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DPLA West: It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s an API!

First, context. On April 27 I attended DPLA West,  and let me take it from the horse’s mouth:

DPLA West—which took place on April 27, 2012 in San Francisco—was the second major public event bringing together librarians, technologists, creators, students, government leaders [including IMLS and the National Archives], and others interested in building a Digital Public Library of America. Convened by the DPLA Secretariat at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society [John Palfrey] and co-hosted by the San Francisco Public Library [Luis Herrera was there–I mean, is this guy triplets or what? He’s both amazing and ubiquitous], the event assembled a wide range of stakeholders in a broad, open forum to facilitate innovation, collaboration, and connections across the DPLA effort. DPLA West also showcased the work of the interim technical development team and continued to provide opportunities for public participation in the work of the DPLA.

The best part of the event for me was communing with and among so many nerds, including friend-nerds, acquaintance-nerds, celebrity-digerati-nerds, and even biblio-celebrity-digerati-nerds. My library school advisor Jana Bradley was even there, and how wonderful to meet up with her again. She was a terrific adviser, a real mentor, and she continues to do great stuff.

The second best part of the event was the sheer electricity of the day. There we were, at the Internet Archives, all excited about the nascent Digital Public Library of America! The speakers were lucid and interesting, and the event was well-captured in text, video, and even artistic renderings. The weather  cooperated, and at lunch we fanned out into the sunshine and kibitzed while noshing on lovely box lunches. I had never seen the scanning operation at the IA, and it was fascinating and even touching to see beautiful old books carefully scanned for the world to know and share.

However, when I tried to synthesizing the event later on, I found myself agreeing with Peter Brantley’s assessment that the event displayed “a cacophony of wildly disparate visions.” Stakeholders were not in agreement on “the whatness of the thing,” to use an old literary expression, nor were they aware of this.

The DPLA has had this problem from the outset, beginning with such fundamental issues as what a “library” is. Nicholas Carr, writing earlier that month, noted that “Chief Officers of State Library Agencies passed a resolution asking the DPLA steering committee to change the name of the project” — since the DPLA’s goal, though it doesn’t quite understand this,  is really to be the Digital Public Stacks and ILS of America — and then observed, “The controversy over nomenclature points to a deeper problem confronting the nascent online library: its inability to define itself. The DPLA remains a mystery in many ways. No one knows precisely how it will operate or even what it will be.”

As became clear in the discussions, what public libraries (ahem — real public libraries) want, for the most part, is the ability to purchase/license and share current ebook titles: the much-coveted product of the Big Six publishers. They want Hunger Games, not someone’s pre-1923 travelogue. The think-tank nerds want government documents digitized (and who can disagree with that, even though it’s not the top priority for public libraries).  The developers want an amazing tool, and so on.

Apparently, the developers hold the winning cards for now, because when the great mystery of the day was revealed, it turned out to be… an API (application programming interface) for an as-yet-designed platform. In other words, a software solution to an unnamed, many-headed, but very large human problem. Not that APIs aren’t useful, and no one ran for the exits, but as the developers talked, I could feel the energy in the room shift and falter ever so slightly.

As I listened, I remembered the librarians who see huge copyright challenges as a simple vendor issue: exchange 3M for Overdrive, or build your own tool, and all will be well. But these two vendors are merely flotsam bobbing in the roiling, shark-infested waters of digital book copyright and ownership. And the revelation of the API reminded me of the beginning of the Google Book Project, when large research libraries fell over themselves signing away rights to Google, which has since grown weary of the project, now that it is, in Carr’s terms, “mired in a legal swamp” — an inevitable outcome, even for the cocksure company that launched a project with such overweening Tech Uber Alles hubris.

Despite my concerns, please do not read my comments as cynical or dismissive. I still connect deeply with the energy of that day, and with the goodwill of all involved; and I think they are on to something.  DPLA is a de facto not-for-profit enterprise with a healthy balance of government/NPO/private participation, and some very thoughtful, morally upstanding, fiercely intelligent people on board. They share among themselves something we in LibraryLand can connect with (perhaps in part because so many of them are from LibraryLand itself, or at least have a visa): a dedication to humanity. They understand the difference between not doing evil, and actively doing good.

I had a hard time wrapping up this post, but Sandy’s sermon this past Pentecost Sunday helped pave the way, and so did tonight’s Pentecostal winds that whipped my skirt around my legs and banged my car door shut before I could close it myself. Sandy talked about the confusion and concern the followers of Jesus must have felt when their leader suddenly left them once again, and how uncertain the path ahead was for them. I have always felt that Pentecost embraced the winds of spring, with its message of change, but in this sermon I felt the obdurate force of those winds, and how throughout my life I have been both spun around and empowered by their unyielding strength.

Regardless of your faith walk, we can all connect to the idea that something important is taking place in a state of ambiguity, constant change, and murky messages. I do not equate DPLA with the Rapture (although, if the Rapture involved lots of books, that would be pretty cool), but I do think that we are in a moment of tumultuous change, and that in this moment we need to be both very alert and yet very open.

It is also really all right, in the end, that the DPLA does not know “how it will operate or even what it will be.” If they did, they’d be wrong. DPLA is in many ways a creative endeavor, one that will take iteration, experimentation, false paths, detours, even huge setbacks. Characters will come and go; story lines will change; even the physical locus may shift. It’s much more important that they understand where they are coming from. When I begin to write, I know the heart of the story. That never changes.

The DPLA stakeholders have given themselves a year’s deadline to produce… ah… whatever it is they are producing, during which time they are also recruiting a full-time executive director, building their workstreams, and continuing conversation. This thing, whatever it is, will not be the thing that saves us, but it will not be the thing that kills us, either; and it may perform yeoman’s duty as the winds that buoy us along the way. My guess is that in the long run the DPLA efforts will have many positive accidental byproducts, and that wherever we are going, history will note that DPLA will have been an important wayfinder, if not — time will tell — the path itself.



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