Last week I had a little time to catch up on some of the articles I had saved to read later in Instapaper. I came upon this piece from Robert Darnton in The New York Review of Books. Darnton talks about the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), which launches this week.
Given the way the US is portrayed in the media here, Europeans could be forgiven for thinking that all Americans are like Gordon Gecko. So how ironic that in the US, the DPLA revives the ideals and spirit of the enlightened Founding Fathers, while in France the Bibliothèque National is operating hand-in-hand with publishers to digitize unavailable books with public money and let publishers offer them for sale.
By rejecting the “monopoly of knowledge” that would have accompanied a commercial offer for access to these digitized works, the DPLA sounds like what every citizen should expect from public institutions. Except that it was not a government-funded project but an initiative by individuals and private institutions that grew into a public-private partnership that has recently become a non-profit entity.
The story of the creation of the DPLA sounds like a fine example of mass collaboration supported by networked communication systems,
The groups grew and developed a momentum of their own, drawing on voluntary labor; crowdsourcing (the practice of appealing for contributions to an undefined group, usually an online community, as in the case of Wikipedia); and discussion through websites, listservs, open meetings, and highly focused workshops. Hundreds of people became actively involved, and thousands more participated through an endless, noisy debate conducted on the Internet. Plenary meetings in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Chicago drew large crowds and a much larger virtual audience, thanks to texting, tweeting, streaming, and other electronic connections.
Forty volunteers submitted “betas”—prototypes of the software that the DPLA might use, which were then to be subjected to “beta testing,” a user-based form of review. After several rounds of testing and reworking, a platform was developed that will provide links to content from library collections throughout the country and that will aggregate their metadata—i.e., catalog-type information that identifies digital files and describes their content. The metadata will be aggregated in a repository located in what the designers call the “back end” of the platform, while an application programming interface (API) in the “front end” will make it possible for all kinds of software to transmit content in diverse ways to individual users.
Over two hundred years ago, France played an important role in helping American revolutionaries achieve independence from tyranny. With DPLA, the US will give something back to France and to the world. The DPLA shows that there is an alternative to the lop-sided model that France has chosen to adopt. In France, publishers stand to gain from the digitization of “out of print” books at the expense of writers and readers; the law contains limited provisions for open access and the publisher can revoke them. By its example, perhaps the DPLA will help draw support for the enlightened revolutionaries in France who seek to overturn the “monopoly on knowledge” that has been imposed there.
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