The Digital Public Library of America: What Does a New Platform Mean for Academic Research?

Robert Darnton asked in the New York Review of Books blog nearly two years ago: “Can we create a National Digital Library?” 1 Anyone who recalls reference homework exercises checking bibliographic information for United States imprints versus British or French will certainly remember the United States does not have a national library in the sense of a library that collects all the works of that country and creates a national bibliography 2 Certain libraries, such as the Library of Congress, have certain prerogatives for collection and dissemination of standards 3, but there is no one library that creates a national bibliography. Such it was for print, and so it remains even more so for digital. So when Darnton asks that–as he goes on to illuminate further in his article–he is asking a much larger question about  libraries in the United States. European and Asian countries have created national digital libraries as part of or in addition to their national print libraries.  The question is: if others can do it, why can’t we? Furthermore, why can’t we join those libraries with our national digital library? The DPLA has  announced collaboration with Europeana, which has already had notable successes with digitizing content and making it and its metadata freely available. This indicates that we could potentially create a useful worldwide digital library, or at least a North American/European one.The dream of Paul Otlet’s universal bibliography seems once again to be just out of reach.

In this post, I want to examine what the Digital Public Library of America claims to do, and what approaches it is taking. It is still new enough and there are still enough unanswered questions to give any sort of final answer to whether this will actually be the national digital library. Nonetheless, there seems to be enough traction and, perhaps more importantly, funding that we should pay close attention to what is delivered in April 2013.

Can we reach a common vision about the nature of the DPLA?

The planning for the DPLA started in the  fall of 2010 when Harvard’s Berkman Center received a grant from the Sloan Foundation to begin planning the project in earnest. The initial idea was to digitize all the materials which it was legal to digitize, and create a platform that would be accessible to all people in the US (or nationally). Google had already proved that it was possible, so it seemed that with many libraries working together it would be concievable to repeat their sucesses, but with solely non-commerical motives  4.

The initials stages of planning brought out many different ideas and perspectives about the philosophical and practical components of the DPLA, many of which are still unanswered. The theme of debate that has emerged are whether the DPLA would be a true “public” library, and what in fact ought to be in such a library. David Rothman argues that the DPLA as described by Darnton would be a wonderful tool for making humanities research easy and viable for more people, but would not solve the problems of making popular e-books  accessible through libraries or getting students up-to-date textbooks. The latter two aims are much more challenging than getting access to public domain or academic materials because a lot more money is at stake 5.

One of the projects for the Audience and Content workstream is to figure out how average Americans might actually use a digital public library of America. One of the potential use cases is a student who can just use DPLA to write a whole paper on the Iriquois Nations. Teachers and librarians posted some questions about this in the comments, including questioning whether it is appropriate to tell students to use one portal for all research. We generally counsel students to check multiple sources–and getting students used to searching one place that happens to be appropriate for searching one topic may not work if the DPLA has nothing available on say, the latest computer technology.

Digital content and the DPLA

What content the DPLA will provide will surely become more clear over the following months. They have appointed Emily Gore as Director of Content, and continue to hold further working groups on content and audience. The DPLA website promises a remarkable vision for content:

The DPLA will incorporate all media types and formats including the written record—books, pamphlets, periodicals, manuscripts, and digital texts—and expanding into visual and audiovisual materials in concert with existing repositories. In order to lay a solid foundation for its collections, the DPLA will begin with works in the public domain that have already been digitized and are accessible through other initiatives. Further material will be added incrementally to this basic foundation, starting with orphan works and materials that are in copyright but out-of-print. The DPLA will also explore models for digital lending of in-copyright materials. The content that is contributed to or funded by the DPLA will be made available, including through bulk download, with no new restrictions, via a service available to libraries, museums, and archives in the United States, with use and reuse governed only by public law.  6

All of these models exist in one way or another already, however, so how is this something new?

The major purveyors of out of copyright digital book content are Google Books and HathiTrust. The potential problems with Google Books are obvious just in the name–Google is a publicly traded company with aspirations to be the hub of all world information. Privacy and availability, not to mention legality, are a few of the concerns. HathiTrust is a collective of research universities digitizing collections, many in concert with Google Books, but the full text of these books in a convenient format is generally only available to members of HathiTrust. HathiTrust faced a lawsuit from the Authors Guild about its digitization of orphan works, which is an issue the DPLA is also planning to address.

Other projects exist trying to make currently in copyright digital books more accessible, of which Unglue.it is probably best known. This requires a critical mass of people to actively work to pay to release a book into the public domain, and so may not serve the scholar with a unique research project. Some future plans for the DPLA include to obtain funds to pay authors for use–but this may or may not include releasing books into the public domain.

DPLA is not meant to include books alone. Planning so far suggests that books make a logical jumping off point. The “Concept Note” points out that “if it takes the sky as its limit, it will never get off the ground.” Despite this caution, ideally it would eventually be a portal to all types of materials already made available by cultural institutions, including datasets and government information.

Do we need another platform?

The first element of the DPLA is code–it will use open source technologies in developing a platform, and will release all code (and the tools and services this code builds) as open source software.  The so-called “Beta Sprint” that took place last year invited people to “grapple, technically and creatively, with what has already been accomplished and what still need to be developed…” 7. The winning “betas” deal largely with issues of interoperability and linked data. Certainly if a platform could be developed that solved these problems, this would be a huge boon to the library world.

Getting involved withe DPLA and looking to the future

While the governance structure is becoming more formal, there are plenty of opportunities to become involved with the DPLA. Six working groups (called workstreams) were formed to discuss content, audience, legal issues, business models, governance, and technical issues. Becoming involved with the DPLA is as easy as signing up for an  account on the wiki and noting your name and comments on the working group page in which are interested. You can also sign up mailing lists to stay involved in the project. Like many such projects, the work is done by the people who show up and speak up. If you read this and have an opinion on the direction the DPLA should take, it is not difficult to make sure your opinion gets heard by the right people.

Like all writing about the DPLA since the planning began, turning to a thought experiment seems the next logical rhetorical step. Let’s say that the DPLA succeeds to the point where all public domain books in the United States are digitized and available in multiple formats to any person in the country, and a significant number of in copyright works are also available. What does this mean for libraries as a whole? Does it make public libraries research libraries? How does it change the nature of research libraries? And lastly, will all this information create a new desire for knowledge among the American people?

References
  1. Darnton, Robert. “A Library Without Walls.” NYRblog, October 4, 2010. http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2010/oct/04/library-without-walls/.
  2. McGowan, Ian. “National Libraries.” In Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences, Third Edition, 3850–3863.
  3. “Frequently Asked Questions – About the Library (Library of Congress).” Text, n.d. http://www.loc.gov/about/faqs.html#every_book
  4. Dillon, Cy. “Planning the Digital Public Library of America.” College & Undergraduate Libraries 19, no. 1 (March 2012): 101–107.
  5. Rothman, David H. “It’s Time for a National Digital-Library System.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 24, 2011, sec. The Chronicle Review. http://chronicle.com/article/Its-Time-for-a-National/126489/.
  6. “Elements of the DPLA.” Digital Public Library of America, n.d. http://dp.la/about/elements-of-the-dpla/.
  7. “Digital Public Library of America Steering Committee Announces ‘Beta Sprint’ ”, May 20, 2011. http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/newsroom/Digital_Public_Library_America_Beta_Sprint.

Design 101: design elements, part 1

Previously, I wrote about the importance of design in libraries and the design process.  Next I’d like to delve in deeper and talk about the elements of design. These elements, or components, are the pieces that make up a whole design. Design elements work together to create a successful design that communicates to your audience if used well.

Most designers would agree, the elements of design are essentially the following:

  • color
  • shape
  • line
  • space or composition
  • value
  • size
  • texture

I am also going to add typography. Though not traditionally an element, choosing type carefully and in some cases even showcasing it within your design, can transform something that meets the status quo into a higher quality design. In carefully crafting your design with an understanding of the elements, your design may be considered not only professional, but memorable.

Rather than talk about all of the elements in this post. I’m going to focus on three to get you started and then I’ll come back to typography and perhaps others in future posts.

With color, composition, and size down, you can create a strong design whether you are making a flyer, sign, promotional materials, or webpage. To create a design considered high quality, nuanced, or sophisticated by design standards, you will need to push further and understand all of the elements. This post is just to get yourself started and able to make something professional that will add to your credibility as a professional organization.

http://frankandjan.com/WIT/?tag=comic-sans

Some have asked me in the past, what credibility has to do with design and libraries and it’s a good question. Without delving too deeply, you can see the above photo where someone has made a simple sign using the typeface comic sans and in response someone calls them out for being unprofessional in using it. Honestly, I have mixed feelings about this image but it still illustrates a valid point: in creating bad design or making poor design choices, you may look unprofessional to your audience. Good design will build trust and credibility with your users. I’ll be including examples throughout this post to show different elements and where they work.

Color

Starting with color, there is an enormous amount of resources on color theory and designing with color. There are scholars who have made a living on researching color alone. To have a successful design, you don’t need to be a color expert but it helps if you have some basics down to understand how color works and doesn’t. It’s a choice to include color in your design- plenty of successful designs are black and white or have minimal color and it’s part of the aesthetic and the message they want to convey.

Sometimes one color is enough; this is called a monochromatic color scheme.

Employing the use of opposite colors on the spectrum together is complementary.

There are numerous ways of combining colors and using them effectively in design. When using color the most important piece to keep in mind is using color consciously, thoughtfully and being aware of individuals who may have vision impairments. You can use many colors in a design, but if not done so with care, it may not achieve the look or convey the message intended. In some cases, misuse of color may not be readable. There are a number of resources available that can assist in putting together a good color palette as well ensuring your colors are accessible.

The designer Luke Beard applies color well on his website. While Beard uses color minimally, as you stay on his website, the color rotates revealing various color combinations in a fun and eye-catching way. The selected colors compliment his website and overall design. If you don’t stay on the page long enough to experience the change in color, you don’t lose much value since the colors work well and the design itself is successful and strong. The change in color is an additional feature intended to delight his audience.
http://lukesbeard.com/

Composition

Composition is where the pieces lay on the page in relation to the page sides, edges and other pieces. Composition may include: an illustration or a logo, title text, headlines, or a call to action, and smaller elements such as a block of text or links. There is a decision to be made about what the most important elements are. Not every element should have the same amount of weight in importance.

In laying out the composition, you’ll want to pay attention to what is referred to as alignment. Often in design you’ll see a strong left alignment where several elements begin at the same starting point on a page; this is fairly conventional and a good choice. Left alignment is certainly not the only successful way to create a composition, but it rarely fails. As the design is being formed it’s good to think of the elements and pieces you are working with abstractly. Imagine them as puzzle pieces or building blocks. Many designers use methods such as the grid, wireframing, or abstract sketching to get a rough sense of the composition. The grid is a good place to start and is a current design trend. My best advice is as you build together the pieces, keeps things somewhat loose and flexible so that you think of the overall page and the pieces in relation to each other, rather than get bogged down by one piece.

http://www.jessicahische.is/designing

On Jessica Hische’s website, she balances a lot of information on each page without losing the quality of the overall design. She showcases portfolio pieces and allows those designs to shine while the composition, typography, and color compliment her efforts and don’t compete for attention. To the right of the large image, Hische aligns the subheading and links to the left, along with the various elements below the link list. Organizing the site in this way creates order and contributes positively to the overall design. Hische devotes a good deal of the composition to white space. Doing so allows the viewer’s eye to rest and directs them back toward the focus, in this case the photo and information on the portfolio piece she is showcasing.

Size

Size is related to composition in that the size of one shape or block of text will relate to others around it.

So, for example, if you have a title, subtitle, author, and publisher and you want to emphasize the title above everything else, then the title will naturally be larger in size. Next, you may want the subtitle to be less than the title but larger than the author or publisher. In some cases, you may want to make the author name the largest element- these are all design decisions relating to size that will convey different things to the audience who sees it.

http://trentwalton.com/2011/05/10/fit-to-scale/

On Trent Walton’s website, he’s making a point about responsive web design (a topic I hope to delve into in a future post). To communicate his message, he’s using size and color. The bold color and size of the title, Fit to Scale, captures viewer’s attention. There is also variation in size within the text block, drawing out the first sentence for emphasis. The navigation is also a different size, easy to see when it’s needed but not in the way of the message of the page.

Putting design into practice

Now that we’ve gone over some basics, I recommend exploring what designs out there speak to you. Develop a collection of designs you like; whether they are websites, flyers, posters, etc., if there is something you like about the design then study it. Much like writers who read a lot to become better writers, designers will study good design and analyze what makes it good in order to become a better designer.

Get feedback from other designers or others who understand design. There are a number of excellent portfolio websites out there that have extremely rich communities willing to offer a critique in exchange for a critique. These are excellent resources that are invaluable to designers, as meaningful feedback is very difficult to find:

Look more deeply into what elements the designer has employed to make the design successful and ask yourself some questions: what colors did they use? what is the balance between the different colors used? is there whitespace? how is the composition set up? can you identify alignments? how did the designer break apart size?

If there is a design you don’t like it is worth exploring why you don’t like it. Ask the same kinds of questions. What makes it fail to you? Figure out what it is that makes you react strongly

This is a way to get yourself to really think in a design way, observe, and subsequently learn about design. In seeing, you will be a step closer to designing well.

If you can recognize, study and thoughtfully employ these elements and make them work together harmoniously you can make a good design. Keep things simple- better to err on the side of restraint than give too much.

Don’t forget that in designing, you are communicating. Think about the message. What do you want to say and how can you attempt to convince your users to believe you? Are you earning credibility? Trust? What kind of atmosphere are you creating?

Design is an opportunity to give our users a positive experience and perhaps even to delight them.


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