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By John Butler

What will set the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) apart? What problems is DPLA trying to solve, and what are the opportunities to seize? What content and service space will it richly and perhaps uniquely occupy to make it a compelling and needed complement to other vital resources in the evolving digital library sphere? What will it wisely choose not to be? What will DPLA inspire in its users and communities? And, ultimately, how can this Library be shaped to help us all live out our democratic values?

At the final pre-launch DPLA Content and Scope Workstream meeting in Washington D.C. yesterday, these questions, to my ear, provided the undercurrent to nearly all discussion. And importantly so, as these questions are really the platform on which DPLA’s essential deliberations are ventured, tested, and encircled.

In the Content and Scope discussion yesterday, I recognized multiple arcs in the overall DPLA trajectory:

  • DPLA as a window onto America’s story through its digital libraries. This persisting DPLA vision rises out of the confidence that the initiative is well-positioned to amass an extraordinarily unique aggregation of content metadata, one that cross-cuts knowledge, community, and memory institutions perhaps like no other initiative to date. The cross-cutting relationships that DPLA has cultivated and the metadata promises it has secured to date make this ever more believable.
  • DPLA as a comprehensive index, or not. Will DPLA aspire to aggregate everything, without rational discrimination? Will comprehensive gathering prevail as a core driver of DPLA? If not, what will be DPLA’s content scope and criteria? Initially, through its Service Hubs aggregation, DPLA will be a grassroots reflection of the content priorities, investments, and decisions of several hundred (or more) individual organizations, large and small, throughout the country. Letting a thousand flowers bloom together, even if somewhat arbitrarily within a defined space, seems a worthy experiment. Let’s really see what happens. But let’s also commit to being ever-willing to tune the scope so that the value is strongly aligned with DPLA’s mission over time.
  • DPLA as fuel for creativity. DPLA has planted some significant stakes in the ground on open metadata and the provisioning of tools to access and use its data. Bravo! DPLA’s commitment to CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication for its metadata is intended, as one workstream participant said, “to inspire and innovate.” Another participant provided an eloquent vision for DPLA “as the raw materials made available for digital storytelling.” The generative potential to be enabled by DPLA’s deliberate open access to this unique pool of data is unbounded. Might it be that DPLA will make its mark not primarily for what it is, but what users will make from it?
  • DPLA as a platform for community and advocacy. Maura Marx and others have been DPLA’s heart and soul advocate on this vision for the long haul. It’s a big vision, one with many possible dimensions. We hold high hopes for expansive and viral community engagement around the DPLA program and its resources. Through the DPLA organizational structures such as the workstreams and Service Hubs, we have initiated new national and cross-cultural relationships with various professional foci. Through these forms of knowledge sharing, we all get better.

In areas of advocacy and influence, DPLA could be a powerhouse. How economic inequality manifests itself to the digital divide in the access to information is of obvious paramount concern. As one workstream participant bluntly put it, as information becomes increasingly commoditized, “will poor people have access to books?” And what can DPLA do about that? Perhaps through its relationships, stature, and acquired influence, DPLA could deliberately take on, as another stated, “a game-changing role that changes old assumptions.”

So, there are many potential inspiring arcs for DPLA to evolve along and large world-scale problems to solve. And with consideration of them, there is a temptation to envision the DPLA doing it all, right now, white-knight style. The questions we start with ought to prompt the “ongoing search” for directions that DPLA, as a community, will arrive at through its commitment to growing something of value, scale, and significance. Along the way, we ought to be wisely wary of mile-wide, inch-deep strategies that may only diffuse (and defeat) our focus and investments in building a resource that is cumulatively powerful

Let’s not diffuse. Let’s differentiate.

John T. Butler is associate university librarian for data & technology at the University of Minnesota Libraries.

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