Speaker makes a case for a national digital library

Friday, March 16, 2012

WASHINGTON — Despite living in the digital age, we might actually have less access to information, John Palfrey, Harvard’s vice dean for library and information resources, said today at the First Amendment Center’s 14th annual National Freedom of Information Day Conference at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

John Palfrey. Photo by Maria Bryk

Palfrey, who is also co-director of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, opened today’s event by introducing the Digital Public Library of America Project, a new initiative to build a national digital library.

Palfrey pointed to cloud computing and e-books as part of the problem with the public’s lack of free access to information. He noted that the cloud, where much information is now being stored, is being built and maintained by private companies, which don’t allow the public free access. As for e-books, of the six major publishers in the U.S., only one is currently allowing libraries to buy and lend out titles.

With books moving to a digital format, he said, if local libraries can’t afford or even get access to the electronic titles, it may mean that the American public will have less access to information than we do with printed works.

Another complicating factor is that efforts to digitize collections, even if they’re meant to allow the public free access, are not coordinated and can be difficult to access. “We are digitizing all of this information in different formats,” Palfrey said. “I defy you to find all the information.”

Palfrey said he and about 30 other people began last year in an effort to build a national digital library. The mission is to provide free information to all and to educate and empower the public. And the question, Palfrey said, is “How do we make a digital library as free as current libraries are?”

The effort has now grown to include representatives from federal government agencies, including the National Archives, university libraries, large public and private libraries, and private funders. He said the effort to build the library was just getting started and invited audience members and the American public to help.

The United States is behind other countries in this effort and that it is actually an issue of global competitiveness, Palfrey said. The goal of the DPLA is not to build one global library but to connect America’s library to others so that they work together for the user. The DPLA’s first effort will be a project about immigration working with a European digital library and is expected to be completed by April 2013.

As for the critique that the DPLA is a broad, crazy, utopian, too-complicated project, the likes of which has been tried before several times over the last 15 years, Palfrey said, “Yes, absolutely, that’s why it’s going to succeed. We have to aim for something this big and ambitious.”

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