The Digital Public Library of America, which I wrote about last year in the MIT Technology Review article “The Library of Utopia,” will be launching later this month. I had the opportunity to discuss the ambitious undertaking in a new Digital Campus podcast with newly appointed DPLA director Dan Cohen, DPLA technical advisor David Weinberger, and host Amanda French. You can find the MP3 here.
There’s a great deal of excitement surrounding the DPLA launch, but there’s also some wariness, as I described in the article and discuss in the podcast. Some public libraries, already under budget stress, worry that the arrival of a “national” public library may make it even harder for them to protect their local funding. Why invest in local initiatives, particularly ones involving online services, when there’s a central portal for searching collections and performing other library functions? Weinberger argues that the DPLA will strike the right balance between providing a central portal and acting as a platform that local libraries can build on. That’s the hopeful scenario, but as we’ve seen over and over again on the web, there’s a centripetal force at work that often leads to the consolidation of traffic at high-profile central sites.
The DPLA leadership is sensitive to this tension, sometimes to the point of defensiveness. In announcing his appointment, Cohen wrote, “The DPLA will in no way replace the thousands of public libraries that are at the heart of so many communities across this country.” Yet the first sentence of the DPLA charter reads, “The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) will make the cultural and scientific heritage of humanity available, free of charge, to all.” It’s hard to see how the DPLA will be able to fulfill such a broad mission without treading on the turf of local public libraries. Beyond its impact on libraries, the way the DPLA’s dual role as portal and platform plays out promises to provide a case study in web dynamics.