Past, Present, and Future of DPLA and the Future of Libraries

By DPLA, February 12, 2018.
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On February 2, a group of academic and public librarians, journalists, academics, and others from the fields of copyright law, media innovation, and foundations came together at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society for a series of discussions on the Past, Present, and Future of the Digital Public Library of America. Emceed by DPLA Executive Director John Bracken, the event focused on the founding values of DPLA—a commitment to free, open access to knowledge for all—and how the vision for, and work of, DPLA intersects with the mandates, challenges, and opportunities facing libraries across the country in today’s media and information landscape. In addition to sharing the event recording below, we wanted to share a summary of the ideas discussed, questions raised, and outcomes of this event with our broad community.

In the opening panel, Bracken spoke with Maura Marx, President of the Fidelity Foundation, and Robert Darnton, Harvard’s Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and University librarian, emeritus, both of whom were closely involved in the formation of DPLA, about the history of the organization. Initial ideas for what would become DPLA, Marx and Darton recalled, were motivated by Google’s book digitization program, which proved the possibility of large scale digitization, but also gave tremendous power over access to that knowledge to a commercial entity. Marx recalled the energy across the field during early conversations about DPLA: “It wasn’t just about the stuff. It was about working together and transcending the forces of commercialization.” From the first planning meeting in 2010 emerged the mission to build the Digital Public Library of America as an open, distributed network of digitized resources in order to “educate, inform, and empower everyone in current and future generations.”   

With the founding values of DPLA in mind, the next panelists turned their attention to the roles that DPLA, and libraries in general, might play in today’s media landscape of rampant distrust, misinformation, and “fake news.” Panelists Nicco Mele, Director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, Mary Minow, Advanced Leadership Initiative Fellow at Harvard and DPLA Board Member, and journalist David Beard discussed libraries’ precious—and increasingly rare—roles as trusted public institutions and how they might leverage that power to best serve their communities. Topics discussed included opportunities for librarians to step up to fill gaps left by declining local news outlets, libraries as creative spaces, and the need to provide media literacy training and guidance to help patrons parse fact from fiction on their Facebook timelines.

The closing discussion between Harvard Law Library’s Jocelyn Kennedy and Philipp Schmidt of the MIT Media Lab addressed questions about the value of both virtual and physical library spaces. Digital libraries like DPLA democratize access to knowledge by connecting millions of people across the country with materials that would otherwise be inaccessible, particularly in any of America’s thousands of small and rural towns without public libraries. Schmidt noted, however, that online tools are only accessible to those with internet access and digital skills and that reaching everyone, and building strong communities, may require the face-to-face interaction that a physical space allows.

While the contemporary climate of distrust and disinformation may seem grim, Friday’s panels wrapped up on an optimistic note. “This is the moment for libraries,” Mary Minow asserted, and as DPLA crafts the next phase of its development, these questions and others will shape our work.

Watch each panel discussion: