DPLA: The Library of Utopia | Nicholas Carr @ Technology Review

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Google’s ambitious book-scanning program is foundering in the courts. Now a Harvard-led group is launching its own sweeping effort to put our literary heritage online. Will the Ivy League succeed where Silicon Valley failed?

…however, the DPLA’s decision to call itself a “public library” has raised hackles. At a meeting in May of last year, a group called the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies passed a resolution asking the DPLA steering committee to change the name of the project. While the state librarians expressed support for an effort to “make the cultural and scientific heritage of our country and the world freely available to all,” they worried that by presenting itself as the country’s public library, the DPLA could lend credence to “the unfounded belief that public libraries can be replaced in over 16,000 communities in the U.S. by a national digital library.” Such a perception would make it even harder for local libraries to protect their budgets from cuts. Other critics have seen arrogance in the DPLA’s assumption that a single online library can support the very different needs of scholarly researchers and the public. To strengthen its ties to public libraries, the DPLA added five public librarians to its steering committee last year, including Boston Public Library president Amy Ryan and San Francisco city librarian Luis Herrera.

The controversy over nomenclature points to a deeper problem confronting the nascent online library: its inability to define itself. The DPLA remains a mystery in many ways. No one knows precisely how it will operate or even what it will be. Some of the vagueness is deliberate. When the Berkman Center launched the initiative, it wanted major decisions to be made in a collaborative and inclusive manner, avoiding top-down decrees that might alienate any of its many constituencies. But according to current DPLA officials and others involved in the project, the 17 members of the steering committee also have fundamental disagreements about the library’s mission and scope. Many important aspects of the effort remain, in Palfrey’s words, “to be determined.”

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