DPLA — the Digital Public Library of America — last week laid off six members of its small staff. Over the weekend, DPLA executive director John Bracken, in a talk at the LITA Forum, provided an overview of DPLA’s vision, which appears to include a change in strategic direction. DPLA is a not-for-profit organization with a strong board including library leaders Brian Bannon of Chicago Public, Chris Bourg of MIT, and Denise Stephens of Washington University St. Louis, Oxford University Press’s Niko Pfund, and Wikimedia CEO Katherine Maher, among others. DPLA launched five years ago, with a strategy focused on aggregating and curating special collections and a technical approach that made sense for the web that was celebrated here in the Kitchen. It now appears to be pivoting more towards ebook distribution systems. It is also clearly facing some difficulties right now.
As is often the case with an organization in the process of a substantial redirection, there is too little information for outsiders to offer a conclusive interpretation of events. For example, DPLA’s last tax information on file with GuideStar dates from 2015 (although it is presented in the metadata as dating from 2016), making it difficult to estimate the current state of its finances. While larger companies and universities routinely report in broad terms about the purpose of layoffs, for example as part of a “budget reduction program” or as part of a needed “re-allocation of resources,” such reporting is less common from smaller organizations. The immediate reaction from the library technology community was quite negative, but the long term effects of any immediate loss of goodwill remain to be seen. I am interested in analyzing DPLA’s strategy and strategic shift, but I am not prepared to do that today.
Cautious though I am about reporting on the specifics of the current DPLA news, any event like this causes me to step back and seek the broader story. The scholarly communications sector is probably now more full with start-ups than at any time in its history. Some are commercial initiatives, some are not-for-profit, and like DPLA many are trying to facilitate collaborations and foster communities. For this reason, rather than trying to speculate about DPLA’s future directions and likelihood of success, I would instead like to reflect on some of the lessons I am drawing from the challenges that DPLA and a number of other similarly situated organizations appear to be confronting.
- For a new not-for-profit, grants should be used to establish a business model. For a vision as attractive as the one that DPLA was originally pursuing, it is no surprise that numerous foundations and funding agencies were willing to make substantial resources available. For a new not-for-profit organization, grants and other sources of start-up capital should generally help it to launch a new business with sources of recurring support, not to fund operations on an ongoing basis. An organization that relies almost entirely on grant-based philanthropy can find it is nearly impossible to develop a good sense of the economic demand for its services. And, it seems to be impossible, at least in this sector, to fund operations from grants on an indefinite basis. An organization that cannot develop an ongoing stream of revenues — whether from subscriptions, memberships, service fees, or other sources — will eventually pivot to a new strategy or fail. Funder policy and funding structure has an important role to play.
- Every good idea does not require a new organization. DPLA’s origin story is in resistance to the commercial efforts to digitize books, especially the Google initiative, but it had trouble finding a model for this resistance to book digitization and instead pivoted to aggregate and curate primary source collections. As Joe Esposito has pointed out in these pages, even products themselves, let alone product features, are not themselves businesses. Without ongoing national funding, whether from the federal government or in another form, it was never clear why there should be a US national version of Europeana and Trove. Yet, in library collaborations, as some leaders recognize, we see numerous organizations developed to take on slightly different nuances of the same broad set of challenges that libraries are working to address. Some of these organizations have challenges in defining their strategy in ways that are feasible given the resources they are able to generate, and many have governance challenges resulting from membership organizations with operational aspirations. In the next year, I expect to see a number of pivots, mergers, and other changes among library collaboratives.
- Start-ups involve labor precarity. All new organizations, especially those without an established revenue base, are risks. In the commercial sector, there is often a high upside for early employees who take a risk on the venture, if it is successful. In the not-for-profit sector, it is important for startup leaders and funders to recognize that they are asking potential employees to bear risk without providing substantial financial upside in the event of success; just as much as it is important for employees to recognize and, to the extent possible, negotiate the parameters of their employment, including termination scenarios. Layoffs are always personally difficult even when handled in the most compassionate ways possible, with transparent communications and generous severance, each of which is not always easy to provide. At the same time, it is impossible to have innovation without risk.
- Primary source materials are valuable even if sustaining their ready digital availability is not simple. Efforts to provide ready online access to the library community’s digitized primary source materials has been a long-standing challenge. Individual libraries’ digitization efforts have typically resulted in relatively siloed online access. Approaches to making such materials available through curated and commercial models, such as those under the ProQuest umbrella, have served to increase access substantially. DPLA saw an opportunity to make a radical improvement in the availability of these library riches, through the community of hubs that it has helped to foster and its own work to aggregate and curate across repositories for educational and other purposes. Its efforts to build a membership-based revenue stream do not appear to have been sufficient to allow this work to be sustained at recent levels over time. Perhaps DPLA can continue some aspects of its work at a lower level or with greater efficiencies. Fortunately, the underlying digitized primary source materials are not at any greater risk, since they are held by the partner repositories. Looking ahead, given the value of primary sources to research, teaching, and learning, I will not be surprised to see others attempt to take on elements of DPLA’s work, perhaps under other kinds of open models.
- The library ebook marketplace remains unsettled. While DPLA’s origin story was in resistance to Google Books, its next chapter appears to rest to a large degree on its ability to establish a marketplace for ebook distribution to public libraries. This is a major pivot in audience and mission, in a space where there are already a number of established organizations. It is also working in partnership with LYRASIS, New York Public Library, and others. Will DPLA be able to succeed in this role? Certainly, if it can succeed in bringing a more print-like experience to the work of acquiring and circulating ebooks, it will be a real benefit to libraries and readers alike.
Others will draw additional, or perhaps different, lessons from DPLA’s change in strategic direction, and I am eager to hear them as well. I believe it is vital that we not allow our discomfort with the challenges faced by organizations in our sector to limit open discussion of lessons we can learn.
I am grateful to Danielle Cooper, Joseph Esposito, Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe, Kimberly Lutz, Deanna Marcum, Tim McGeary, Susan Parker, Oya Rieger, and Christine Wolff-Eisenberg, for reading a draft of this piece. The lessons it proposes were strengthened by their input but do not necessarily reflect their views.