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DPLA: a good idea that has a shot

At a high enough level of abstraction, the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) is a great idea. But, then, most things are. The question is whether it will be able to go from abstract to concrete. All that stands between it and success are some of the most powerful economic interests in the world ... as well as the tensions within itself.

The idea is simple and powerful: As works go digital, we can build a national equivalent of a public library. Great idea!

Now try to figure out what that means and exactly how it would work. Good luck.

That is precisely the task the DPLA has undertaken. At the moment, the DPLA has the luxury of being in the talk-and-think stage. The organization consists of a steering committee, an open wiki and an open mailing list. Because it is an exploratory phase, it is open to every idea and every objection. It is a fractious, multisided debate, but generally quite civil.

Questions to answer

There is disagreement on the mailing list about every aspect of the potential project. Should it be a distributed library that points at various online collections, or should it be building its own collection? Should access to the works be free, or could some be for-pay? Should it have a user interface geared to users of public libraries or research libraries, or both, or neither? Should it be about content or should it be more of a platform? Should it preserve the old library services and values, or should it supplement (or even replace) them with newer-fangled, social, collaborative, bottom-up services?

The answers to some of these questions, I believe, are tending in particular directions, although nothing is finally decided. For example, I believe there's fairly general agreement that all works should be available to users for free. And I believe that at least initially it will do more pointing to sources than aggregating of its own collection. I personally think many of the other questions would be solved, resolved or dissolved if the DPLA viewed itself more as a platform than as a collection, but there's no reason to think that that view will prevail (or even that it is right).

A group with heft

The DPLA could not afford to begin with such openness about its own nature if it were not for the strength of its steering committee. Headed by John Palfrey, who was formerly the executive director of the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society (and—disclosure—who is currently my boss [and friend]), the steering committee consists of the right sort of players if a project this ambitious is to get off the ground. For this is not the first time someone has proposed a national digital library. But this time the steering committee includes the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, the Archivist of the United States, the Internet Archive, major universities, major public libraries and library openness activists. This group has the heft to make the vision real.

But it won't be easy. Librarians are passionate about what they do—they're sure not in it for the money—and are passionate in their disagreements. But that's just the first hurdle. If the DPLA is going to offer access not just to books published before 1923, it will have to find a way to break the copyright logjam. Clearly the set of institutions on the steering committee are not going to endorse or enable violations of copyright. So, the DPLA will have to work deals with publishers for access on reasonable terms. Maybe the DPLA could even buy e-books and other such content. Yes, I know that actually buying and owning electronic content instead of licensing it under oppressive, non-negotiable terms sounds like a crazy idea, but it just might work!

Orphaned works

And then there is the problem of orphaned works: works that are still in copyright, but the copyright holders can't be found. For example, you want to use a clip from some obscure 1931 movie, but you can't find who the copyright holder is for the three minutes of piano playing in the background, and even if you could, you can be pretty sure she or he is long dead, and you are unlikely to be able to track down the owner's heirs. All that material—millions and millions of books and more—is under pointless lock and key, unavailable to the DPLA. But, the DPLA might have enough clout to get Congress to take some reasonable action.

So, the DPLA is a long, long way from being real. But, it has a shot at making it. If it does not, historians will have yet another episode they can use to illustrate clearly our culture's perverse inability to use our new, open connectedness to anything like its potential.   

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