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.

1 comment:

Sarah Wolfenden said...

This looks like an amazing project - thanks for writing it up.