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Scaling up: ENVISIONING A NATIONAL DIGITAL PLATFORM - ENVISIONING A NATIONAL DIGITAL PLATFORM

The public library in the digital age is a key networked knowledge institution. However, networks do not stop at town or city limits, or the county or state line. Moreover, the connections they provide and foster support individuals and the entire community in pursuit of educational, economic and other opportunities, whether those opportunities are present locally, regionally, nationally or globally.

A networked society envisions public libraries connecting with other curated knowledge resources via a scalable digital network, with access to open platforms that enable discovery, creation and sharing. It is important to think not only of how to foster connections at the local level but also how to scale-up in ways that open the public library to innovation, eliminate barriers traditionally imposed by geography and address the long-term issues of sustainability.

To do this, its local platform must be connected across a shared platform in which libraries can coalesce to work—a network of libraries and other knowledge institutions. Unlike national library models such as in the United Kingdom and Australia, this digital platform would be a network of federated public libraries and other knowledge-creating institutions, with central hubs for the purpose of connecting but local autonomy and control over the platform itself.

There are models of cooperation among libraries, including OCLC, the merging of independent libraries into larger regional systems, the work of the Metropolitan New York Library Council and state education and research networks that suggest how a library platform with regional or national scope may emerge.

The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) provides one model for envisioning a national platform that brings together the riches of the country’s libraries, archives and museums and makes them freely available to the world. The DPLA is a new kind of institution—a network of state and regional libraries, archives and other knowledge institutions that makes their collections more broadly accessible and provides them with support to serve their communities more effectively.

The DPLA operates in three ways:

  • AS A PORTAL that enables users to search through the libraries’ vast collections in a variety of ways, depending on their needs
  • AS A PLATFORM that enables users to create new tools and apps from the collections
  • AS AN ADVOCATE FOR A STRONG PUBLIC OPTION to ensure that materials remain accessible and open[30]
Housed at the Boston Public Library, DPLA operates with a series of local hubs that provide materials and services for its national network.
  • Content Hubs provide materials to the DPLA and commit to maintaining their digital records: ARTstor, Biodiversity Heritage Library, California Digital Library, David Rumsey Map Collection, J. Paul Getty Trust, U.S. Government Printing Office, Harvard Library, HathiTrust Digital Library, Internet Archive, National Archive and Records Administration, New York Public Library, Smithsonian Institution, University of Florida, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Southern California Libraries, University of Virginia.
  • Service Hubs offer services such as professional development, digitization, and metadata creation and enhancement: Connecticut Digital Archives, Digital Commonwealth (MA), Digital Library of Georgia, Empire State Digital Network (NY), Indiana Memory, Kentucky Digital Library, Minnesota Digital Library, Montana Memory Project (via Mountain West Digital Library), Mountain West Digital Library, North Carolina Digital Heritage Center, the Portal to Texas History, South Carolina Digital Library.

Through the Federal Communications Commission’s E-rate reform proceeding, DPLA has proposed the creation of DPLA Local, which would provide digital services to local libraries to enable them to make their collections of community resources more accessible and usable. Funding is needed to initiate a pilot for DPLA Local.

Action is already underway to move the idea of a national digital platform forward. In April 2014, the Institute of Museum and Library Services held a public hearing in New York among library and archive leaders to explore various aspects of a national platform (infrastructure, content, use, the creation of tools, access at scale and skills) and its role in furthering national digital initiatives. Following the hearing, Maura Marx, deputy director of IMLS, commented on the momentum behind the idea of a national digital platform: “I heard several people express in different ways a central idea: that funders and practitioners should recognize that we stand atop about 20 years of experimentation and innovation in digital library initiatives, and that it’s about time we decide which results are the most viable and promising and work in a focused way on improving and connecting those pieces.”

A national digital library platform could be:

  • AN INNOVATION PLATFORM to facilitate the sharing of innovations that take place at the edges of the library field and bring them into the center
  • A WAY FOR LIBRARIANS TO SHARE information and content to enhance their resources to meet similar needs
  • AN E-BOOK PLATFORM to facilitate access to digital content or a book recommendation engine
“With a nationally networked platform, library and other leaders will also have more capacity to think about the work they can do at the national level that so many libraries have been so effective doing at the state and local levels,” says Maureen Sullivan, past president of the American Library Association. Some may see risks in being too bold, but the reality at a time of churn and innovation is that there are equal risks in not being bold enough.

There is a financial benefit to scale as well because it increases negotiating power. A common digital platform would help, giving libraries the ability to negotiate with content creators, such as negotiating with publishers for a single price for e-book lending.

Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy took action to support such negotiating power in June 2014 when he signed legislation to create a statewide library e-book platform, run by the Connecticut State Library, to negotiate better prices in e-content purchasing and to make e-content broadly accessible at any public library across the state.[31] Other states have pilot projects to explore statewide platforms for e-books and other applications as well.

Operating at scale also requires effective use of data. Public libraries are just beginning to shift their understanding of how to collect, analyze and use data more effectively to make them a much smarter and more efficient service. However, operating at scale in such a way is not part of the tradition of American libraries. “The idea of truly federating libraries is unbelievably powerful and unbelievably difficult,” says Linda Johnson, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Public Library.


[30] Digital Public Library of America, “About DPLA,” http://dp.la/info/.
[31] “Gov. Malloy Signs Bill Creating State-Wide Electronic Book Delivery System,” new release, June 3, 2014, http://www.governor.ct.gov/malloy/cwp/view.asp?A=4010&Q=546128.

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