The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) last week appointed Dan Cohen as its founding Executive Director. Cohen served as the Director of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. He is the author of books including Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (with Roy Rosenzweig) and Equations from God: Pure Mathematics and Victorian Faith.
At the center, he has overseen projects including the popular research tool Zotero, open-source publishing venture PressForward, and online collections including the September 11 Digital Archive. Library Journal recently caught up with Dr. Cohen to learn more about his experience at the Rosenzweig Center and his plans for DPLA.
LJ: The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media already plays an established and influential role in digital preservation and in finding innovative ways to present history to researchers and the public. DPLA has a lot of promise and potential, but it is still an upstart. What inspired you to make the leap?
Dan Cohen: It has been my great fortune to have been a part of the Rosenzweig Center for over twelve years. I simply love working with the center’s talented staff, and I’m extremely proud of all that we have accomplished together. But it was less of a leap than it might seem.
What inspired me to make the move was the common mission of the organizations—as Roy compellingly put it, “to democratize access” to our common cultural heritage, and to make digital collections available in ways that can transform the way we research and learn. We have done this at the Rosenzweig Center through educational portals, online archives and exhibits, and software tools. The Rosenzweig Center has thus been, in a real sense, the perfect training for building the DPLA, which will involve all of these elements. I am excited to have a chance to do this on a national scale, based on the incredible riches of America’s libraries, archives, and museums.
Any insights from your time at the Rosenzweig Center that you hope will translate to DPLA?
Although we are an academic research unit, the Rosenzweig Center has always endeavored to create digital resources that are not only robust but useful and used. Our sites and services are used by millions of people every year, and we make sure to design with ease of use in mind. In addition, we constantly promote collaboration beyond the center by including many ways that people can participate and get involved in our projects, so that they share a sense of ownership. I am going to work hard to ensure that the DPLA is useful to and used by millions of Americans, as well as people around the globe, and that others beyond the DPLA staff can contribute to it.
Put another way, the Rosenzweig Center has always had a core belief that large-scale initiatives involving technology are actually *social* projects. That is, successful digital projects mainly involve getting diverse people working together towards an ideal. The DPLA will reach out this year to thousands of librarians, archivists, and museum professionals, as well as the general public, to work together to build something special.
How do you respond to concerns that the DPLA will replace some of the functions of public libraries and non service-hub academic libraries? How do you see these libraries working with DPLA?
I suspect this lingering concern originated when the DPLA was on the drawing board and its parameters were unclear, but as the DPLA comes into focus with its impending launch in April, I believe that public and academic libraries will begin to understand how the DPLA instead strengthens and complements what they do. Public libraries have been, and always will be, centers of their communities, and will continue to be the place to go for high-circulating recent books, Internet access, public readings, and many other elements that the DPLA cannot and will not replace. Academic libraries are structured to support the scholarly research modes and fields of specific institutions, with collecting strategies and services to match.
Both kinds of libraries will benefit greatly by what the DPLA will add to our landscape of knowledge. The DPLA will provide is a single place to discover and explore our country’s libraries, archives, and museums—a portal—and so will bring entirely new audiences to formerly scattered collections. Moreover, we will provide the means for others to use information about those holdings in creative and transformative ways—a platform, with an API, for others to build upon. Third, we will endeavor to work with public and academic libraries to try to solve some of the thorny issues that plague our current research and reading environment, such as restrictions on ebooks and the need for more open access materials.
For public libraries, the DPLA will provide a national-scale, free extension of their local holdings, and give them a place to store and garner audiences for their community’s history and content. For academic libraries, the DPLA can be used to suggest research materials and collections beyond a home institution, to create virtual exhibits and collections from federated sites, and to enhance the scholarship of students and faculty.
I plan to do everything I can to make sure that libraries and librarians understand how the DPLA is a partner rather than a replacement. Just as important, I plan to articulate that to the general public, since I would hate for the launch of the DPLA to be used as an excuse to lower funding to essential physical libraries in times of austerity.
Copyright law in the digital era has become a problematic and confusing issue for libraries. Will DPLA play an advocacy role?
Absolutely. The DPLA is in part animated by the problematic state of copyright law, where defaults lock up content for extreme time horizons, and make it hard for libraries to store and share digital content. We have seen a diminution of the public option that open libraries represent, and this is problematic for our culture. So I see a strong advocacy role for the DPLA, to say that a better balance is needed in the twenty-first century, so that the landscape for reading and research isn’t further circumscribed and hindered by digital friction.
And it is my strong belief that in the long run a more appropriate balance is not only better for readers, students, and scholars, but also for publishers and others who profit from published materials. My kids adore our local library, and our extensive use of that public library has also led us to buy hundreds of electronic and printed books. I hope I’m not alone in thinking that it’s better to have a nation of voracious readers who get some of their books for free than a nation of intermittent readers who always pay.
In addition to pushing for copyright balance, I hope that the DPLA can explore alternative licensing models for new works with authors and publishers. The vast majority of books, for instance, make little to no money after the first few years, and so finding a way not to lock up that knowledge until the twenty-second century seems important. And of course we are seeing a remarkable surge in open access publishing, which I have been a strong advocate for in academia.
You recently co-edited Hacking the Academy, a compilation of essays on reforming academia with digital media and technology. What role do you hope to see DPLA play in academia?
One of the main themes in Hacking the Academy is the pedagogical, intellectual, and economic benefits of opening up access to research and teaching materials. We need a public option to balance out the gated resources that universities license at great expense and that increasingly eat up scarce library resources. I see the DPLA as a large open storehouse for classroom use and scholarly investigation, for inclusion in syllabi, articles, and books, and as a bridge between academia and the general public.
How will DPLA excite and engage the U.S. public?
Is there anything better than walking into a library for the first time, the wonder and joy of having so much knowledge and history and entertainment at one’s fingertips? In the coming years I hope that the DPLA will kindle that spirit of exploration. I want the American public to know that the DPLA will be the place to go to find documents and images about their hometown, scanned and curated locally; to be able to pull out their smartphone, launch an app powered by DPLA’s data, and take an impromtu walking tour of the hidden past of their current location; to see the DPLA’s open and free content spread across classes from kindergarten to graduate school; and many other exciting possibilities enabled when formerly disparate collections are knit together—entirely new kinds of searching, discovery, and learning. Forget the massive technical infrastructure; if the DPLA can ignite that wonder that only libraries can provide, we will have done our job.