English: Illustration of the final chase of Mo...
English: Illustration of the final chase of Moby-Dick. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Digital Public Library of America has just launched and can be found at the annoyingly unconventional URL http://dp.la. That’s the only criticism I have to make of it, the funny domain name. Otherwise it’s an impressive performance. I have just begun to browse it and expect that I will come to use it regularly. It’s a bit like Wikipedia in that respect — always present in the background when you need it and welcome for precisely that reason.

There will be endless commentary about DPLA, so my remarks here are simply to call attention to the project and to encourage people to check it out. It’s a moving target — what it is today will be significantly different in 6 months. Heaven only knows what it will look like in 5 years.

I have been watching the project since it was first conceived and I subscribed to several of the mailing lists for the working groups. There has always been a gap, at least in my opinion, between some of the lofty — and incendiary — aspirations of the project and the actual nuts-and-bolts work to get it up and running. The “information wants to be free” crowd has embraced DPLA, and that’s unfortunate. (There are many subgroups within the world of free information advocates.) But the actual service that is available right now is very useful, if limited by the current scope of its collections. I say “current scope” as though I actually knew what that scope is. Unlike in a physical library, you just can’t tell by digging into the search tool just how large DPLA is. You will not see documents that you don’t specifically request, so what you do see is the tip of the tip of the iceberg. Over time the amount of ice below the surface is no doubt going to grow beyond human measure.

The most impressive aspect of DPLA is that it is not a library at all, but an intelligently constructed catalogue to many libraries, which are contributing their collections.  DPLA, in other words, is a “pointer” service, which is, I think, exactly what the world wants.  So a search on DPLA fetches documents from all over the place. I was just looking at something from the holdings of the University of Illinois, then I clicked a bit and was taken to Brewster’s Kahle’s Archive.org. Ten minutes on the home page and you can “visit” many libraries. If this is not cool, I don’t know what is.

Among the particularly useful aspects of DPLA (I fear I will overlook something major here) is the list of the various file formats for the content.  So, for example, you can read something online, download it as an ePub file, get a PDF, or even send it to Kindle.  Now, all this stuff is a lot harder to do then simply clicking once, but that is not the fault of DPLA but of the absence of any standard way to get content onto the device of your choice. This means there will have to be a learning curve. I was playing with the “send to Kindle” function today and then got weary. I have long intended to learn how to use it, but DPLA has now given me a reason to do so now. So I will come back to it, demonstrating that DPLA is not only a source of content but also part of a self-reinforcing ecosystem. The documentation on this particular feature does not exist on DPLA, as far as I can tell, and the instructions on the Kindle site are useless. This is normal, of course; we are in the world of “learn by doing,” which takes much longer than “learn by reading,” but you can’t blame DPLA for this, though the irony of this should not be lost on anyone who is trying to use a library.

With an eye toward the future, it’s significant that DPLA is inviting developers to write new applications using the DPLA’s resources. I think it is easy to underestimate how important this is in that it can release the creative energies of a broad community.  No one person can think of everything, but everyone can, one bit at a time.  The precedents for this kind of activity are marvelous — the application library for Microsoft DOS, later Windows; the iPhone app store; Wikipedia; etc., etc. DPLA is, in other words, a community resource; it is the commons that grows rather than gets exhausted when it is grazed upon.

This is another way of saying that DPLA knows how the Web works. This is not trivial. By building something that is tailored to the Web’s underlying capabilities, DPLA could become a grand thing. I think it will.

What will become apparent to early users is that many items that you would expect to find in a library are not there.  I looked up “Isaac Asimov” and came away empty-handed. So here is another irony, in that the geeks who did the actual coding for this project are likely to have read the robot and Foundation books when they were still nursing. But it’s not just Asimov, of course; it’s pretty much anything that is still under copyright. This will be DPLA’s biggest challenge, as there is no known economically viable way to put commercially available titles into DPLA without compromising or negating their economic value.

I have written about this before, but it bears repeating that making an ebook available nationally or even globally is bound to put downward pressure on market opportunities. Some participants in DPLA believe that this is a problem that can be solved at some future point. We shall have to wait and see. For my part I wish DPLA would simply forego the inclusion of works under copyright, but there is not a chance that the leadership of DPLA would allow the mere property interests of authors and publishers to get in the way of their grand design.  So we will see arguments and many, many lawyers involved in this in the coming years.

All in all though, it’s hard not be take one’s hat off to what has been accomplished. I will be looking for a copy of Balzac’s “Lost Illusions” to read on my iPad, and I will start my search at http://dp.la.

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Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.


19 Thoughts on "The Digital Public Library of America Has Arrived"

Describing people whose views about publishing business models may differ from yours as “the information wants to be free crowd” is overly broad and comes across as dismissive. If you articulated a view held by an individual or a specific organization, I could internalize it and also begin to understand how widely it might be held. I grasp why you want the DPLA to “forego the inclusion of works under copyright”, but that can’t be evaluated in a vacuum. When copyright means something like “life plus 70 years”, you’re saying “exclude pretty much everything published in the 20th and 21st century. To me, that overweights the argument for rights holders and diminishes the public good that should be provided in exchange for providing protection “for a limited time”.

I would not characterize people who advocate for a shorter term of copyright as being in the information wants to be free class. As for the broadness of the generalization, in the very next sentence I qualified it by noting the diversity among that group. So do we have a rhetorical disagreement here or a substantive one? In any event, since DPLA is a “pointer” service and not a repository in itself (outside of metadata), to include copyrighted works would mean either (a) an overturning of its “pointer” construct or (b) that the underlying member repositories had been able to obtain copyrighted works. Meanwhile, I think that DPLA is a highly welcome service and I look forward to using it and to encouraging others to use it.

Define your use of the terms and I’ll be better able to say whether we have a rhetorical disagreement or a substantive one. Specifically, who is in the “information wants to be free” cohort, and what do they espouse? Maybe you use a shorthand that works in this forum, but it is lost on me. In the initial post, you asked that the DPLA not include copyrighted works. In your comments, you seem to allow for “pointing to” copyrighted works, but it’s not clear if this extends to allowing access. In considering your post and this comment, I have trouble understanding what you are arguing for, or against.

I was referring to the view that information is in all instances a public good. As for the inclusion of copyrighted works in DPLA, I would think that the service would be mightily useful without them. But if copyrighted works were to be included, I would hope it was not because information is declared a public good. My definition of a “pointer” is that is is agnostic as to whether or not it provides access; that is the business of the pointed to. What I am arguing for: DPLA is a very good thing, but utopian visions could embroil it in endless litigation.

The short answer is the Project Gutenberg is a repository, whereas DPLA is a “pointer” service.

Project Gutenberg is primarily text sources and usually books. Many of the collections the DPLA points to include different textual formats,such as journals, magazines, newspapers, and also non-text formats, like pictures, sound files, video files, etc. It just has more.

Joe, the Digital Public Library of America is a fabulous start as a library tool kit and pointer to manuscripts, historical documents, and other valuable source content. Congratulations to Bob Darnton, John Palfrey, Dan Cohen and everyone else behind the DPLA! Still, the DPLA is far, far from a real “public” library and urgently needs to drop the P word, just as a major group of public librarians has requested (http://www.cosla.org/documents/COSLA_Resolution__DPLA__May_2011.pdf).

Via dp.la, I could discover only one item, er, pointer, related to Philip Roth, an image. What’s more, Tom Peters, the veteran academic librarian who co-founded LibraryCity with me, has just sent me an email with similar sentiments: “I wonder how Captain Ahab would respond to the fact that the digital edition of Moby Dick served up by the DPLA comes from the Biodiversity Heritage Library.” For more from LibraryCity, see “Promising DPLA debut—but please don’t confuse special-collection items, exhibits and APIs with a full-fledged ‘public library’ demo” (http://librarycity.org/?p=7389).

In reply to Meg, let’s remember the importance of works in copyright. I love Project Gutenberg, but it is hardly a normal library, just as the current DPLA isn’t. But PG, as a priceless collection of public domain classics for popular use, at least stores its own material. I wish DPLA would care more about the archival side of libraries. I want as much content as possible backed up on both its site and its partners’; redundancy is the friend of preservation.

Meanwhile, Joe, I truly, truly hope you’ll pay close attention to Brian O’Leary and ponder “The Opportunity in Abundance” (http://www.magellanmediapartners.com/index.php/article/the_opportunity_in_abundance/). In a related vein, please see “Toward a Library-Publisher Complex for the digital era: Where the money is for both sides” (http://librarycity.org/?p=6553). In addition, check out “A national digital library endowment: More details, an FAQ, and an invitation to librarians and others to help shape the proposal” (http://librarycity.org/?p=6933). The endowment proposal also mentions other revenue streams—we need a variety of business models, including, of course, links from library catalogs to bookstores (an Esposito-friendly idea, no?). The proposal even discusses the possibility of user subscriptions, with checkoffs on tax forms, and tells how a library plan could differentiate itself from commercial services. Like you, I am very emphatically of the “no free lunch” school; I’m realistic. I know we can’t get everything online for free. “Free to user” doesn’t necessarily mean “Free from content provider”; I hardly expect Random House to give away its wares! But we should certainly do the best we can to promote “free” within the inevitable constraints, legal and financial.

What’s more, I would remind you of societal benefits of the right kind of “free” (with payment to content providers, so the good ones are sustainable). Think of improvements in areas ranging from healthcare to high-tech start-ups, if more people can become better educated, no matter what their circumstances. While respecting intellectual property, we urgently need to do our best to decouple knowledge from the ability to pay for it. If publishers don’t go along, then the library world will rely more than now on new business models that reduce economic opportunities for major houses.

I’m optimistic that the smarter publishers will be open minded and wake up in time, however; and I hope you’ll reconsider and use your influence to hasten the process. Here’s a chance to do endless good for writers and publishers, considering that the average American household now spends only around $115 a year on reading materials of all kinds (excluding textbooks), according to federal statistics (http://www.bls.gov/cex/2011/Standard/income.pdf) to which I point from the call for a Library-Publisher Complex. I want that number to be much higher; and together, librarians and publishers could more effectively lobby to boost the disgracefully low amount spent by way of various business models on content (the content total for public libraries themselves is now just $1.3B or so a year in the U.S). Not through outrageous increases in book prices and others, but through making it easier and more enticing for people to read. The current DPLA falls considerably short of this vision, as I’m confident no small number of its organizers would at least privately acknowledge.

The DPLA’s site pointing to existing resources is useful, but hardly a solution to these issues in the great tradition of public libraries here and in other countries. The DPLA demo project, alas, despite its brilliant people and many positives, is far short of “public library” if we extrapolate from S. R. Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science (http://librarycity.org/?p=7136), and I worry that the final vision wouldn’t be, either. Follow his laws (separate but tightly intertwined public and academic systems would it easier to serve individual readers, in line with his teachings), pay the content providers fairly so they’re sustainable, and the results for both them and society will be most gratifying.

Let both publishers and librarians think just a little less about pie-slicing and a lot more about growing the pie through measures ranging from those bookstore links to endowment and the national digital library subscription plan. Surely we can do much better than $115 per household per year for reading materials! The status quo is a huge “fail” even by bean-counter standards.

David Rothman
Cofounder and Editor-Publisher

Except from the endowment proposal’s FAQ–a paragraph documenting the need (links not included):

Who says American schools are the only settings for “savage inequalities”? Mississippi spent just $1.42 per capita on public library books and other content in fiscal year 2010, according a report from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, IMLS; and Illinois, the champion, came in at a still-less-than-stunning $7.79. Libraries in my own state, Virginia, birthplace of Thomas Jefferson, far more of a friend of books and libraries than are most of today’s politicians, weighed in at $3.77 per capita. The Old Dominion at least exceeded the minuscule 57 cents in the territory of Guam for that year and the 16 cents in FY 2009. Alas, the newer IMLS report failed to mention Puerto Rico. But the FY 2009 figure from the agency was 35 cents. The per-capita annual spending listed for the U.S. for FY 2010 was $4.22. While inexact, the numbers are close enough. All in all, a paltry $1.257 billion was for content, approximately the $1.3-billion cost of just one terrorist-friendly complex for the Department of Defense. Pathetic.

Put another way, only 11.7 percent of U.S. public libraries’ $10.77 billion in operating expenditures went for paper books, e-books and other content in FY 2010. Just 12.4 percent of the collection spending was for digital media of all kinds…

This is a very long comment and I do not wish to engage it except for this one remark: “Like you, I am very emphatically of the “no free lunch” school.” I am not of that “school” nor of any other.

Thanks for your response, Joe, and I hope you’ll consider a longer one when you have more time. None other than Milton Friedman, by the way, helped popularize “No free lunch.” While of the progressive bent and not of his own “school,” I’m certainly a capitalist and see a need for good, sustainable publishers.

I invite others to use this forum or the comment area of LibraryCity.org to discuss the National Digital Library Endowment Plan and related topics, which are very germane, given that the DPLA had to settle for a limited demo compared to what many had hoped. (Pros and cons both welcomed about the plan, since I want to refine it!) The complexity of the topics justifies the detail.

Yes, copyright laws figured in the shrinkage of the DPLA vision, as legal minds like your or those at Harvard Law would be quick to notice. But so did finances; I’m confident that publishers would do business with a national digital library directly if the money were right. Using linked citations, I’ve tried hard to identify areas where the interests of publishers and librarians can come together so we can increase the amount spent on intellectual property, especially books and other texts. Why shouldn’t people “engage” in detail about this? The Scholarly Kitchen is exactly as billed—a scholarly blog, not People Magazine. Ideally discussions here can lead to actual solutions to challenges such as the “savage inequalities” of the library and K-12 worlds, or good publishers’ own challenges.

For now, I’ll appreciate your changing “Except” (appearing under my phone number and above the quote from the FAQ) to “Excerpt.” I won’t represent the rest of my previous comments as flawless, either. This, of course, is an example of the value that editing and the rest add; and one way or another, those services are not free—precisely why I’m looking for solutions that would benefit publishers and other content-providers as well as libraries.


David Rothman
Co-founder and Editor-Publisher

Sorry, Joe–my mistake. Of course that might make it easier to keep an open mind about remedies beyond changes in copyright law.


Joseph, while you’re right that the DPLA is a pointer, it’s also a potential laboratory for exploring books, archives, images at the collection level. The gee whiz side of that might be the Stacklife app, or more seriously the ability to map historical photographs that are enriched with location metadata on Google maps. And the DPLA also hopes to be a resource for smaller historical societies–its founders, including its new Executive Director Dan Cohen, want the DPLA to digitize and add metadata to collections that are currently offline–this they’re hoping to expand the “Scannebago” idea, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scannebago.

I think Scannebago is a wonderful idea. This is precisely the kind of thing I would hope that DPLA focuses on.

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