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DPLA and the Fight to Preserve American Democracy
Posted On August 20, 2019
“Can we create a national digital library?” That was the question posed in 2010 by Robert Darnton, then head of Harvard Library. As he watched Google digitize Harvard’s collections, Darnton recognized the potential of leveraging technology to transform the intellectual riches of our libraries—and also the dangers of allowing for their commercialization. “Books lying inert and underused on shelves,” he mused, could be put “into an electronic database that could be tapped by anyone anywhere at any time.” This observation sparked a discussion: Could the Google formula be adapted for the public good?

A planning meeting in October of that year brought together leaders from foundations, libraries, and universities. Tasked with creating an “open, distributed network … [drawing] on the nation’s living heritage,” a steering committee formed work groups to define and design what would become the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA).

Fast forward 3 years to 2013. DPLA launched with a bold vision and lofty aspirations. Bringing together a large and diverse group of stakeholders from government, nonprofit, and academic institutions, DPLA was to be the one-stop shop for U.S. cultural heritage resources. The flagship project born of this collaboration was, an online union catalog and discovery tool for millions of aggregated holdings records from libraries, archives, and other cultural heritage institutions across the country.

This idea proved to be a popular one. As a small nonprofit with a staff of fewer than 10 full-time employees, DPLA was fighting well above its weight, working with some of the biggest and oldest cultural institutions in the country and bringing in money from numerous foundations and funding agencies. The idea of a massive, open library was attractive and goes back to Thomas Jefferson and the founding of the U.S. In 2013, the Enlightenment-era optimism of the Founding Fathers met a receptive audience in 21st-century techno-utopianism, and suddenly the dream of a universal library seemed not only possible, but inevitable.

Fast forward to the present day. DPLA contains nearly 35 million records and is ingesting records from Service Hubs across the country. Gone are the original board members, and gone is founding executive director Dan Cohen. With a new director and a new strategic plan, DPLA finds itself facing a series of new challenges, both practical and existential.

Libraries as Techno-Optimists

Few in attendance at the 2010 planning meeting could have anticipated how thoroughly the rise of ubiquitous digital technology would change the country (and U.S. democracy). An abundance of information, which was supposed to be key to an informed democracy, has led instead to an erosion of trust in government and media and has left people feeling less informed. Some have even begun to question if democracy can exist in the digital age.

John Bracken, the new executive director of DPLA, acknowledges that online information has taken a dark turn, but is quick to reaffirm DPLA’s founding principle that digital technology can spread knowledge and strengthen democratic institutions. Bracken says, “This is a critical moment for American democracy and [DPLA] is in a unique position to provide access to trustworthy information.” In fact, DPLA’s new Strategic Roadmap, released in June 2019, explicitly expresses “Optimism about the Potential of Technology.”

This sustained techno-optimism is remarkable at a time when tech executives are being dragged to Congress to answer questions about privacy, data breaches, extremism, terrorism, election meddling, and exploitative business practices. But Bracken is convinced that libraries can and should be a part of the solution to these 21st-century problems.

As leading foundations try to address the problem of lack of trust in democracy, Bracken wants libraries to be part of the conversation. He points out that libraries are unique in the U.S. experience—they are ubiquitous, trusted institutions specializing in information curation and community engagement. At a time when we are worried about the breakdown of civic discourse and are dealing with the disruption of the information age, Bracken believes that libraries show a way forward.

As a society, we are wrestling with the fact that our online platforms have been weaponized to actively undermine our democracy. DPLA finds itself in a position to engage with tech companies to encourage them to connect with libraries and communities. It also finds itself in a position to help organizations that are trying to maintain fact-based reality online. Bracken points to a partnership with the Wikimedia Foundation, for example, as an opportunity to provide images and primary source materials to substantiate popular information sources.

Bracken is optimistic that technology can be leveraged to ensure that “libraries and cultural organizations not only survive but thrive” in the digital age. But he is quick to point out that DPLA is only one piece of the puzzle. “We don’t succeed on our own unless our partners succeed,” he says. “DPLA cannot succeed alone without the success of libraries across the United States.”

Fixing Mistakes 

Given DPLA’s history of partnering with U.S.-based technology and cultural heritage organizations, Bracken sees it as being in a unique position, stressing that libraries must collaborate and be active participants in shaping how digital technologies are created and used. Bracken seeks to heighten DPLA’s role as a “convener,” to bring stakeholders together to discuss and shape technology, just as the organization’s founders did.

Even as DPLA’s Strategic Roadmap reaffirms the principles of its founders and its commitment to aggregating digital collections for public use, some will note a shift in the organization’s strategic direction and in its staffing. In November 2018, DPLA announced that it was eliminating six positions—a considerable portion of its small staff. The reaction from the library technology community was swift and quite negative. And in the small and closely networked world of library technology professionals, many wondered if DPLA’s vision had exceeded its financial capacity.

In a letter to the DPLA board of directors, community members expressed frustration at the lack of communication and transparency about the reorganization and about the future of DPLA. Many who looked to the DPLA staff for guidance and vision voiced frustration about the lack of communication to hub network partners and their lack of voice in the decision-making process.

The DPLA board members responded to these concerns with a series of communications that began by conceding that they “should have done a better job engaging with and explaining these decisions to our community.” The long-term effects of this breach of trust remain to be seen. But reading through board reports and audited financial statements (posted to the organization’s About Us pages in response to this letter), it is apparent that DPLA’s operations were not financially sustainable in the long term and that something needed to change.

Bracken admits that while DPLA made a lot of progress during its startup phase, it also made a lot of mistakes. The startup phase is over, the next phase is beginning, and DPLA hopes to mature from something new and exciting into something disciplined and sustainable. Making DPLA a long-term enterprise will involve finding new and reliable sources of revenue to supplement grant funding, which, in the cultural space in particular, can sometimes be scarce. Unlike cultural heritage platforms in Australia and the European Union, which receive ongoing government funding, DPLA’s operations scale depending on the availability of project-specific grant money.

The Ebook Marketplace

There are hints in DPLA’s Strategic Roadmap about how it hopes to achieve long-term sustainability. While reaffirming the organization’s commitment to providing a one-stop discovery experience for the nation’s cultural materials, the Strategic Roadmap also highlights DPLA’s ebook initiative. Seeking to “improve the library e-content experience,” DPLA’s stated goals for this initiative are to give libraries greater control over the acquisition of their econtent, to make more diverse content available, and to advocate for libraries in the econtent space.

DPLA’s Open Bookshelf aggregates openly licensed books and makes them available to libraries and library patrons via the New York Public Library’s SimplyE app. DPLA Exchange, a marketplace that integrates with SimplyE, allows libraries to select from thousands of titles, including those from major publishers, which libraries can lease through DPLA’s nonprofit content exchange.

For DPLA, the hope is that libraries will choose its exchange over for-profit marketplaces—that they will select a nonprofit and library advocate and in the process, potentially avoid high platform fees and paying for openly licensed books. It remains to be seen if DPLA’s ebook revenue, along with its membership-based revenue stream, will be enough to sustain the operation. While DPLA began in response to Google Books, it seems its future will hinge, to some extent, on its ability to sell ebooks in a crowded marketplace of established players.

In addition, after years of relative stability, publishers are trying out new, more restrictive ebook models. In response, ALA promises to “focus more on public policy avenues as well as explore a rethinking of how libraries do business and their role in providing access to digital materials.” No doubt DPLA will find plenty of opportunities to discuss the library econtent experience in the near future.

Looking Backward and Forward

As DPLA moves to its next chapter, it is worth looking back at its establishing documents. These early materials envisioned an organization that would be at the table as core issues of democracy in the digital age were being discussed—one that would bring institutions together to make them stronger and to make the nation stronger. In a divided nation on a hostile and polarized internet, it is reassuring to hear that the work of facilitating collaborations and fostering communities continues. And as library collaborations evolve to take on challenges new and old, open models and aggregate data will be powerful tools. But the work will not be easy, and it will not be cheap.

The Strategic Roadmap’s Conclusion begins with the phrase, “American democracy is in turmoil.” No one organization or institution is going to fix that. But by actively creating frameworks for libraries to work together, DPLA is helping ensure that democracy won’t go down without a fight.

Ben Johnson is the adult services manager at the Council Bluffs Public Library in Iowa.

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