Monday, May 23, 2011

It's all about the Benjamin, Benjamin Franklin and the DPLA

Ben Franklin, Old Post Office
Washington, DC
I'd like to follow on Gosia Stergios' blog post inspired by the recent DPLA meeting in Amsterdam with a few comments of my own. These also follow on the "forking" discussion covered by Library Journal. You can see my notes from the meetings here, here and here.

On my way to the Amsterdam meeting, I stopped in Leiden, also the first stop of the Pilgrims - a decade long stop - before they eventually landed in the New World and founded the Plymouth Colony. After the meeting began, it was a short mental leap for me from the Pilgrims to the founding of the nation and the early motto of the United States, as still found on the Great Seal, E pluribus unum, "Out of many, one". This, I believe, is the goal of the DPLA. To create the great American digital library, one that both celebrates the component parts of all its constitute library contributors from across the country, but at the same time, becomes something greater than the sum of its parts.

And with this thought, who better to take on the role of patron of our DPLA then Benjamin Franlkin? We're all familiar with the quote attributed him at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, "We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately." I think this Franklin statement is a good expression of why we need to put aside the "public" vs. "academic" debate and move forward with a united front on the DPLA. Academic, or public, there are large forces loose in the world that have no concern for the values and traditions the American library (writ large) has created.

And what are these forces? Eric Hellman, in his post, "Hachette at the Tipping Point" on his Go to Hellman blog, quotes from an interview with David Young, Chairman and CEO of Hachette Book Group that helps put these challenges into perspective:
"If you just rewind the clock five, even ten years, the negotiations that one had with with Barnes and Noble, or WH Smith or Waterstones seemed like the most challenging things in the world, you were entering a G8 summit or something, and now they appear like a vicar's tea party compared with the people with whom we now regularly deal. Massive companies, Amazon, Apple, Google, and in fact last year was a tipping point for our company, because 50% of our net revenues were made through outlets that were not invested in us. Companies like Walmart and Costco and all the others you can think of, not directly invested in our business. And I think that was a big moment and it means you're having to deal with people who think about books in a way totally different from the way Barnes and Nobles regards books. Every retailer who does sell books understands that they drive traffic into their stores, I have no doubt that's why Walmart and Target and Costco love them so much, but they do tend to cream off the top."
In this environment, there is an even more apt Franklin quote, "Join, or Die" (from the political cartoon first published in his Pennsylvania Gazette on May 9, 1754), that informs the neccessity of a DPLA at this point in time. Instead of the parochial infighting and debates about the relevancy of "The Republic of Letters" to the denizens of Main Street, we should look towards building the appropriate digital library FOR America at this pivotal time in history.

And that's why I like to think that this really is all about the Benjamins. Or Benjamin, as in Franklin. Franklin was the first new American. The first to carry a gravitas that the old world of Europe would respect. Scholar, inventer, postermaster, printer, publisher, author, library patron, Founder. Franklin embodies all that we could hope for in a DPLA, from the scholarly pursuits that would capture the imagination of the intellectual salons of Europe while at the same time composing the folksy, Poor Richard quotes that would hang needle-pointed over mantlepieces across America.
"These libraries have improved the general conversation of the Americans, made the common tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries, and perhaps have contributed in some degree to the stand so generally made throughout the colonies in defense of their privileges."
"This library afforded me the means of improvement by constant study, for which I set apart an hour or two each day, and thus repair'd in some degree the loss of the learned education my father once intended for me. Reading was the only amusement I allow'd myself."
These quotes, from Franklin's Autobiography, show his understanding of the role of libraries in creating not only American Democracy and providing amusement in leisure hours, but also the transformative nature of libraries that makes them agents of change across a spectrum that ranges from the individual to the nation.

(Thanks to my colleagues and friends for stimulating conversation that helped me clarify these ideas, especially Chris, Maura, Rebekah, David, Rachel, Robert, Kim, Ed, Dan, and Lorcan)

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