Today and tomorrow I’m at the Digital Public Library of America meeting in Washington, DC. I’m a “convener” (I’m hoping that means “judge, jury, and executioner”) of the “Audience and Participation Workstream,” which is trying to assess who will use the DPLA and why. Others are working on technical, legal, financial, and content questions. Questions at today’s small meeting of conveners loomed large in all of those areas: the DPLA may or may not have in-copyright materials, it may or may not be an meta-platform or a centralized resource, it may focus on popular content or the long tail. Obviously these are all questions that will have to be resolved over the next 18 months.
But at today’s meeting I kept coming back to a more basic question, a question faced by any new website or digital project: Why would anyone use it? For something as ambitious (and potentially as expensive) as the DPLA, there is the further question: Why would anyone choose to visit the DPLA first, rather than, say, commercial providers like Google or Amazon, or non-profit entities such as the Internet Archive’s Open Library or OCLC’s Worldcat? Or as Ed Summers more succinctly put it last spring: In what way will the DPLA be better than the web?
Because of these critical root questions, I believe the DPLAs faces a huge uphill battle upon launch. Today, I started a list of elements that could help draw an audience to the DPLA—in the same way that public libraries continue to attract huge numbers of patrons. This list represents a shift of my views about the DPLA from the meeting at Harvard in the spring, where I advocated for advanced research modes. (For this reason, I think some of the data-mining DPLA “beta sprint” prototypes are headed in the wrong direction, at least for this initial phase.) I now think that, at least at first, we have to focus on the P in DPLA.
So what are the characteristics of public libraries that we can leverage for the DPLA?
1) Trust. Why would your average reader or researcher go to dp.la rather than google.com? Because people trust their public library enormously; they understand that the library isn’t out to profit from them, but to serve them. The DPLA should capitalize on this, and posters for the DPLA should end up in the entryway of every public library in America.
2) Local and relevant. Just as people visit the local library or historical society to learn more about their town or neighborhood, they should see, when visiting mytown.dp.la, digital collections of local content (old photographs, genealogies, etc) in addition to lists of books, videos, and other global content. Google or Worldcat may direct you to your local library for a copy of a book, but they don’t curate and present true local content.
3) Fully open and hopefully fully free (at least to the reader), or at least less expensive for popular materials. If by some miracle the legal workstream is able to acquire digital copies of popular books from large publishers, in a way that works better than the maddening Overdrive (where the one digital copy of a book you want is always checked out), then that would be a major extension of a traditional advantage of the public library into the digital age.
4) Easier. Starting research on most topics on the web is still maddening. Bing‘s launch marketing campaign against Google (“you can’t find anything”) was onto something. Can the web presence for the DPLA somehow replicate (or act as a middleman for) the experience of asking a trusted, knowledgeable librarian for help, and direct students, curious people, and serious researchers to an array of materials that help them better than a Google search?
I’m likely missing other initial “magnets,” and am happy to take other suggestions in the comments below. But in short, it seems to me that for the DPLA to be the first choice on the web, it has to take maximal advantage of trust, relevance, and ease versus the general (and mostly commercial) web.