Archive for the ‘Digital Public Library of America’ Category

The Library Beyond the Book (…and Beyond the Human)

August 9, 2015

Jeffrey T. Schnapp and Matthew Battles’s The Library Beyond the Book (Harvard University Press, 2014) is a multimedia publishing experiment that moves beyond slapping a CD of music onto a book’s inner front flap or uploading music onto a related web site.  This book’s material is interlocked to material on a slew of media: a dedicated web site, a 24-minute documentary, relevant digital reviews about the film and Harvard’s MetaLAB in Harvard Magazine, and even a playable deck of cards (more on this later).

This gothic disassembly and reassembly of the book’s traditional parts is intentionally disquieting–more Frankenstein’s monster than utopian order.

Like Shelley’s monster, the volume questions its own narrative.  It opens with a steampunk cartoon in which Melvil Dewey time travels from past to future, gleefully outlining the history of libraries and insisting on the library’s facilitation of dialogue between the living and the dead.  The cartoon’s closing tableau reveals the domed reading room of the future library holding no books at all. Instead, an announcement from a loudspeaker informs Mr. Dewey that his volumes are “ready for download.”  The Victorian Mr. Dewey is triumphant.  The library of the future is here.

Four sections of subsequent text question this cartoon’s playful certainty, replacing Dewey’s confidence with provisional speculation.  The volume’s first line announces that the title “The Library Beyond the Book

is a provocation, not a description. It gestures toward a threshold being traversed at the time of writing, not toward an era when books will vanish and bookshelves will be seen only in virtual versions, brimming over only with e-books.

The threshold being traversed involves dismantling the linear momentum of the book.  The volume’s typographical design disrupts forward progress, in part through red-inked epigrammatic meditations on the future library that run down the right margin of each spread, forcing one to turn the volume 90˚ in order to read them. These future scenarios are deliberately whimsical, and reviewers have complained about the book’s abstractions.  Though such complaints mistake theory for pragmatism, they are understandable given the legitimate anxiety about the future of libraries.

Perhaps most whimsical is the companion deck of playing cards available for purchase upon request, on which the red-inked “provocations” are recorded.  But here too the whimsy is richly informed.  The deck recalls the organization of the first card catalog, designed by the historian Edward Gibbon on the backs of playing cards. Assumptions that these provocations matter, that they should be saved for posterity, that they should be the stuff of meditation are made frivolous by the medium of playing cards, even as we recall that playing cards are not only sometimes preserved in archives but also valuable for the insight they provide into the past.  Gibbon’s card catalog provides one example; the famous playing cards narrating the fictional Popish Plot provides another.  If items as apparently frivolous as playing cards should be collected and stored in libraries, where does the collecting end?

The limitations of storing is the topic of the project’s highlight, the brilliant 24-minute documentary, Cold Storage, which is an improvisational tribute to Alain Resnais’ Toute la memoire du monde (1956).  Toute la memoire du monde documented the organization of France’s beautiful Bibliothèque nationale; Cold Storage examines Harvard Library’s decidedly homely remote storage system.  Both French and American documentaries dispel romantic concepts of the library, but a comparison of the two exposes the increasingly diminished role of the human in the highly functional and mechanized archival vaults of today.

Directed by Cristoforo Magliozzi and narrated by Schnapp, Cold Storage takes viewers behind the scenes to the gargantuan breathing machine that is the Harvard Depository, a sprawling concrete monster that bends humans to its will as it exhales and inhales books sent to and from readers at Harvard’s libraries. In climate controlled concrete bunkers, shelves tower above and beyond sight, forcing human assistants to use electrical lifts to reach them. Drone technology allows cameras to capture a perspective from non-human heights.  The resulting point of view is that of the building viewing the tiny workers lifted mechanically to shelves no human could reach without robotic help. Because of the volume of books sent there daily, books are cataloged and shelved by size, not by content.  The result is a collection

designed for the eyes of laser scanners, inventory tracking systems, and mechanically-aided acts of retrieval. . . . The HD reduces its sparsely-distributed human agents to parts in a cybernetic machine that speaks a language not of authors, subjects, and titles, but of barcode label identifiers and the ID numbers they encode (139).

That laser scanners are now part of an intended audience is also suggested by the dust jacket designed for The Library Beyond the Book.  An impossibly long barcode runs down the left side of the front cover, a hyperbolic indication of the book’s need to be “readable” by lasers in either Amazon warehouses or book depositories or both.

The lifespan of the depository poses a problem that has always haunted libraries: finding space.  Its climate controlled bunkers preserve books and other records for hundreds of years, but the concrete bunkers themselves will last between 70 and 100 years.  With new books added to the collection’s 9 million items daily, the project is “unsustainable,” explains Matthew Shehy, head of access services.

To the old, though intensifying, problem of sustainability is a new problem of concept, one that Battles suggests in his earlier volume, The Library: An Unquiet History.  The machine-controlled bunkers of the HD force a reassessment of the beautiful and coherent religious metaphors we often use for libraries—”cathedral,” “monastery,” “hermitage,” and “refuge.” In those spaces, humans could collaborate with texts and others to construct a sustained cultural memory and identity.  By contrast, the bunkers of today contain numbers of texts growing so quickly that not only cataloging but also comprehension seems beyond the scale of human minds.

Everyone should watch Cold Storage for its creepy revelation of the non-human design of the very institution on which we rely to preserve, celebrate, bemoan, and understand the human record.  For all its irreverent play, this  multimedia project makes a serious point, leaving us to consider how best to respond to a monstrous body that was designed with the latest technology without full consideration for its place in human society.

Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) — A Brief Update

July 4, 2015

Since the launch of the DPLA in April 2013, the staff under the direction of its director, Dan Cohen, have been pursuing various projects to determine best ways to develop this resource/tool further and broaden its serviceability. In an April 2015 whitepaper, “Using Large Digital Collections in Education: Meeting the Needs of Teachers and Students” authors Franky Abbott and Dan Cohen set forth one set of plans for making the DPLA valuable in K through 16 settings. The plans resulted from research supported by the Whiting Foundation and yielded a program that enlists the help of educators through another initiative funded by Whiting. The following 15 June 2015 “Call for Educators” on DPLA’s blog describes the kind of partnering with educators that DPLA is seeking to undertake:

The Digital Public Library of America is looking for excellent educators for its new Education Advisory Committee. We recently announced a new grant from the Whiting Foundation that funds the creation of new primary source-based education resources for student use with teacher guidance.

We are currently recruiting a small group of enthusiastic humanities educators in grades 6-14* to collaborate with us on this project. Members of this group will:
•build and review primary source sets (curated collections of primary sources about people, places, events, or ideas) and related teacher guides
•give feedback on the tools students and teachers will use to generate their own sets on DPLA’s website
•help DPLA develop and revise its strategy for education resource development and promotion in 2015-2016

If selected, participants are committing to:
•attend a 2-day in-person meeting on July 29-July, 30 2015 (arriving the night of July 28) in Boston, Massachusetts
•attend three virtual meetings (September 2015, November 2015, and January 2016)
•attend a 2-day in-person meeting in March 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts (dates to be selected in consultation with participants)

Participants will receive a $1,500 stipend for participation as well as full reimbursement for travel costs.

DPLA has also been receiving significant funding from additional sources for other efforts–including funding its “hubs,” both its content ones (“large libraries, museums, archives, or other digital repositories that maintain a one-to-one relationship with the DPLA and assist in providing and maintaining metadata for content”) and its service ones (“state, regional, or other collaborations that host, aggregate, or otherwise bring together digital objects from libraries, archives, museums, and other cultural heritage institutions”). In a big boost to its hub development, the DPLA has recently received $1.9 million from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and $1.5 million from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation); it will use this support to advance their efforts in “connecting online collections from coast to coast by 2017” (“Digital Public Library of America makes push to serve all 50 states by 2017.”)

Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) Is Launched

April 17, 2013

About a year ago, Anna reported on plans to launch the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) by April 2013 in a post that can be found here. While launch dates are often delayed, it is an auspicious sign that the DPLA will go live Thursday, April 18th, at 12 noon (ET). The festivities slated to take place in Boston in honor of the DPLA’s going live, however, have understandably been canceled due to the tragic bombings earlier this week (see the message from Dan Cohen, the DPLA’s Executive Director).

Since he first championed the idea for the DPLA several years ago, Robert Darnton has kept us abreast of progress and plans “to make the holdings of America’s research libraries, archives, and museums available to all Americans—and eventually to everyone in the world—online and free of charge” through articles he has written for The New York Review of Books (NYRB 25 April 2013). Thus, it should come as no surprise that he has marked the launch of the DPLA with another informative piece. Framing the DPLA as a convergence of the American strands of utopianism and pragmatism, Darnton sees the project as one deeply rooted in the eighteenth century and as holding the potential to “realize the dream of Jefferson and Franklin.”

Darnton’s article also offers a pithy summary of events that led to the development of DPLA, basics about how the software works, plans for sustaining the DPLA’s growth, notes about the well-respected foundations funding the first three years of the DPLA, and a description of the distributive management model DPLA has embraced in which operations are spread out across the country. As emob tweeted two weeks ago, Darnton sees legal obstacles as the key hindrance to the growth of the DPLA.

The DPLA has already attracted a host of impressive partners including Harvard, The Smithsonian Institution, ARTstor, University of Virginia libraries, the New York Public Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Library, Biodiversity Heritage Library, and the National Archives. It is with great interest that we will be tracking its progress.

Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) to open April 2013

March 30, 2012

By April 2013, the Digital Public Library of America should be up and running.  With this announcement, Robert Darnton opened a recent talk about DPLA sponsored by Harvard Library Strategic Conversations.

Darnton reviewed DPLA’s brief history, including its origin at a meeting at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute on 1 October 2010, its successful coalition of foundations committed to providing financial support, its appointment of a steering committee, and its selection of John Palfrey as the steering committee’s chair.  Six “workstreams” have been designed to arrive at consensus-driven plans in the following areas:

To join a workstream listserv, consult the appropriate web page.

Darnton insisted that DPLA was not simply a response to Google, though DPLA is open to working with Google and has extended invitations to that effect.  He provided an incisive history of Google Book Search’s legal troubles, and noted that DPLA has much to learn from that history.

Next, John Palfrey (chair of the DPLA steering committee, and author of Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives), outlined some of DPLA’s goals, though he conceded that the exact nature of the DPLA was still be determined:

  • constructing a creative and technologically sophisticated learning environment beyond that created by e-books.  This involves imaginative work by architects, programmers, catalogers, users, and and just about anyone else prepared to think innovatively.
  • considering the following elements that will shape the still indistinct and ever-evolving nature of DPLA:
    • code will be free and open source
    • metadata will aggregate existing data and create additional data.  It has already arrived at an agreement to network with Europeana, Europe’s digitized knowledge-sharing platform.
    • content will include all media types
    • tools and services will facilitate public innovation.  Palfrey provided as an example the use of a “scanabego,” a truck with scanning tools that would be driven across the country to local historical societies, offering to digitize their records in exchange for linking those records to DPLA.
    • DPLA’ community will be widespread and participatory.  According the DPLA web site, “DPLA will actively support the community of users and developers that want to reuse and extend its content, data, and metadata.”

In the discussion that followed the presentation, one of the most interesting comments was Charles Nesson’s description of a Digital Registry Project to address the copyright issues that plagued Google Books.  The Registry seeks pro bono commitments from major law firms “to defend the copyright status determinations of major cultural institutions such as libraries and universities” (see the memo available on Charles Nesson’s web site.)  According to the DPLA web site,

The objective of the Digital Registry Project is to create a comprehensive registry to undergird digital exploitation of intellectual property—for personal, educational, or commercial use. This vision encompasses all copyrighted works, all orphan works, and all works in the public domain. The Digital Registry seeks to kick start the registry process by beginning with those works that belong no one and therefore belong to everyone: the public domain. This registry is intended to be a simple and unassailable starting point for all larger registries.

More information is available at the extensive and carefully designed DPLA web site and the DPLA blog, which is guaranteed to interest emob readers.

A Digital Public Library of America

March 8, 2011

Robert Darnton has championed the concept of a national digital public library through a series of galvanizing essays in The New York Review of Books.  In October 2010, he convened a community of what Harvard Magazine described as “forty-two leaders of research libraries, major foundations, and national cultural institutions” in Cambridge to discuss strategy for building a digital public library of America.  That same month, Darnton’s opening talk at that conference was published in the New York Review of Books.  His The Library: Three Jeremiads, appeared in NYRB in December, further delineating the complex relation between digital libraries and their brick-and-mortar counterparts.  Details of the conference were published both by Jennifer Howard in the Chronicle of Higher Education and by the Harvard Magazine, which cited Darnton as describing the project as

the digital equivalent of the Library of Congress…bringing millions of books and digitized material in other media within clicking distance of public libraries, high schools, colleges, universities, retirement communities, and any individual with access to the Internet.

Responses to the concept of constructing a national digital public library have been positive.  In December, David Rothman published “Why We Can’t Afford Not to Create a Well-Stocked National Digital Library System” in the Atlantic, arguing that one of the benefits of the project is that it digitizes more than the commercial selections offered by Kindle’s and iPad’s digitization projects: significantly, it digitizes library books.  Referring to a digital public library, Rothman claims it’s a cause

I’ve publicly advocated since 1992 in Computerworld, a 1996 MIT Press information science collection, the Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, the Huffington Post, and elsewhere, including my national information stimulus plan here in the Fallows blog?

Rothman departs or seems to depart from Darnton, however, over the issue of access.  Rothman wants the digital public library to be a genuine public library, open to all citizens, not simply those affiliated with research libraries.

Details of the plans continue to emerge.  Michael Kelly provides an overview of Harvard’s Berkman Center for the Internet and Society and its plans for a year of workshops regarding the project in Library  Recently (Feb. 18th), Jennifer Howard again interviewed Darnton for the Chronicle of Higher Education to obtain updates on the progress made by Harvard’s Berkman Center for the Internet and Society on the Digital Public Library of America.

Now that Oxford and Cambridge are making plans to digitize their backlists, this may be a good time to discuss the benefits and consequences of having a national digital public library.  Will digital books be read?  Do readers need POD (Print-on-Demand) options?  Is this project getting the attention it deserves?


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 145 other followers