Thursday, 19 January 2012

"You can't take the sky from me": the DPLA and the open Web

On Tuesday, I went to see Robert Darnton speak at a JISC lecture on the Digital Public Library of America. Professor Darnton is the Director of the Harvard University Library and has been a major influence on me – on my advocacy of a UK National Digital Library and on my MA dissertation on large-scale digital libraries – so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see him talk about such an interesting project. Though it would be a fascinating project at any time, what particularly struck me is how the DPLA is an appropriate project for this time.

Jefferson compared scholarly learning to the lighting of a flame
As a scholar of 18th Century history, Darnton emphasised the dream of the Founding Fathers in America and of the Age of Enlightenment in Europe: the republic of letters, described in Wikipedia as “an egalitarian realm governed by knowledge that could act across political boundaries and rival state power.” In his introduction, Darnton argued that the artificial distinction between the real world and the academic world shouldn’t exist. As in the republic of letters, access to knowledge should be a public good. Particularly in the case of publicly-funded research, the fruits of such research should be available to the public who funded it (rather than our current odd situation in which the public can pay twice for the same research).

A group of people including Professor Darnton propose to change this situation, to open up access to knowledge by creating a National Digital Library for the public – the Digital Public Library of America. The DPLA will be a distributed system aggregating different digital collections already existing in America’s libraries. It will work with HathiTrust, Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive, the Library of Congress, various universities, and government sources (primarily US states which have digitised newspaper collections). This aggregation will then be open to everyone in the United States (and beyond) to allow them to access their cultural heritage. This expansive vision has massive financial and legal obstacles. In terms of cost, a somewhat comparable project, Europeana, runs on a budget of €5 million a year; Brewster Kahle estimates the cost of digitisation at $30 million for a large library. But America is unique in having private foundations which are willing to donate money for public goods: it’s an economic culture that doesn’t exist to the same degree in Britain and makes the DPLA a unique undertaking. In terms of law, the DPLA will of course respect copyright law and in the first instance will focus on ebooks in the public domain and, where possible, orphan works.

As an advocate of a National Digital Library for the UK, I think that the DPLA has potentially massive implications for similar projects. At the least, it provides a proof of concept; at the most, it could expand into the Total Library that we’ve previously only glimpsed in fantasies. The DPLA sets a precedent by proving that institutions can work together to build something great and that there are still people who recognise that access to knowledge is a public good – not a public good that is without costs but a public good nonetheless. I look forward to seeing the DPLA develop and to its launch, currently projected for April 2013.

But what particularly struck me is how appropriate the DPLA is for the time in which we find ourselves. This is a time when we see the Internet threatened with censorship and restrictions, when information is sealed behind publisher paywalls, when those vested interests try to pretend that digital objects are the same as physical objects. This is a time of conflict between the philosophies of closedness and openness.

The DPLA site went dark on January 18th to protest SOPA

Professor Darnton has been a great advocate of openness in information and research. He began his lecture by summarising the serials crisis in which the price of scholarly journals has risen a grotesquely exploitative rate – often four times the rate of inflation resulting in publishers (especially the ‘Big Three’) reaping 20-40% profit margins. He’s written about this before in his Three Jeremiads article for the New York Review of Books and in The Case for Books. It is a monopoly on information which Professor Darnton has done his best to combat by encouraging Open Access, open digital projects, and influencing the ‘Harvard Model’ which has increased the compliance rate of Harvard academics depositing their material in the university’s Open Access repository from 4% to 50%.

This emphasis on the philosophy of openness struck me partly because of the stark contrast I saw between the openness of the planned DPLA on Tuesday and the closure of many websites in protest at SOPA and PIPA on Wednesday: the open Web contrasted with a vision of a closed Web; a dream of openness set against the nightmare of what could come to pass if we don’t exercise, in Darnton’s words, “eternal vigilance”. When I asked Professor Darnton about the potential impact of legislation like the Stop Online Privacy Act, he pointed towards similarly restrictive legislation that could close off access to information: as well as the PROTECT IP Act, there is the lesser-known Research Works Act which threatens public access to the US National Institute of Health’s publicly-funded research.

And so the DPLA struck me as an appropriate project for this time. The DPLA represents openness; it represents the idea of knowledge as a public good; it represents intellectual freedom. As such a high-profile and ambitious endeavour, the DPLA seems like a marshalling of the troops of open access. It is a massive effort to resist the publishers and media barons who fight against the drive towards openness in media distribution and digital distribution. It’s a way to tell these controlling influences – Pullman’s “greedy ghost of market fundamentalism” – that we won’t let them take away our intellectual freedom in the name of profit. And I hope it succeeds.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Help! How much help should libraries be?

Libraries are here to help people. We help the public, we help university students, we help soldiers, we help lawyers, we help MPs, and we help people from diverse organisations. We provide a support service giving information and access to information. And so our raison d’ĂȘtre – our professional identity – somewhat depends on the definition of the term ‘help’.

Since I started my first full-time job in an academic library, I’ve been thinking about how much help we provide to the students. In the Army College library, it seemed expected for the library staff to provide a high level of direct help to the Junior Soldiers: the soldiers were in a job rather than in full-time education. University librarians expect something different from their users: students and researchers are in full-time education and should have (or should be developing) independent research skills. The university librarian therefore has more of a background support role. I, for example, work in a back office most of the time ensuring that day-to-day access to electronic resources is maintained: when I work on the enquiry desk, I’m usually pointing students towards resources or helping them use the library’s equipment. Generally our level of ‘help’ extends to providing the resources for the students to discover and use themselves which is a lower level of ‘help’ than was provided to the soldiers.


But it seems like the demands of students are increasing. It certainly seems as if students expect more of the library staff than I ever expected when in university. For example, it’s common practice in many universities for the libraries to give the reading materials directly to the students. Lecturers send the reading lists for their courses to the librarians who (depending on the copyright licence of the text) will usually scan the specified chapters or articles and upload them to the VLE for students to find and read. This makes sense for books where few print copies exist in the library: it allows a lot of students – usually one to two hundred – to access the reading materials required for their course and in the long term it reduces the demand put on librarians.

Questions arise when this idea is pushed a little further. Should this be done for every piece of essential reading? Should it only be done for essential reading or for recommended reading as well? Should it be done for articles / chapters available online? Should it be done at all? Can a certain level of help be detrimental to students and if so what level? Too much help can be detrimental in a couple of ways.

Firstly, providing undergraduates with all the reading material that they’ll need via the VLE robs them of the opportunity to research the subjects themselves. Part of a university education is learning how to research: learning how to find different sources in different media; learning how to assess sources; selecting the right material to provide the right evidence or make the right argument. When I was an undergraduate, we used to complain when there weren’t enough materials to go around but ultimately it meant that we had to search for different sources, we had to look elsewhere, and we had to think outside the proverbial box. If the library gives the students all the material directly, they never have the chance to research for themselves and therefore never learn how to do it. Arguably the level of delayed gratification from better research skills is higher than the level of instant gratification from the library directly providing materials.

Secondly, this practice can affect the originality of research. No-one expects soaring original insights from undergraduate coursework but with whole courses of students reading exactly and only the research material they’ve been provided by the librarians, there’s bound to be more homogeneity in essays. This homogeneity not only makes coursework duller for the lecturer to read (or more likely, for some postdoc to read) but makes the course less fulfilling for the students who end up not discovering contrary opinions and thinking about subjects for themselves.

One of the reasons why students expect more from their university is the rise in university tuition fees. Students paying more expect more for their money. By paying whooping tuition fees, undergraduates are keeping universities afloat and so universities need to keep these primary stakeholders happy. Academic libraries are part of their organisations and need to respect the wishes of the students, the faculty, and the administration. So if high-paying students want more help, isn’t the library beholden to provide that help? Even if the librarians don’t feel that the help is in the students’ long-term best interests?

The question comes down to: how do libraries best help people? Is it by addressing their short-term need for information or is it by addressing their long-term need for information literacy? And who gets to make this decision: the librarians; the students; the university management? And since ‘helping’ is part of a library’s raison d’ĂȘtre, the question of what level of help to provide leads to the question of what a library’s purpose is. Bob Usherwood wrote a great post for Voices for the Library about the purpose of public libraries and their corresponding level of help. Do we need to ask the same existential questions for academic libraries?

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Robert Darnton on National Digital Libraries

If research libraries are to flourish in the future, they must band together. They prospered in the twentieth century by pursuing self-interest independently of one another and of interference by the state. But in the twenty-first century, they face the impossible task of advancing on two fronts, the analog and the digital. Their acquisitions budgets cannot bear the weight. Therefore, they must form coalitions, agreeing to invest in some subjects while leaving others to their allies. They must develop common off-site depositories, perfect interlibrary loans, exchange documents electronically, prepare interoperative metadata, integrate their catalogs, and coordinate their digitizing.

Experiments of this kind have been tried and failed, I know. But we must try again. Through trial and error, we must inch forward toward the creation of a national and then an international digital library. Google has demonstrated its feasability and also the danger of getting it wrong - that is, of favoring private profit at the expense of the public good. 

Technological changes wash over the information landscape too rapidly for anyone to know what it will look like ten years from now. But now is the time to act, if we want to channel change for the benefit of everyone. We need action by the state to prevent monopoly and interaction among the libraries to promote a common program. Digitize and democratize - not an easy formula, but the only one that will do if we really mean to realize the ideal of a republic of letters, which once seemed hopelessly utopian.

From The Case for Books by Robert Darnton.

At time of writing, there are still tickets available to hear Robert Darnton lecture on the Digital Public Library of America and its implications for the future of digital libraries. The lecture is on Tuesday 17th January at the Royal Society in London. I am massively excited to be going.