DPLA Focus Group: Schenectady, NY, July 22, 2011
This note rehearses some of the salient and recurrent themes from theDigital Public Library Focus group held at the Niskayuna branch of theSchenectady Public Library on July 22, 2011 and led by Gregory Crane, Chairman of the Department of Classics at Tufts University. The notes from this very exploratory conversation are below and were assembled by Harry Diakoff, from Alpheios.net.
Attendees included representatives from:
- Union College
- the Schenectady Historical Society
- the Schenectady Public Library
- Brown School
- the Perseus Project
- the Alpheios Project
Several participants raised questions about the relationship of the DPLA initiative to existing public libraries on the one hand, and web search resources, such as Google, on the other. Is any one going to replace another?
The general consensus seemed to be that all had the potential to be complementary. The DPLA could play a constantly shifting but vital and pivotal role between existing, traditional, cultural and educational institutions and the ever expanding resources of the Web- both to facilitate access to existing web resources and to help create new web resources through digitizing local information and mobilizing local enthusiasm for crowdsourcing projects. It could provide a convenient platform to facilitate collaboration among local, state, national and international institutions. And it would be a natural place to test and develop adaptive learning applications for individualized and self-initiated learning.
I. Improving local use of existing Web resources
- ensuring that existing libraries (whether public, academic or research) and local cultural institutions make full use of the constantly expanding resources on the Web.
- sharing information about new Web resources: databases, software, and services, including those that facilitate local collaboration.
- implementing digital infrastructure to facilitate collaboration among local institutions, including sharing local resources.
- helping to negotiate more favorable licenses with vendors such as ebook distributors (Overdrive, etc) than smaller institutions and even consortia would be able to do.
Several participants made comments about currently frustrating aspects of Internet searching that a DPLA initiative might help address.
- Absence of adequate metadata for simple subject classification of available resources- even date and language are frequently missing.
- Absence of any consistent indication of authority or reliability
- Absence of any consistent characterization of material that would indicate its level of difficulty or assumed knowledge on the part of the reader
It was hoped that a DPLA initiative could begin to address the need for a sort of digital card-catalog to the web- a semi-automatic, part humanly-curated guide to web resources that could
- be browsed by topic and then sorted or filtered by language, date, degree of difficulty etc- possibly community standards of acceptability`
- be searched with boolean terms and a controlled vocabulary
- be searched and relevance ranked with natural language processing techniques.
A DPLA might encourage the development of a constantly evolving controlled vocabulary, preferably in a browsable hierarchical thesaurus which, combined with automatic indexing algorithms, could create a starting point for ongoing manual and automatic curation. The Wikipedia, increasingly hierarchical, "Categories" should provide a most valuable nucleus for such a thesaurus. But standardized tools could also allow individuals to use their own semantic structures for automatic indexing to provide individually customized views of the Web.
Some of the more ambitious suggestions included sorting resources into authoritative educational modules with explicitly defined dependency relationships among them, so that a user of the system could easily start anywhere that his previous background made him feel comfortable, and progress as far as his enthusiasm dictated in any direction without experiencing the frustration of encountering inadequate or inappropriate materials. What do you need to know before you can understand a given book?
The DPL could be a dynamically curated card catalog with explicit dependencies defined among the resources it describes. It could provide the digital infrastructure for crowd-sourced maintenance of this catalog as well as expert review and automatic restructuring. The balance between automatic indexing and manual curation would be expected to shift over time, but initially a level of manual curation would be involved that has prevented implementation of such a system until now.
II. Enriching the Web with local information sources, eg
The DPLA could help organize local crowd-sourcing initiatives to locate, edit, annotate and digitize local historical documents of all sorts, including genealogies, street directories, minutes of public sessions of government bodies, etc, etc. Volunteers could collaborate with students from local schools and universities. The DPLA could provide software tools as well as best-practice guidelines.
The DPLA could also help local initiatives achieve interoperability with other local, state, national and international resources to make possible research into how local history records fit into national and international history
- initial settlement and subsequent immigration history
- local participation in the civil war and world wars
- local reflections of national political, social and economic events-
- the Great Depression
- the mcCarthy communist scare
- the nuclear war panic of the fifties, etc, etc
An aspect of local history that is particularly easy to relate to wider national and even international developments is the introduction of technological innovations and their various consequences- social, economic, and even political. Every town and city has a story to tell about how it was integrated into the expanding transportation network of canals, railroads, highways, and airports; the expanding communication network of the pony express, the telegraph, the telephone, radio, television and the Internet; the electrification grid, etc, etc. Many cities have virtual sagas to narrate about the establishment of local industry and local technological innovations, and even local scientific discoveries.
Schenectady is a particularly good example of a relatively small town with a relatively large story to tell about technological innovation and scientific progress. Local enthusiasts have already begun to collect and inventory the vast trove of documents and information about General Electric and the American Locomotive Company to mention only the most prominent companies. The history of Union College is also deeply entwined with both companies and the general intellectual life of the town.
III. Customizing learning for the individual
Several participants stressed the importance of motivation to efficient learning, and emphasized that most children will experience deep curiosity about many things at some point in time.
The DPLA could provide a sort of Montessori environment for all ages- where the curiosity of the moment will find educational materials appropriate to their specific needs and prior experience. Effective use of such an environment would require not only education modules with clearly defined dependencies of the sort that were described above, but also software applications that could match the user's needs, interests, background and abilities with those modules.
The DPLA would appear to be the ideal venue for the implementation of such self-initiated learning applications, and for their evaluation, testing and development. The Alpheios language learning tools could provide a useful prototype for such tools- with their adaptive learning through formative assessment and constantly evolving user model providing a stable platform for semi-automatic research into factors affecting learning, including individual differences. The premise behind the design of those tools, that one should be able to learn whatever one wants to learn, whenever and however one wants to learn it, and in ways that adapt progressively to your special needs and abilities, would seem to be entirely consonant with the goals of the Digital Public Library of America.
The DPLA appears to provide a promising platform for both exploring a number of new opportunities created by the Web and helping to address some of the special challenges that it has also created.
It seems a particularly appropriate venue to
- explore the potential of the Internet for ameliorating the negative
- effects of a number of relatively unnatural barriers:
- among disciplines
- among institutions
- among age groups, etc
- provide opportunities for both project-based and community-based collaboration, especially in the exploitation of local history resources- including the history of technology.
- explore how best to support self-initiated and individually customized adaptive learning
- implement some sort of authority ranking or collaborative filtering system that will help people find Web resources that are not only topically relevant but also authoritative, reliable, up-to-date, and appropriate for their level of familiarity with the subject.
The democratization of knowledge access and intellectual cooperation that this initiative could exemplify has the potential to help explain America to the rest of the world while helping us to understand ourselves, though both its content and its methods.
I attach Gregory Crane's summary of the broader implications of the Digital Public Library of America initiative.
Greg Crane: The Digital Public Library of America and the Reinvention of Intellectual Life in the United States
When, more than two thousand years ago, Athenians developed a participatory democracy, they saw in this a system that energized its citizens like no other. Shortly after the rise of their democracy in the sixth century, the Athenians shocked their neighboring states with an energy born of their sense that each citizen could contribute. A generation later, the Athenians shocked the world by leading an alliance that defeated an invasion by Persian Empire, the sole superpower of the time. Another generation later, as the Athenians began a thirty years civil war within the Greek world, we have an account of Pericles, the pre-eminent statesman of his generation, about what separated democratic Athens from its competitors. When time comes to sum up that idea, he argues that the democracy allows its citizens to more fully realize their gifts and aspirations and to explore their own interests with a freedom and a depth that subjects of no other system could approach.
A Digital Public Library of America offers the United States a historic opportunity because it allows us to seize the new potential of the digital world of which we are a part to assert this ancient goal more fully. Pericles boasted that Athens had become the school for the Greek world. The Digital Public Library of America will allow the United States not only to transform the intellectual life of its citizens but to reassert within a shifting world a position of leadership beyond military force and based upon the reassertion of its core democratic values.
A Digital Public Library of America can provide a common space within which the 12,000 public libraries, 100,000 libraries in primary and secondary schools, and 3,200 academic libraries can serve each of their traditional constituencies in ways that were never before feasible. Citizens of the United States have an opportunity to develop their interests across more subjects and at greater depth than has ever been possible before. Equally important, the Digital Public Library of American can provide a common space in which patrons are also citizens, who have opportunities not only to learn but also to contribute back to our evolving understanding.
The net-public in 2011 has access to millions of sources from the human record produced in hundreds of languages and providing information about every culture that left its impression within the written record. In effect not only public libraries but also libraries in primary and secondary schools, in colleges and universities, historical societies and museums, all have vast and rapidly growing holdings. While copyright poses major challenges to the general distribution of popular film, books and games, these issues for the most part affect less than 100 out of more than 4000 years of the human record – works from almost 98% of the period from which our sources survive are in the public domain.
While we need to develop models with which to provide better access to materials restricted by copyright, libraries and their patrons already face the challenge of providing intellectual access to the sources that anyone can now examine. Who are the people and places mentioned in a 19th century local history? What do elegantly traced words in an illuminated manuscript mean? What were the intellectual assumptions behind an argument in a letter by one of the founding fathers? What is distinguishes a particular composer, artist, or architectural style? What are the plants and other living things that we see very day in our lives and how do they interact?
To answer these questions we address the following: The DPLA provides automated methods to generate contextualizing information customized for the background and immediate purposes of each patron. This addresses the immediate and long-term challenge of providing general intellectual access for collections far too large for a handful of advanced researchers and library professionals to document. The DPLA provides a collaborative environment in which patrons can contribute information about its holdings – introductions, explanatory, and many forms of machine actionable annotations (e.g., marking all the instances of a particular John Smith within a larger corpus). The DPLA provides a common space that supports new connections, both virtual and face to face, between primary and secondary school, higher education, and the general public. In particular, the DPLA fosters the emergence of student researchers and citizen scholars as essential collaborators, working side by side with advanced researchers and library professional in a decentralized culture of learning, one that engages a broader public and supports more challenging research than the fragmented networks of public, school, and academic libraries could individually realize. Within such a culture undergraduates in the Humanities can play critical roles as the DPLA enables humanists of every level to collaborate in realizing the Founding Fathers’ goal of advancing the intellectual life of society far beyond the walls of the Academy.
To explore these three tasks, we need to conduct concrete initial work within several different domains. Attractive candidate topics would include:
The Ancient Greek and Roman World: This subject plays a significant role in popular literature (e.g., historical and even detective novels, extensive non-fiction documentary series, major films, and video games set in the Greco-Roman world.) It has played an ever present role in the development of Western culture, and has provided a perennial touchstone of achievement for non-Western cultures.
Local History: Every community has a growing historical perspective – whether this reflects changes over years, decades or centuries. Local histories are dispersed in content but have many similar forms (city directories, maps, then-and-now photographs, old newspapers, local histories etc).
American Civil War: Both local and national The local history of settlement and successive waves of immigration
History of Technology: Many if not most American communities of any size have made significant contributions to the extraordinary development of technology that been among the United States’ most widely recognized contributions to world civilization. The story of the invention and development, the implementation and distribution, of this technology is far from complete, and will require collaboration of researchers at many levels, from the local and archival, to the national and global perspectives of academic scholars. The development of the railroad system, the telegraph and telephone systems, the vast electrical grid that made so much further progress possible, the technical developments in agriculture, mining, metallurgy, and the chemical and pharmaceutical industry, all have local, national and international significance. In a town such as Schenectady, which has been the scene of so many major advances in science and technology, the papers and in some cases even the memories of some of the participants in these events still exist and could be made much more widely available through increased cooperation among local scholars and enthusiasts.
The Digital Public Library of America has the potential to reinvent intellectual life in America while reinventing America’s image abroad.