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 in Libraries


photo by kvanhorn on flickr some rights reserved

What is the importance of design in libraries?

Libraries have users, and those users go through an experience, whether they walk through the doors and into the building or use the library’s online website and resources.

Why should we care?

  • Design can give users a good experience or a bad one.

Think about when you go to a store. Any store. The experience you have can be improved by design, or hindered by design. For example, if you go to a store in person and you are trying to find a particular item- signs have the potential to help you find that item. But what if you had too many signs? Or what if those signs are unreadable?

Think about when you are at a restaurant. You certainly want to have an enjoyable dining experience. From the time you walk through the door to the time you leave, everything you encounter and experience has an impact on you. When you sit down to the table and open the menu, you want to be able to easily read the menu items. Have you ever been to a restaurant where it was hard to decide on what to order because the menu was difficult to read? This seems to be a common occurrence, yet a simple well thought out menu can change that experience entirely. And great design can even give people an emotional experience that they remember deeply. Think about a time when you went to a restaurant and had a great experience; think about what details made that experience great.

  • Now take these concepts and redirect them to libraries.

When a user walks into the door of the library, what is their experience? Put yourself in the users shoes. Are signs unfriendly or hard to read? Is it difficult to find what they might be looking for? Think of design as a way of providing service to users. Good design takes training and study, however, within a relatively small timeframe, anyone can understand design basics and fundamentals to create decent design that communicates. Librarians are good at organizing things and within design lies organization. Designing is simply organization and choices about elements such as typography, composition, contrast, and color to name a few.

  • Design is also about restraint; what you don’t do.

This is an important distinction because often people get excited when they explore elements of design and want to put everything they love all into one design. Often this doesn’t work very well and it comes back to making good choices and sometimes leaving out an element you really love but doesn’t work in the overall design you are building. It’s okay though- designers collect like librarians do and we just save that good stuff for another design that it will really work well in. Keeping a little library and saving elements and inspirations are part of being a good designer. Whether online or in paper- both practices are good to get into. The tool Pinterest serves this purpose well but any tool or method for collecting design elements and inspiration is good practice. When you are looking for ideas- don’t forget to go to that tool to give you new ideas or to help get you thinking in new ways.

  • Good design in libraries leads to a quality user experience.

This concept of design can extend to all kinds of user experiences in the library, including layout of a room, the library’s web presence, the building’s architecture, furniture choices, marketing materials, and more. But let’s start simple- start in your library and examine what you have for signs. Ask this: what does this sign communicate to our user? How does it look and feel to you? What if this sign were in a store where you were making a purchase, how would it communicate in that scenario? Ask users what they think of your signs as well. Developing an understanding of what works and what doesn’t, will only lead to better design and thus better user experience.

 


The Start-Up Library

“Here’s an analogy. The invention of calculus was shocking because for a long time it had simply been presumed that you couldn’t divide by zero. The integrity of math itself seemed to depend on the presumption. Then some genius titans came along and said, “Yeah, maybe you can’t divide by zero, but what would happen if you “could”? We’re going to come as close to doing it as we can, to see what happens.” – David Foster Wallace*

What if a library operated more like an Internet start-up and less like a library?

To be a library in the digital era is to steward legacy systems and practices of an era long past. Contemporary librarianship is at its worst when it accepts the poorly crafted vended services and offers poorly thought through service models, simply because this is the way we have always operated.

Internet start-ups, in the decade of 2010, heavily feature software as a service. The online presence to the Internet start-up is of foundational concern since it isn’t simply a “presence” to the start-up — the online environment is the only environment for the Internet start-up.

Search services would act and look contemporary

If we were an Internet start-up, we wouldn’t use instructional services as a crutch that would somehow correct poor design in our catalogs or other discovery layers. We wouldn’t accept the poorly designed vendor databases we currently accept. We would ask for interfaces that act and look contemporary, and if vendors did not deliver, we would make our own. And we would do this in 30-day time-lines, not six months and not years to roll out, as is the current lamentable state of library software services.

Students in the current era will look at a traditional library catalog search box and say: “that looks very 90s” – we shouldn’t be amused by that comment, unless of course we are trying to look 20 years out of date.

We would embrace perpetual beta.

If the library thought of its software services more like Internet start-ups, we would not be so cautious — we would perpetually improve and innovate in our software offerings. Think of the technology giants Google and Apple, they are never content to rest on laurels, everyday they get up and they invent like their lives depended on it. Do we?

We wouldn’t settle.

For years we’ve accepted legacy ILS systems – we need to move away from accepting the status quo, the way things have always been done, and the way we always work is not the way we should always work — if the information environments have changed, shouldn’t this be reflected in the library’s software services?

We would be bold.

We need to look at massive re-wiring in the way we think about software as a service in libraries; we are smarter and better than mediocrity.

The notion of software services in libraries may be dramatically improved if we thought of our gateways and virtual experiences more like Internet start-ups conceptualize their do or die services; which are seemingly made more effective and efficient every thirty to sixty days.

If Internet start-ups ran their web services the way libraries contently run legacy systems, the company would surely fold, or more likely, never have attracted seed funding to start operating as a start-up. Let’s do our profession a favor and turn the lights out on the library way of running libraries. Let’s run our library as if it were an Internet start-up.

___

* also: “… this purely theoretical construct wound up yielding incredibly practical results. Suddenly you could plot the area under curves and do rate-change calculations. Just about every material convenience we now enjoy is a consequence of this “as if.” But what if Leibniz and Newton had wanted to divide by zero only to show jaded audiences how cool and rebellious they were? It’d never have happened, because that kind of motivation doesn’t yield results. It’s hollow. Dividing-as-if-by-zero was titanic and ingenuous because it was in the service of something. The math world’s shock was a price they had to pay, not a payoff in itself.” – David Foster Wallace


The End of Academic Library Circulation?

What Library Circulation Data Shows

Unless current patterns change, by 2020 university libraries will no longer have circulation desks. This claim may seem hyperbolic if you’ve been observing your library, or even if you’ve been glancing over ACRL or National Center for Education Statistics data. If you have been looking at the data, you might be familiar with a pattern that looks like this:

total circulationThis chart shows total circulation for academic libraries, and while there’s a decline it certainly doesn’t look like it will hit zero anytime soon, definitely not in just 8 years. But there is a problem with this data and this perspective on library statistics.  When we talk about “total circulation” we’re talking about a property of the library, we’re not really thinking about users.

Here’s another set of data that you need to look at to really understand circulation:
fall enrollmentsAcademic enrollment has been rising rapidly.  This means more students, which in turns means greater circulation.  So if total circulation has been dropping despite an increase in users then something else must be going on.  So rather than asking the question “How many items does my library circulate?” we need to alter that to “How many items does the average student checkout?”

Here is that data:

circulation per student

This chart shows the upper/lower quartiles and median for circulation per FTE student.  As you can see this data shows a much more dramatic drop in the circulation of library materials. Rising student populations hide this fact.

xkcd
[source: http://xkcd.com/605/]

But 2020? Can I be serious?  The simple linear regression model in the charts is probably a good predictor of 2012, but not necessarily 2020. Hitting zero without flattening out seems pretty unlikely. However, it is worth noting the circulation per user in the lower quartile for less than 4 year colleges reached 1.1 in 2010. If you’re averaging around 1 item per user, every user that takes out 2 items means there’s another who has checked out 0.

What’s Happening Here?

Rather than waste too much time trying to predict a future we’ll live in in less than a decade, let’s explore the more interesting question: “What’s happening here?”

By far the number one hypothesis I get when I show people this data is “Clearly this is just because of the rise of e-journals and e-books”. This hypothesis is reasonable: What has happened is simply that users have switched from print to electronic. This data represents a shift in media, nothing more.

But there are 2 very large problems with this hypothesis.

First, print journal circulation is not universal among academic libraries. In the cases where there is no print journal circulation the effect of e-journals would not be present in circulation data. However, I don’t have information to point out exactly how many academic libraries did circulate print journals. Maybe the effect of e-journals on just the libraries that do circulate serials could effect the data for everyone. The data we have already shown resolves this issue. Libraries that did circulate serials would have higher circulation per user than those that did not. By showing different quartiles we can address this discrepancy in the data between libraries that did and did not circulate journals. If you look at the data you’ll see that indeed the upper quartile does seem to have a higher rate of decline, but not enough to validate this hypothesis. The median and lower quartiles also experience this shift, so something else must be at work.

Second, e-books were not largely adopted until the mid 2000s, yet the decline preceding 2000 is at least as steep as after. If you look at the chart below you’ll notice that ebook acquisition rates did not exceed print until 2010:

ebooks vs printEbooks, of course, do have an effect on usage, but they’re not the primary factor in this change.

So clearly we must reject the hypothesis that this is merely a media shift. Certainly the shift from print to electronic has had some effect, but it is not the sole cause. If it’s not a shift in media, the most reasonable explanation is that it’s a shift in user behavior.  Students are simply not using books (in any format) as much as they used to.

What is Causing this Shift in User Behavior?

The next question is what is the cause of this shift.

I think the most simple answer is the web. 1996 is the first data point showing a drop in circulation. Of course the web was quite small then, but AOL and Yahoo! were already around, and the Internet Archive had been founded.  If you think back to a pre-web time, pretty much anything you needed to know more about required a trip to the library and checking out a book.

The most important thing to take away is that, regardless of cause, user behavior has changed and by all data points is still changing.  In the end, the greatest question is how will academic libraries adapt?  It is clear that the answer is not as simple as a transition to a new media. To survive, librarians must find the answer before we have enough data to prove these predictions.

If you enjoyed exploring this data please check out Library Data and follow @librarydata on twitter.

Data Source:

About our guest author: Will Kurt is a software engineer at Articulate Global, pursuing his masters in computer science at the University of Nevada, Reno and is a former librarian. He holds an MLIS from Simmons College and has worked in various roles in public, private and special libraries at organizations such as: MIT, BBN Technologies and the University of Nevada, Reno. He has written and presented on a range of topics including: play, user interfaces, functional programming and data
visualization.