Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Digital Public Library of America, a toolkit for the 21st century librarian

Crisis mongers
(The following was posted to the Digital Public Library of America discussion group, DPLA-Discussion)

When reading many of the critiques of DPLA in the "academic" vs. "public" vein, I can't help but be reminded of the lyrics from Oklahoma - "Why can't the farmer and the cowman be friends?". Why monger a crisis among ourselves when there's greater challenges we all need to face?

In the past few years, when attending ALA, I've often wondered if the streams of librarianship (public, academic, special, school) can or should gather under the big, chaotic tent that is ALA. Though I had been leaning towards the "no" in recent years, the discussion on this list and developments in the world and technology has made lean more and more to yes, we can find core shared values and missions across the range of library types.

As John Palfrey has noted, creating a steering committee in and of itself is an exclusionary act that will by fiat cause problems and dissent and related discomforted to those groups who don't feel "fully" represented. The steering committee will do important work, but I also believe that more work will be done by the librarians "on the ground".

The "P" in DPLA has raised a number of issues that I think we all need to examine in ways that don't cause us to obscure the "L" in DPLA. And in my opinion, the "L" needs to be a library writ large, one that includes elements of not just "books" but also prints, photographs, museum objects, etc. More of the conflux of "library" and "museum" that I noted in an earlier post. The type of "library" that someone like John Cotton Dana was envisioning with the Newark Public Library/Museum. A place for the academic, the common folk, the lifelong learner.

Nancy Gwinn (Director of Smithsonian Libraries) wrote an article a while back entitled "Afoot in Three Camps" about the Smithsonian's library and its role in academic, museum, and special. Increasingly, through the digital offerings of Smithsonian Libraries (disclaimer: I'm the Assistant Director of Digital Services, but these are my views and don't reflect the yadda yadda) we are increasingly a "public" library in the sense that our online offerings are for the benefit of "public" that will never pass through our doors, and web analytically, are our major audience. This is also true of the offerings of the Library of Congress and "Carnegie Research I" libraries that are creating "digital libraries for the world".

A corpus of digitized content made available to libraries of all shapes, sizes, and designations (public, academic, elite, storefront) is an important but only a preliminary step. Making that content useful, relevant, fun, educationally contextualized, is something that needs to be done one community at a time, one user at a time.

DPLA is NOT a solution to any "problems" of libraries, it's a toolkit for librarians to build solutions to problems that they find every single day on their jobs; a toolkit for library users to bring to the workshops they need to succeed in a competitive world. DPLA as a toolkit is only as strong as the tools and skills that everyone brings to the worktable.

So, you can bring a hammer, I'll bring a saw. If we work together, not everything will look like a nail.

Sorry to have extended this post to the length of a "Kindle Single"

Ad astra per aspera*,

 * Just an elite Latin phrase, but also the motto of one of the flyover states

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