Here’s what I did this summer:
First, some details. The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) is a set of discussions that began formally in late 2010 (by formally I mean at the point money was changing hands in the name of the project). Their goal was to imagine what a national digital library would look like in a US context, toward a future goal of realizing it.
The project, or course, has been an easy target for criticism. Some say that the project is be too ambitious to realize (often accompanied by a reference to NSDL and a shiver). Public librarians are concerned about the appropriation of ‘public’ in DPLA’s name and that it will affect their fund, academic libraries are concerned about a rich history of experience being missed. Others worry about the lack of a target audience, a solution in search of a problem, And of course, there the usual concern (perceived or real) of Harvard “discovering” an occupied land and putting their flag down.
However, criticism is becoming increasingly difficult to lob, primarily due to the efforts of John Palfrey and the steering committee to make this an open, democratic process. They don’t run from the criticism but have be courting it, encouraging knowledgeable parties to speak up about concerns and past experiences. The task that the DPLA is trying to achieve is tall, but they’re sincerely trying.
One of the ways of democratizing the DPLA development was with a summer Beta Sprint, where volunteer teams would have two months to develop a deliverable that covered an aspect of what a DPLA would look like, in the form of software, mockups, proposals or other research. They received over 60 statements of interest, nearly 40 submissions, and chose nine exemplary submissions to present at a plenary in Washington DC (including ours!).
I participated in a joint submission between DLF and IMLS DCC, where we reworked the content and experience of the IMLS DCC into a demonstration of how its content model could fit into the larger picture of DPLA. IMLS DCC is a large cultural heritage aggregation, hold item records to over a million library and museum items from thousands of collections across the US.
Our DLF/IMLS DCC beta sprint was generously funded by the Mellon Foundation, with Rachel Frick and Carole Palmer as the PIs. Under their guidance, Richard Urban and I spent our summer in coffee shops and labs conceptualizing how IMLS DCC would look and function for a more public audience (compared to its regular scholarly audience). A big chunk of this was overhauling the user interface to better emphasize content, adding social elements to the site, and adding focus on a browsing mode of use. Jacob Jett and Katrina Fenlon, incoming and outgoing DCC project managers, were also strongly involved in describing DCC’s past and overseeing backend changes, alongside the princely technical work of Tim Cole and programmer Winston Jansz.
The Beta Sprint model of working proved to be a rewarding experience, fulfilling in the ability it gave us to make quick decisions and realize them. At the end, we came out with a number of changes to integrate back into the DCC, both in the interface and in the backend optimizations we had made for the sprint. It’s not a sustainable model in the long-term — the temptation to cut corners would only harm a project that is in constant sprint — but the deadline hanging over us helped us fall into sync (as the team communally descended into sleep-deprived madness). It reminded me of my Multimedia BA, and comradeship and fun of the end-of-term late-night sessions with half of the program’s students designing/coding/editing away together.