraries to protect their budgets from cuts.” I think that would be a very important reason why DPLA do not want to be called “public library”. As far as I know, Madison Public Library (MPL) has good and large digital collections, including some free, classic e-books and audio books. And many of them have multiple copies. Would their budget be cut because of the occurrence of DPLA?

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