Reflecting on the Big Picture

Through the course of the semester I have truly learned what a digital library is.  Oddly enough it wasn’t that far off from what I wrote about in Week 1.  During Week 1 we discussed Bush’s concept of a memex, a device that can be used to bring up old trains of thought and examples/pieces of information that legitimize that thought process.  Once someone has made the connection, with the “trails,” they can bring the connection back up for use at a later time.  Now that I fully understand what a digital library can be I see that this description is truer than ever.

I referenced the concept of the memex to modern day wikis and hypertext that allow the user to link information together.  This little did I realize at the time is the foundation of how a good digital library works.  You can add metadata to each item in the collection and use hypertext to link to other items that have similar metadata or even link to description of metadata, “metametadata” if you will.  This is what surprised me the most about the topics covered this semester.  It wasn’t that an inventor dreamt up the basis for the internet and the structure that digital libraries are built on in 1945, some 45 years later.  What surprised me is how something that I take for granted every day, the internet, and something this is as simple as HTML coding and the ability to link ideas becomes so powerful when applied to the concept of digital libraries.

Take a picture for example, when put on webpage it has no more meaning than what the content of the picture is.  It may have some metadata attached to it such as a description, but usually that is it.  If you then take that picture and other pictures that are related to it, assign metadata to it, and create a digital collection out of them the picture gains significantly more meaning.  Not only does the picture have a description, just like it does when the picture is alone on a webpage, but it also has other metadata attached to it such as like who created the picture, when it was taken/created, and what the format and characteristics of the file are.  More importantly the picture gains even more meaning when you relate it to the other pictures within the collection.  This is the power of a digital library.  Digital libraries provide meaning to objects within their collection when they otherwise might not have any meaning.  The power derived from a collection of like objects is what I find most exciting about digital libraries.  Though digital libraries have inherently a lot of power they can bring to a collection, in my opinion more than what a physical library can, they are vulnerable.

Currently I see digital libraries as somewhat vulnerable.  They are susceptible mainly to copyright claims and have to be wary of fair use.  The potential litigation costs is why I think that there are only certain areas of study and certain collections that have been chosen to be digitized.  What we covered in Week 12 was a great explanation of the current state of digital libraries.  I am happy to see that organizations like the Digital Public Library of America and HathiTrust take on copyright claims and advocate for digital librarianship.  These organizations have the funding and the resources that they can withstand litigation on copyright claims, but not every library can and I think this may be one of the biggest barriers to entry for smaller libraries and organizations to digitize collections they currently wouldn’t.

For example a smaller library might want to digitize a collection of books or documents that are over one hundred years old, but may be wary or wait some more time in fear that the copyright holder can still put a claim on those materials.  Most likely those materials may have fallen into the public domain, but the fear of litigation could be stopping a small library from digitizing the materials.  This is where I think the “battles” won by the DPLA and HathiTrust become valuable.  They are the ones who can change and shape copyright law that allow smaller organizations to do things with digital libraries that they previously thought they couldn’t do.  This is an exciting area to see how ti develops in the next ten to twenty year, as much of this change takes a long time.  This section made me realize how important organizations like the DPLA and HathiTrust are not just for affecting copyright for digital libraries, but affecting copyright for everyone.  With these changes that the DPLA and HathiTrust can contribute to and their advocacy of digital librarianship as a whole the future of digital libraries will be very interesting to say the least, and this doesn’t even take into account any major technological changes and digital mediums that could shape the new landscape with digital libraries.  Even though there might be some barriers to do what many libraries truly want to do with digital libraries they still have a lot of inherent power, as I have stress earlier.  This power was seen by me easiest when I completed Assignment 2.

In my opinion Assingment 2 really brought together what digital libraries are all about.  I personally chose to do my own collection on a group of Green Bay Packers football cards.  Even though the collection was small and very minimal, the use of a product like Omeka, albeit the free version, made my collection very powerful.  I was able to link concepts multiple concepts together in a way that seem clunky in with a physical collection.  I was able to link offense and defense, play position, and the front scan of the card to the back scan, as I had them as two separate items.  This is where I fully realized and understood the power technology can have on digital collections and the power that digital collections have inherently.  To me this was the most applicable part of the course.  We had learned about digital libraries, what they are, what they aren’t, how they are used, and what problems they face, but I didn’t fully grasp the concept of what digital libraries actually “are” until I was able to create one of my own and review these concepts within a real world example.  If this was the only thing I will take away from the course, which it obviously isn’t, it would be worth it.

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