December 20, 2010
The Problem of the One and the Many: On Taking Giant Steps Forward Like LAW.GOV and the National Digital Library Initiative Recently Announced by the Berkman Center
"I don’t want to minimize [the] problems [of creating a national digitial library], but I think we should approach them with a can-do spirit. After all, we have acquired a great deal of experience with digitization. Every research library has developed digital projects, some of them on a very large scale. And libraries have cooperated with one another and with outside agencies in all sorts of initiatives that could be useful and instructive in the creation of a National Digital Library." So stated Harvard's Robert Darnton back in October of this year in his NYR Blog post, A Library Without Walls. See also LLB's post, Not Just True but Tried: Darnton on the Prospects for a National Digital Library.
On December 13, 2010, that can-do spirit for a NDL materialized in the Berkman Center for Internet and Society announcement that the Center will host an initiative for a "Digital Public Library of America." We are not talking about one of those all too human solo meetings without follow-up. Funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the objective is to "convene a large and diverse group of stakeholders in a planning program to define the scope, architecture, costs and administration for a proposed Digital Public Library of America." Borrowing from another ad hoc group's model, LAW.GOV, for taking the next giant step, the announcement explains:
Planning activities will be guided by a Steering Committee of library and foundation leaders, which promises to announce a full slate of activities in early 2011. The Committee plans to bring together representatives from the educational community, public and research libraries, cultural organizations, state and local government, publishers, authors, and private industry in a series of meetings and workshops to examine strategies for improving public access to comprehensive online resources.
Our profession's adopted son, Harvard Law School and Berkman Center Faculty Co-Director John Palfrey, will lead the Steering Committee. Like in the late 19th Century era of law librarianship, the time has arrived again to re-define academic law librarianship. Here is where Palfrey's contribution to our profession may reside -- Gen X and Y-er rank-and-file law librarians in the professional academic law library community hopefully may see that they just might have a future to look forward to.
The Berkman Center's NDL Steering Committee members include:
- Paul Courant, Harold T. Shapiro Professor of Public Policy and Dean of Libraries at the University of Michigan
- Robert Darnton, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and Director of the Harvard University Library
- Charles Henry, President of the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR)
- Brewster Kahle, Founder of the Internet Archive
- Michael A. Keller, Ida M. Green University Librarian, Director of Academic Information Resources at Stanford University
- Carl Malamud, President, Public.Resource.Org
- Deanna Marcum, Associate Librarian for Library Services at the Library of Congress
- Maura Marx, Berkman Center Fellow and Executive Director, Knowledge Commons
- Jerome McGann, John Stewart Bryan University Professor at the University of Virginia
- Donald Waters, Program Officer for Scholarly Communications and Information Technology at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
- Doron Weber, Vice President, Programs at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
Bridging the Information Professions Community Divide. In the context of legal information professional communities and the challenges law librarians face in collaborating with other stakeholders because of differences in professional cultures and institutional missions, Sarah Glassmeyer, Faculty Services and Outreach Librarian, Valpo Law, recently wrote in a thoughful and highly recommended VoxPopuLII post, The Loris in the Library:
[A fear of failure] has become so ingrained in the [library] culture that innovation and progress are inhibited. Contrast that with the tech sector - home to many future library partners - where trial and error are encouraged and participants have a freedom to fail. It behooves librarians to embrace this culture of innovation and develop a respect for failure lest they become completely stagnant and, as a result, obsolete
Everyone - librarians, computer scientists, legal publishers, government bureaucrats, etc. - needs to work towards a greater cultural understanding of the other players so that mutually beneficial and important projects - for instance, law.gov - are not lost to petty infighting and simple misunderstandings that devolve into huge clashes.
From Baby Steps to Giant Steps. I agree with Sarah's fear of failure analysis with the understanding that the caution librarians exhibit resides in having, first and foremost, an institutional mission to execute. The larger the institution, the slower moving it tends to be and this risk aversion is by necessity, as least for residents of law library directors' offices. Yet history has also shown that the larger the institution, the more likely it will have the financial, technological and human capital to initiate innovation on a project by project basis. These small steps eventually evolve into ever increasing complexity requiring collaborative efforts involving members of the library, documentation and publishing communities. It has taken many, many years for libraries to move to this stage where we can say collectively like Danton has said, "we have acquired a great deal of experience with digitization" in the context of a NDL.
In my years of watching these developments, when it is time to take a giant step forward, as it now is, that leap forward tends to come from ad hoc groups which successfully bridge essential professional and institutional divides. (Can you tell how I'm trying to avoid references to China's Giant Leap and its associated terrible cultural revolution consequences.) Commerical enterprises individually and collectively through industry associations and professional associations can impede such movements, ignore them at their own risk, or actively join them to influence their development if and when they recognize that there is a damn good chance of being left in the dust that will result in becoming known as "old normal" also-rans. For example, do think you that after years of concerted opposition by way of market domination and the internal tech specs of its products, Microsoft joined the international standards community out of the goodness of its heart? Do you think AALL would have gone any further than applauding the Library of Congress's registration of the law.gov domain if our association leaders didn't realize they had better catch up to the initative taken by individual law librarians and one local chapter?
In re LAW.GOV. LAW.GOV as a facet of GOV. 2.0 is one example of an ad hoc group taking the giant step forward because the time is ripe for structural change that will transform the provision of eLaw. Sarah and I have discussed the LAW.GOV-AALL relationship or lack thereof several times. I don't believe we disagree on anything of material significance but I don't share her concern about misunderstandings and petty infighting developing into major clashes if she thinks those clashes could lead to the failure of LAW.GOV. I don't believe she does think that but I don't want to put words in her mouth.
As far as I'm concerned, LAW.GOV will succeed with or without AALL institutional support because individual law librarians will contribute to the project's success regardless of what AALL does or says. If AALL doesn't want to play second fiddle in this orchestra, the music will still be performed. Sure, I would like to see better communications and concerted efforts between LAW.GOV and AALL but that is not a necessary contribution to LAW.GOV's success.
In re NDL. On a much broader scale, the NDL initiative launched by the Berkman Center is another example of an ad hoc group taking the necessary giant step forward because the timing is ripe for a structual transformation. This one faces even more substantial obstacles in its path than GOV 2.0. It is far to soon to predict where the “Digital Public Library of America” program may take us, if anywhere. If it does go anywhere, a national digital library is many years away. As long as all stakeholders stay on the same page, the professional and institutional interests which divide us ought not trump the collaboration needed to get the task at hand completed because the future depends on working together to take this next step.
But note well, just like AALL is a secondary player in LAW.GOV, no one representing ALA in an official capicity is on the Berkman Center's Steering Committee. This is not a criticism. The Council on Library and Information Resources is represented because CLIR's more narrow-focused mission compared to ALA's wide-ranging professional association mission dovetails into the NDL project's objectives and makes CLIR an indispensable contributor at this stage of the NDL project.
An Old Geezer's Perspection on the Problem of the One and the Many. Over the past 35 years starting out as a Serials LTA in an academic law library (scratch that, the LTA jargon was implemented in my job classification just before I went to library school in 1978) to now, I've seen a thing or two during my career. I also missing plenty (e.g., would I even recognize a BigLaw firm library having not practice in that sector for 20 years?). I entered at the beginning of the transformation that was fee-based full-text online legal search but will leave before the "new normal" of 21st librarianship is in place.
My professional career will be over before we see the fruits of LAW.GOV and a national digital library. But one way or another, both will happen. These are instances where the solution to the problem of finding the one thing that lies behind all things is readily apparent. It's progress and it cannot be stopped. Sarah's career will not be over before we see this happen and she is actively engaged in making it happen. So with the hope that she will not mind me adding two bracketed insertions, let's close with the following quote from her post:
The projects that we can (and should) be collaborating on are new and different and will completely change the way people access their law [and other resources]. As such, they will be met with resistance and suspicion and push-back from commercial vendors and government agents. Presenting a united front and creating a system that benefits from all of our areas of expertise from the beginning will go a long way towards legitimizing our cause. We have one chance to make a first impression, one opportunity to make free law [and a national digital library] an accepted resource in this generation. Don’t mess it up.
End note on the Great Ultimate. Oops, not quite done! While the problem of the one and the many has been and continues to be the dominate issue in Western intellectual history since the birth of thinking thinkable thoughts on a theoretical plane by Pre-Socratic philosophers, in China, tai chi or the Great Ultimate unifies all. Tai chi is divided into two opposite forces, yin and yang (and five material agents). Beyond this, tai chi is undefined. Tension is to be expected; one might say it will produce the Big Bang that will be the 21st Century's information universe. [JH]