Literacy for the digital world

During the sixth annual Bangor Book Festival, a roomful of Maine-based and Maine-connected writers gathered at the Bangor Public Library to sign books last Saturday.
During the sixth annual Bangor Book Festival, a roomful of Maine-based and Maine-connected writers gathered at the Bangor Public Library to sign books last Saturday.
Posted April 15, 2013, at 8:58 a.m.

More than 350 school and public librarians gathered in Augusta on Thursday for the 24th annual Reading Round Up, a day-long conference focused on learning, literacy and the role librarians play in “building our society of tomorrow,” according to keynote speaker Kate Messner.

Reading Round Up hosted presentations on how to use Skype to connect young readers directly to their favorite authors, the best apps to help children between 5 and 13 years old read better and develop their own content, and a primer on ways to incorporate electronic devices into traditional storytelling activities to promote early literacy.

The number of Reading Round Up programs focused on interactive and electronic media illustrates how much libraries have adapted to advances in information technology, recognizing the fact that schools’ and public libraries’ traditional positions as community centers have had to evolve because the communities they serve are now digital with global access.

In Maine, innovations like the Minerva Online Library catalog that allows patrons to request materials from participating libraries throughout the state and lending programs that make e-readers and electronic educational devices like Leapfrog available to children whose families cannot afford them reinforce public libraries’ long-standing status as agents of democracy. As online information amasses value as a commodity, public libraries have modernized their function as tools to ensure the equality of access envisioned by Benjamin Franklin when he founded the first public library in America.

The Digital Public Library of America represents the next logical step in that modernization process, one that has potential for far-reaching benefits, including in Maine. The DPLA, which will be launched April 18-19 at Boston Public Library, aims to provide “a centralized portal to a decentralized network of digital media from libraries, museums, universities, archives and other local, regional and national collections.”

Its proponents, a group of 40 academics and librarians who began considering the idea at a Harvard University conference in 2010, intend to uphold the traditional equal-access model of public libraries by avoiding the mistakes that stymied the Google Book Search effort to digitize all of the world’s books. Like Minerva, the DPLA will be a tool to increase free access, not a repository, as Google proposed with its plan for a massive database for all the world’s writings.

The DPLA has enlisted partners such as the Smithsonian, the National Archives and Records Administration, universities and major urban libraries. Those partners will retain full control of their materials, but users will be able to access them through a network of service hubs. Historical documents, artwork and other elements of cultural heritage will be available through the DPLA’s online portals.

Harvard University Librarian Robert Darnton, in a New York Review of Books essay, describes the DPLA as a 21st century manifestation of the confluence of utopianism and pragmatism, “two currents that have shaped American civilization” since the nation’s birth.

“What could be more utopian than a project to make the cultural heritage of humanity available to all humans?” Darnton asks. “What could be more pragmatic than the designing of a system to link up millions of megabytes and deliver them to readers in the form of easily accessible texts?”

While the DPLA’s staunchest advocates tend to be academics with drawers full of diplomas, its practical application has benefits far beyond the ivy-draped walls of elite colleges and museums. It holds the potential to allow students at Maine high schools and community colleges the same access that Harvard or Cal Tech students have to data, original works and manuscripts stored on those campuses.

Beyond mere access, the DPLA will offer a format designed to allow text mining, mapping, artistic and business uses that fall well outside the realm of academia, according to DPLA Executive Director Dan Cohen. A similar aggregation project, Europeana, has already opened access to more than 20 million cultural objects from hundreds of sites, and the DPLA would level the playing field for U.S. users.

The project still must expand the number of institutions that share materials and enlist new servers. Financial and legal (primarily related to copyright) challenges remain, but the Digital Public Library of America’s debut is a milestone in making information available to the public that warrants celebration.

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