Skip to main content

Putting the P in DPLA

By Heather Christenson

I don’t work in a public library; I work in an academic library, and specifically, an academic digital library. In recent years academic libraries have been grappling with the social and economic changes arising from a new and ever-changing technological environment. If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s the power of libraries getting together and collaborating. In the case of the University of California, my employer, collaboration has enabled us to do more with less: very large scale digitization, providing wide access to library materials, getting better deals from content vendors, creating a community around open scholarship, and tapping into a richer variety of funding opportunities.

Like academic libraries, public libraries already have collaborative networks and organizations in place, and some public libraries are in and of themselves large consortia, so what role can the Digital Public Library of America fill? Although the DPLA initiative is being spearheaded by an academic institution, an ideal outcome would be for it to be an additional means for public libraries to come together to articulate and advocate for their users’ digital needs, and for shared technology to extend public libraries’ capability to serve library users. I’d like to see DPLA as a space for public libraries to collectively work out how to leverage technology to remain as vital anchors in the physical (non digital!) community as well as providing access to the digital.

I attended the recent DPLA West ( meeting, and from the discussion there, here’s what I see, from where I sit, as spaces for collective action by public libraries:

  • Create best practices for public libraries to extend and leverage shared digital services while continuing to offer a rich combination of local print and digital services
  • Establish shared pools of resources to help with digitization, and to develop access mechanisms for digitized materials.
  • Network across libraries to provide local and regional digital content to users of all public libraries (here especially is where shared technical infrastructure could play a role).
  • Work together on new mechanisms for direct community and user engagement with digital content.
  • Continue to advocate for the digital rights of library users, especially for the rights of “have nots” and those who cannot pay.
  • Continue to be champions for digital access to current materials for library users.
  • Involve the larger library community wherever and whenever possible, as content contributors, as technology collaborators, and as policy partners, leveraging existing relationships and forging new ones.

A shared infrastructure–both technical and social/organizational–could play a role in all of the above. DPLA has already generated the very beginnings of such an infrastructure, and there is a great deal of digital library expertise (including from academic libraries) with much potential.

As someone who is a higher-education librarian but a public library user, I would like to see DPLA be primarily about public libraries serving their constituencies by building on their many strengths; local collections, an active user base, a community presence, and librarians who connect directly with the public. DPLA should be about knitting together digital services with all the other services our wonderful public libraries already provide. The DPLA initiative, to its credit, has started the wheels turning.