Strength in Unity

I’ve been following the debate about the potential “forking” of the Digital Public Library of America project. This is a project that is going to continue to generate a lot of intelligent commentary.

The name says it all. The excellent intention is to create a Digital Public Library for the U.S.  Based on following the listserv, there has been a lot of energy, which can sometimes seem to be more heat than light, invested in the determination of the definition of each individual word in that name–Digital, Public, Library, and I swear, sometimes even America.

But what would a Digital Public Library of America be? The phrase “Public Library” has a certain image in most people’s minds. For better or for ill, public libraries in America have become associated with best-sellers and helping kids with their homework, as well as storytimes for pre-schoolers.  That is not currently part of the vision of the DPLA.  So far, the Steering Committee has seemed primarily interested in more scholarly aspects of a potential DPLA, something more akin to an expanded American Memory project combined with Project Gutenberg and other out-of-print classic books.

This has led to discussions of a possible “fork” in the project, to dropping “Public” from the name, and to a therefore separate Public Library based DPLA-type project driven by Public Library needs.  The point-counterpoint argument on this topic was recently published by Library Journal.

There are cogent arguments both for and against a “fork” in the road.  But the arguments for the “fork” all seem to be based on human behavior. Academic librarians and public librarians are used to thinking and behaving in certain ways, and so we tend to go on doing so. But it doesn’t have to be that way. When I worked in Alaska, there was virtually no division between the academic librarians and public librarians in the Alaska Library Association. There simply weren’t enough of us to not work closely together. Also, we all crossed over from one type of library to another too often to not know how the other half lived and worked. When a big state conference attendance means 300 people, everyone knows everyone.

Nate Hill makes the point in his posting on the PLA blog that the Digital Public Library of America needs to be a big tent.  It is the libraries that will determine how its resources get used in each community.  Academic libraries will use its resources for scholarly purposes. Public libraries and their users will use its resources for a variety of purposes;some will, in fact, be scholarly, but others will be self-help, recreational, or whatever flights of fancy the user chooses. But first the resource needs to be there. And to paraphrase that famous movie line, “If we build it, they will come.”

This is going to be the Digital Public Library of America. As a public librarian, I know there are a lot of things that are important to public library users that will need to be included to make this truly a public library. But usage patterns are changing, and we need to move forward. A “fork” is not the answer. There is strength in unity. All types of libraries are currently being questioned about future relevancy in the face of the digital onslaught. The Digital Public Library of America is our collective answer–our future. We need to face that future together, not argue over who has the best seats at the table. Let’s set a table we all can sit at together.

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