Saturday, October 22, 2011

The DPLA Muster

Battle flags never made sense to me. "Why give your opponents something to shoot at?", was my thinking. As if soldiers with deadly weapon would bother rally to a flimsy piece of cloth. An idea. What's powerful about that?

Friday, I attended the plenary session that launched the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) at the National Archives in Washington DC. (with 300 others!) When it started early this year, I was pretty skeptical of the DPLA. It had no discernible plan of action, no coherent vision for the future of libraries, no business model, not even an awareness of how impossible its dream really was. All they had was... a battle flag, and a figurative one, at that.

What I saw was the power of a battle flag. John Palfrey and a cabal of Harvard academics have forged a movement from the fire of frustrated librarians, archivists, and information professionals who have recognized that a lot of the present system is broken and going nowhere fast. They sent out a call for help, and amazingly enough, that call was answered.

Although the news of the day centered around $2.5 million grants from Sloan Foundation and the Arcadia Fund, and promises of cooperation from Europeana and the British Library, I was most encouraged by the presentations in the afternoon, from people who actually build stuff.

At Gluejar, we've been struggling with the difficulty of presenting collections of books to Internet users in a meaningful and effective way. The typical UI of a book site is pretty lame. If the site goes beyond bland lists, it may try for a "bookshelf" view. The problem is that a bookshelf can only present 50 books or so, and a decent library will have 100,000 or even a million things to display.

The most elaborated UI experiment latched on to DPLA was ShelfLife from the Harvard Library Innovation Lab. It presents books as an "infinite bookshelf" arranged vertically to best display titles on the spines. It clings to the physicality of books by using thickness to represent the number of pages in the book, and uses the height of the book to show... the height of a book. It sounds stupid, but works a lot better than you might think. Go try it.

Bookworm was another interesting demonstration, from the people who brought you Google NGram Viewer. Using the less-restricted data from OpenLibrary, Bookworm allows you to examine subject heading occurrence as a function of time, and uses this visualization as a way to expose lists of book records. Very cool, but I felt like it was a fun toy for a job that wants a ear-splitting power tool.

The enthusiastic reception for these and other projects, which seemed to come out of the woodwork in response to the DPLA call to action, convinced me that DPLA is much more than a pitch for foundation funding. The library world, and the academic community that relies on libraries, is hungering for innovation and experimentation to show the way out of ebook purgatory.

So go for it, DPLA. There will be content of all sorts from libraries, museums, and the like for you to organize. Internet Archive, Hathi Trust and others will push the boundaries on book digitization and distribution. Gluejar will do its best to stock your shelves with unglued books that people care about. My advice: do some small things well and the big things will follow. That's what battle flags are all about.
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  1. Happy, and mildly surprised, to see this positive write up about the DPLA Plenary here, Eric. I was reading your tweets yesterday, and being mightily amused my many of them, but there was a gentle element of snark involved that wouldn't have led me to the conclusion that you would have such a positive response to the day. It's great that you did.

    I am part of one of the DPLA's workstreams and we spent Thursday doing our first work together. It was alternatively frustrating and rewarding; disappointing and exciting. This is a massive undertaking we're trying to launch, but the more people who are involved and are supporting it, the more likely it will succeed.

    Wish I had found you to say hello. I've been enjoying Go To Hellman quite a bit.

  2. This reminds me of Eddie Izzard on flags:

    Do you have a flag …?
    What? We don't need a flag, this is our home, you bastards
    No flag, no country, you can't have one! Those are the rules.

    I agree with you regarding DPLA. It may not be THE answer, but it does advance the argument.

  3. Ah yes, Open ID. It failed to recognize that I'm "Thad McIlroy"

    (I have high hopes for OpenID also)