Digitizing the Culture of Print: The Digital Public Library of America and Other Urgent Projects

Thursday, November 1, 2012
5-7 PM
E14-633 (MIT Media Lab extension)


The role of the library in the digital age is one of the compelling questions of our era.  How are libraries coping with the promise and perils of our impending digital future?  What urgent initiatives are underway to assure universal access to our print inheritance and to the digital communication forms of the future?  How is the very idea of the library changing?  These and related questions will engage our distinguished panelists, who represent both research and public libraries and one of whom serves on the steering committee for the Digital Public Library of America


Robert Darnton
is Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor at Harvard, Director of the Harvard University Library and one of America's most distinguished historians. He serves on the steering committee of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) and has been a trustees of the New York Public Library (NYPL) since 1995. In a June essay in the New York Review of Books, Darnton defended a NYPL plan to liquidate some branches in the system while renovating the main Fifth Avenue branch. The essay sparked a number of responses, and this October
he responded to that outpouring with another essay, "The New York Public Library: The Turning Point." In November of last year, he provided a status report on the DPLA. Darnton is the author of many influential books including The Case for Books, Past, Present, and Future and The Great Cat Massacre.

Susan Flannery is director of libraries for the City of Cambridge and past president of the Massachusetts Library Association.

Ann Wolpert is director of libraries at MIT and oversees the MIT Press.


Video of Digitizing the Culture of Print is available.


A downloadable podcast of Digitizing the Culture of Print is available.


[This is an edited summary, not a verbatim trancsript.]

By Katie Edgerton, CMS

Photos by Greg Peverill-Conti

Robert Darnton

For the past two years, I’ve felt like a missionary for this thing called the Digital Public Library of America,” said Robert Darnton, Director of the Harvard University Library and a member of the steering committee for the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). An initiative currently housed in Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, the DPLA plans to aggregate research libraries’ digital collections, making them freely available online and at public branch libraries across the United States.

“I tend to get carried away by the splendor of it all, as missionaries sometimes do, and the DPLA certainly sounds utopian,” Darnton said. But, he argued, the American idea of public libraries also springs from  a utopian, Enlightenment impulse. Libraries were established in the United States because our forbearers believed that “knowledge should be available to everyone and a republic can only thrive if the citizenry is well informed,” said Darnton.

Despite this lofty vision, there’s a dark side of the history of libraries, Darnton said. “In actual fact, libraries have often been closed. Even the great library of Alexandria was not open to the public. It was a place to keep books for the glory of the Ptolemaic dynasty.” Universities were no exception. The libraries of Oxford and Cambridge were private. “The great colleges of Oxford kept their intellectual richness behind high walls and closed gates.” Even today, tourists have to look through cracks in walls and holes in gates to glimpse the intellectual richness locked away on the inside of Oxford’s libraries.

But the public library system in the United States opened the gates.  When  the Boston Public Library was established in 1848, the motto “Free to All,” was carved over the main door. Anyone, from any walk of life, was free to enter. “We want to continue that mission, breaking down walls, through the Digital Public Library of America,” Darnton said.

Boston Public Library facade

The DPLA was launched after an inaugural meeting at Harvard several years ago. Darnton and his team brought together foundation leaders, directors of libraries, and technology experts. “Within 30 minutes we decided the DPLA was a good idea and we could make it happen,” Darnton said. “We founded a secretariat in Harvard's Berkman Center, with a staff of two and a half, now expanded to eight. Our ambition was to see the DPLA become a distributed digital library system for the entire country.”

“The DPLA is not a grand structure with a dome on top and a database underneath,” Darnton continued. The DPLA team hopes to create a system that forges relationships between great research institutions and smaller public libraries across the United States. “We want to help small public libraries scan their holdings,” Darnton said. “We plan to help branch libraries digitize the records of their community, and organize the metadata so that it can be integrated into a national system.”

Despite a great deal of enthusiasm and good will about the project, “we ran into a number of problems,” said Darnton. The DPLA’s expert working groups have managed to solve a number of initial challenges, specifically technical infrastructure, governance, and scope of the DPLA’s holdings.  However, copyright remains an enduring challenge. Under current plans, texts currently under copyright protection would not be available through the DPLA. 

“The DPLA is not a system for college professors,” Darnton said. “It is not just for the highbrow or elite."  The DPLA’s intended audience is anyone “interested in exploring knowledge.” The DPLA will host choice resources from great research collections of our country. "Users of the DPLA, wherever they may be, will have instant one-click access to all of this material," said Darnton. "Our ambitions are large,” he concluded, “but the beginning is small."

Ann Wolpert

"We are living in an emerging ecology of digital content," said Ann Wolpert, Director of Libraries at MIT and chair of the Management Board of the MIT Press.  “We are seeing a robust ecology of initiatives, coming spontaneously out of the American library community.”

“Libraries are charged with the keeping the research and cultural records of this country,” Wolpert said. People are now moving research into real-time experiments and systems, which will change the way the United States’ manages its cultural archive. These shifts are enabled by a faster and more reliable Internet. “The technological network is now big enough that we can build a distributed model that enables projects on this scale,” she said.

There are currently several national-scale digital library projects, Wolpert said, the DPLA “first and foremost” among them. She profiled several others initiatives, including the HathiTrust Digital Library, a partnership of major research libraries.  HathiTrust’s collection is comprised of the digital versions of the books that libraries received from the GoogleBooks digitization project.  Wolpert also mentioned Chronopolis, a consortium centered on data and image preservation, and the Digital Preservation Network, a national organization dedicated to the preservation of digital works.

The greatest challenge to these initiatives, said Wolpert, was copyright law. “Copyright constrains and confounds what libraries are trying to do in a digital environment,” she said.

Nevertheless, “copyright has important exceptions.” In its simplest form, copyright gives the person who has the right to a work control over how and when it is used. But not all uses are the same, said Wolpert. “If you're watching a film designed to entertain you for entertainment purposes, then you should pay for it. But if you're watching it for the purpose of learning something—there's a distinction under copyright law.” Often educational usage of copyrighted material falls under “fair use”—absolving the user from paying a fee.  Copyright law also has provision for "transformative uses." If a person is using copyrighted material in a way other than its creator intended, there’s latitude under the law.

Various court cases have upheld the exceptions to copyright law. For the first time, “we're feeling encouraged that provisions in the law may be interpreted by the courts in favor of fair use,” Wolpert said. More rulings in this direction would only help digitization projects grow.

Susan Flannery

“There’s been a lot of talk about the public, but not the public library,” said Susan Flannery, Director of Libraries for the City of Cambridge. “There's a world of difference between the public library and the academic research library.”

The purpose of American public libraries is to foster democracy through the creation of an informed citizenry, Flannery said. Although “that sounds lofty, the implementation can be messy.” When thinking about public libraries, it’s important to understand that not all libraries are created equal. “Some libraries are well funded, and some struggle for resources,” she said. Public libraries have also had to withstand a lot of press questioning their future. Libraries face a lack of national willingness to fund public entities. The growth of e-content and e-readers also raise questions about the future of the library.

The library’s first mission is as a child's door to learning. “Public libraries are cradle to grave institutions,” Flannery said. Another goal is to support independent learning for the self-motivated teenager, middle schooler, or adult. For someone who wants to learn outside of an academic setting, “up until 10 years ago the public library was the only game in town.” The library also functions as a community center. People can come in to talk about books, and even to learn to read and write in English.

“A new job libraries have taken on is to help to bridge the technological divide,” Flannery said. “Certain people have all the gadgets they need to take advantage of the Internet's fabulous resources, but many people do not. One mission is to make that technology available to people at no cost, and the other is to help people learn how to take advantage of that technology.”

Although funding is a perpetual issue for libraries, said Flannery, new technologies also pose a challenge. “We have to ride two or three horses at the same time,” she said, “for instance, we buy e-books as well as printed books.” The Cambridge library only stopped buying VHS tapes three years ago. “You won't believe how many complaints we got,” she said.

Licensing agreements are another issue, Flannery said. Currently, many libraries don’t provide full-text search of their electronic resources. While it’s technologically possible, digital licensing agreements won’t allow it. When libraries—and private users—purchase e-books, they are simply licensing them. That license can change or be revoked at any time.

“The future of the public library will hinge on how we will be able to purchase content,” Flannery said.  “Most public library users want new things. The books we purchased in last 12 months went out an average of 6.5 times last year,” she said. “The rest went out 2.44 times.”  If digital repositories like the DPLA can only provide items that aren’t under copyright protection, the average public library user won’t take advantage of those resources regularly.  “I don't know how the DPLA could take on the traditional role of a public library with the copyright issues it’s facing about acquiring new content,” Flannery said.

“I agree,” said Darnton.  “I don't think the DPLA can fulfill the roles of a public library. The users of public libraries tend to be interested in recent, fictional material. We at the DPLA haven't developed a policy on that kind of content yet. Myself, I advocate a moving wall. For instance, perhaps we shouldn’t make a works available through the DPLA that were published the last five years. If the DPLA doesn’t get involved in the current commercial circuit, that will minimize conflict with publishers and authors, and also not interfere with public libraries.”

Licensing is a key issue when it comes to content, said Wolpert. “Anyone that has a Kindle e-reader knows you don't really own that book. Content is moving to a legal environment where you can't even look at something unless you've signed a licensing agreement. “This migration is profoundly changing what people can read and how they read.” 

David Thorburn

“To me, this seems to be the profound issue,” said moderator and Communications Forum Director David Thorburn. “Our idea of what a book is and our access to it is changing. This change lies at the heart of how technologists are positioning older texts.” Licensing restricts how we use books in profound ways.

“It's worse than that,” said Flannery. “If you buy a magazine subscription in hard copy, you own it. If you buy it online, and don’t renew, you lose what you paid for the previous year.”  This is true for libraries as well as private consumers. If libraries stop subscribing to research services, they lose access to them. Traditionally, libraries have preserved historical sources. But licensing agreements change that paradigm. “Libraries aren't buying resources to keep for the future. They're renting them. And once they stop paying rent, those resources go away.”

“Content has always been commercial,” said Flannery. “And libraries have always paid for content. Commerce is not necessarily the enemy, but content creators don't know how to sell electronic resources to libraries in a way that makes sense for them or us.” For those of us that don't want to go back to the oral tradition, she concluded, “preservation is a major issue.”

The opposing forces are commercialization and democratization, said Darnton. “We live in a commercial world. There are real costs everywhere you turn.” But, although the universe of knowledge is growing at astronomical pace, access to it is shrinking. “We've got more and more knowledge, and less and less access to it.”

These are big complicated problems and they have to be solved at scale, said Wolpert. In academic publishing, authors are creating a groundswell of resistance to commercialization. “Authors are the key to all this,” she argued. “If publishers can't attract authors, they don't have anything to sell.”

It’s important to remember that there are unimaginable positives to the technology we have today, said Flannery. “Think of all the information we have - free, open.”  Technology has allowed libraries to cooperate with each other in unbelievable ways. “Last year we borrowed over 200,000 items from other communities for our patrons,” she said. Without the Internet that wouldn’t have been possible. Libraries are also banding together to buy e-content. “We could never have done this without technology,” she said. “Twenty years ago it would have been pie in the sky.”

Audience Discussion

“What is the relationship between DPLA and public library system?” asked an audience member. “What is DPLA's responsibility to the public library system?”

The DPLA will make the totality of our cultural heritage available to public libraries, said Darnton. “It will—at one click—open a resource potentially as great as the Library of Congress.” The DPLA will also help public libraries with scanning, curating, and preserving local resources.

“If you were to sort the key legislative or government-controlled issue taking place at this moment, what would it be?” asked Professor Jim Paradis, Director of Comparative Media Studies. “What is the key conversation at the legislative level?”

“Copyright is a huge issue,” said Flannery. “The government should also tell vendors that they can't discriminate against libraries in selling their wares.”  For instance, some film studios won't sell newly leased DVDs to public libraries until six months after their release date.

So-called “orphaned” works are another key issue, said Darnton. It would also be helpful to have a provision that if a vendor of electronic content goes out of business and that content is not sold to another vendor, the “orphaned” content library goes into the public domain to hold for posterity.

I used to work in an archive, said Jason Lipshin, a graduate student in Comparative Media Studies. One fear archivists had was once they made collections available digitally, people had no incentive to come to physical space. What do you make of that concern? Are there some items where we just can't capture their original nature online?

Robert Darnton

Many people who are worried that archives will no longer have visitors or researchers don't understand extent of archives, said Darnton. At Harvard, there are over 4,000,000 objects in manuscript, and “only a fraction of a fraction are available online.” Archives are unimaginably vast, and most digitation initiatives only scratch the surface.

Physical visits are the wrong metric, said Wolpert. Digitizing puts resources and content in front of people who would never have visited in the first place. It exposes the archive to a larger audience.

“My interest is in getting information into peoples' hands,” agreed Flannery. “If the paradigm switches and we get our visitors online and not through the door, that’s fine with me.”