Dan Cohen

This is Circulating Ideas, I’m Steve Thomas. My guest today is Dan Cohen. He’s the founding Executive Director of the Digital Public Library Of America. You can find him on Twitter @DanCohen. You can find the DPLA online at dp.la or on Twitter @DPLA.

Dan, welcome to the show.

Thanks Steve, great to be here.

I wanted to have you on now particularly because we just come to the first anniversary of the Digital Public Library of America where you’re the executive director, so congratulations on that, number one.

Thank you very much, it’s very exciting to make it to our first birthday.

And can you tell me something, like a highlight that you’ve gotten from your first year, or something that really stands out as something really special? I know the whole project is, but any particular thing you wanted to highlight?

Well, sure, I’m sure we’ll talk about this project as a social and political and collaborative project, but I think to start, I think the numbers are kind of neat, that we’ve tripled the collection in the first year and we’re at over 7 million items and some of the numbers that you might not hear as much about, let’s say in the news coverage is that we’ve gotten materials in over 400 languages, which is really great and from all 50 states.

So can we, let’s take a step back for a second, can you kind of explain generally what is the DPLA?

So the DPLA is an attempt to bring together the collections, the combined collections of America’s library archives, museums and cultural heritage sites. And we do that through a networked model where we have what are called hubs. And there are two kinds of hubs. There’s service hubs which are state or regional digital libraries that aggregate materials from small or mid-sized places in their location. And then we have content hubs which are stand-alone giant institutions like the Smithsonian or the National Archives, or big university collections that material directly to us. So it’s through this networked, very webby model of hubs that we pull in materials from over a thousand institutions nationwide. And it’s a neat way that we’ve built the collection over the last year. We started with 2.4 million items and we’re over 7 million now and we still have a ways to, we only have these service hubs in about 14 or 15 states right now and, so one of the big things that we’ll be doing over the next year is trying to expand that to obviously all 50 states.

Right, I mean, are there initiatives going on in all of the 50 states that you could tap into, that you know about?

There, in many of those states, there in fact are already some incipient hubs or networks that we can tap into and what’s really been gratifying over the last year is that at the start it was, I wouldn’t say it was like pulling teeth, but we really had to go out there and, and solicit these hubs and you know, we started with only six of these service hubs and now what’s happening is I think people are really excited about the Digital Public Library of America and they want to participate and so now we have the opposite problem [laughs]  where we have people coming to us and we just can’t keep up to, keep up with the ability to add in new hubs, both content hubs and service hubs, so I think we’re well on our way to starting to formulate those service hubs in all the regions of the United States and we’re obviously going to target certain states in the next 12 months where we really need to make an extra effort to bring them on board.

Does the DPLA ever plan to produce any of their own content? Or do you always see yourselves as being just an aggregator and a portal to other content?

I think we’re really in the aggregator business and I think there’s a lot of services that we can provide as a kind of overlay, a sort of layer on top of America’s collections, or that brings together America’s collections. So, I don’t think that we will be in the DLPA with the people will not be in the mass digitization business. We’re having trouble relying on others for the work down at the ground level, but we do provide a lot of services that I think people are appreciative of. Probably foremost for the hubs is we’re driving a lot of traffic to their sites, so Mountain West Digital Library which is based in Utah, saw a more than double the number of unique visitors over the last year since they joined the DPLA and in fact we just go a report from them that says they received more traffic, more visitors from DPLA  than from their Google, you know, which is for most websites, they receive almost all their traffic from a Google search and so it’s great that DPLA just in their first year is giving them that much traffic. But we also do services with the data, so I think a lot of what we’re doing is not with the, the digital items themselves, the scans themselves which we are leaving to others. But we’re doing a lot of data enhancements so when we bring in collections, for instance, we geocode as many items as possible so that means we sort of take these items and try to give a latitude and longitude coordinates to, to them and that means that we can really innovative interfaces like a map browse interface for our combined collection that really would never be done at the local level.

Yeah, and that brings up something else that I was going to talk about that you guys also have the, a lot of open APIs that you provide and there’s been a lot of great apps built on top of that. For the people who, the listeners who maybe not know what an API is, can you explain kind of what an API is and why it, that’s an important part of what DPLA does.

Sure. So, as I like to say, we’re both a portal and a platform. So the portal, I think, is really easy to understand, we have website DP.LA that everyone can go to and check out and find all those over 7 million items right there. But we also act as a platform, and a platform, as the word suggests, means that other people can build on top of what we have. And they do that through the API and through our data.

So, an API is an, what’s called an application programming interface which is a fancy way for software developers and other technologists to come in and take a specified slice of what we have and export it out to use in other context. So I think a good example of this is there is an iPhone app called OpenPics. You can find this in our app library and OpenPics use a API and the GPS signal that’s on everyone’s iPhone to locate where the viewer is and then to pull up materials that are right from around the location of the holder of the iPhone to show them historical photographs and other items from the neighborhood, city, town that they’re in. So it’s a great way to, in a sense, multiply the effects of having this combined digital library and allow others to build new things on top of it. You know, we only have a set number of ways into the collection. I think they’re really innovative, like our map interface, or timeline, or faceted browsing and some things that look a little bit more like traditional library search interfaces, but we have outside developers, many of whom we have not spoken to before who come in, get a key to use our API and that’s just totally open and free and then get really creative with how they use our collection and create their own kinds of interfaces and uses for our combined collection.

I know you’ve written sometimes on the DPLA blog and elsewhere of how copyright can sometimes be a barrier to open sharing, including there’s the new right of making available thing that the Library of Congress is. Basically, I think, you can correct me if I’m wrong here, that they, what that would basically make linking the copyright content an infringement as well as not just sharing the content itself.

That’s right. You know, I think your listeners should probably know that 2014 is the year that we probably will see some movement on various fronts on modernization of the copyright law and I was at a big meeting in Washington DC last month where they essentially had open panels talking about this process of modernization, some of the things the copyright office is thinking about doing and one of these things is, and that, the addition, possible addition of a right that would be given to content owners where they would have the exclusive right to link to a copyrighted item online. And this is, you know, it sounds like a little inside baseball and a little esoteric, but essentially this right exists now in some other countries and it’s part of an international copyright regime that’s done under WIPO, the World Intellectual Property Organization, that advocates this new right called the Making Available right. And it, it kind of came out of, my understanding is that it came out of concerns about anti-use like Pirate Bay and other clearly sketchy [laughs] websites that didn’t maybe have the copyrighted content, but acted as a place to go find links to that copyrighted content and so WIPO and the member organizations tried to come up with a, a new right that would make that, that kind of a site, like Pirate Bay infringing.

Now, I certainly understand that and I, we don’t want to violate copyright law either, but I think in making this new right, if it goes through, it would in fact in a sense criminalize some of what DPLA does because we cannot really thoroughly vet all 7 million items and soon this might be 70 million items, right. We can’t get the full copyright sets and all this, obviously we do our best with our partners and they have very careful rights statements, but some things can slip through the cracks and since we are in the business of indeed linking to other websites that hold content, some of it in the public domain, some of it still under rights restrictions that were very clear to our audience about, we have very clear rights statements on every page, but again, I think if we were to inadvertently link to a historical website, or another one of our over a thousand partners that might still be in copyright and was accidentally put online, it seems really silly for a library, a non-profit, an entity that is really trying to serve the public and to serve students and teachers to be in this sense culpable under this new law.

Right and can you talk about some other models for open  access that the DPLA supports? Like, I had a year student, a year two, two years ago I think I had Eric Hellman and Andromeda Yelton from Unglue.it on, so I know that one of the models that you guys support, can you talk about other models like that that you think are maybe a better model for supporting opening up intellectual conversations?

Sure, so I think that, I’m glad you brought this up cause I think that, you know, it’s often felt like there’s this complete opposition between open access and writer’s making a living, or publishers existing and I think libraries and publishers should be partners, right. And traditionally they have been and obviously there will be materials that will not be open access, or may never be open access, I mean I think it’s silly to think that we’re going to get Stephen King’s latest novel as an open access book within the first year, right? That seems unlucky, right? However, I think there are some really interesting models like Unglue.it and Knowledge Unlatched and I describe these in just a second, that are really being creative about finding ways to fund the editorial and publishing process and to pay the writer of a book, but also to provide a version of that book that is, in fact, open access or open access it after a certain time, that we still to find a way to provide democratic access to cultural materials. And especially in an age where we have Kindles and iPads and a lot of digital rights management systems that make it hard to open up even your own, owned material right, material that you might have on your own iPad is often hard to give to your partner, right, or to your child because of restrictions around it. So, I think we need to be creative about this.

So, Unglue.it, I think as you mentioned, if you had Eric Hellman on, is finding a way to, in a sense, crowdsource, sort of like Kickstarter I think if your audience knows Kickstarter, it’s really Kickstarter for books. Where the audience pitches in a certain amount of money, the author commits to making an open access copy of that book available on, again after that, that amount has been reached, you know some authors are asking for $10,000, some are asking for $5,000, some are asking for $8,000, whatever it is. And there’s a way if you have a favorite author to, in a sense, crowdfund their writing, or their releasing of a book that they own. Knowledge Unlatched takes another approach and they’ve been very successful as well. They’ve put together several hundred libraries as a consortium that together fund the publishing of books and so they’ve put together a, you know, a big amount of cash and then they distribute that to publishers and then publishers are then paid for the work and pay their authors and then provide an open access Creative Commons license book to Knowledge Unlatched.

The members of the consortium get a print version of that book, but there’s a CC by-license open access version that also goes up on a website that DPLA can link to. So, those are just two models and I think they’re many others as well. I think a lot of people don’t realize that the commercial window for most books is five years or less. 90% of books in that window will essentially exhaust the entire commercial market, but under current copyright law, we’re looking at the possibility of open access for those books might not be until the, well into the next century, right. We’re in the 21st century, if I read a book right now and hopefully live for another 50 years and then add another 50 years, 70 years on top of that, you know, you’re looking well out a hundred years or more before we can have an open access version of the book. Even though it has lost the entirety of its commercial value very early in that window. So, I do think we need to be creative about it and I hope DPLA can play a role in that creativity.

Yeah, I was going to ask about that. Do you, do you see DPLA as being sort of a, almost, I was thinking of it in terms of, when I was looking into like, into your bio and stuff that you have a history background so I was thinking do you kind of see DPLA as following in the footsteps of something like the Library Of Alexandria, where you’re kind of, not only just providing this access, this information, but you’re encouraging and facilitating the intellectual discussions as well?

Yeah, I think we see ourselves as being an advocate for openness and I think that DPLA even in its first year has, I think, encouraged a kind of snowball effect where as more and more organizations join in or open access stuff for it, it encourages others to join in. I think everyone’s getting more comfortable with the idea of it. I think, again, we’re, we’re promoting a variety of models for getting materials into this open access environment and so I think in that way we can sort of up the comfort level nationwide and indeed worldwide by collaborating with entities like Europeana, or Trove in Australia, or Digital NZ in New Zealand to advocate for a kind of wider circle, more maximal push towards openness.

Okay. And as you said, you’re working with other countries and things like this, but obviously America is in your title. Is there something besides the fact that you’re, I mean sort of America’s collections that you’re bringing together, is there anything like American sort of about the project that you see, other than being located in the wonderfully historic awesome public library.

Right [laughs] so we do, I mean, like any set of collections, you know, we have materials from around the world in the DPLA. In fact, about 30% of our items come from around the world, not from the United States. And, in fact, in Europe, Europeana which is sort of a large scale digital library there has materials from the US. I mean that’s just things do migrate around the world, as do people. Having said that, I think you can see, particularly in our exhibits, that we curated together some really important moments in American history, the Great Depression, the gold rush, civil rights movement, where we do have really core strengths from our hubs.

For instance, with the civil rights movement we have the Digital Library of Georgia which has this tremendous civil rights collection, has been able to curate for us a selection of those materials and contextualize this material so we can do exhibits online. So, yes, you know, we, we do have a segment of materials from around the world, but obviously we’re incredibly strong in American history and, and we have material from around the country, so I’ll think you’ll see more of these kind of curated exhibits on key moments in American history.

Yeah, I was going to ask about the exhibits. Is that something that, that the hubs are putting together? Or is that something that you all are putting together? Or are you all working together with them to make the exhibits?

Yes, so a lot of these are done by the hubs, you know the initial slate, I think we had each hub do one of them and now we’re working with some students in library and information science schools, that gold rush exhibit, for instance, and one on theater in the great depression were done by students, obviously along with the professor as well in library and information science schools and I think we would love to collaborate with others too who would like to pull together a set of a couple of dozen items from the collection and to write some materials around that. I think you’ll see that expanding over the next year.

Yeah, I was about to say that would have been a fantastic independent study kind of thing when I was in library school [laughs].

Oh absolutely, yeah.

I know when DPLA launched there were some people who complained about the name, they said that’s not a “public library,” but I think it really does get to the core of what public library’s missions are, that, in that this is material, this is being made available to the public, it’s important to the public. And I think that most of that quieted down after the initial announcement and everything. But, do you see that as an important part of what DPLA stands for? [laughs]

Sure. I mean, you know, I, I guess I bristle a little bit about complaints that we’re not doing enough in the public library realm and let me describe why. I fully understand that, I think particularly at the launch, the 2 million original items, you know we had a lot from university collections and if you look at our hubs we do have a number of university libraries there. But we also have Boston Public Library and New York Public Library there at the launch and I know those are large, urban libraries, but they are public libraries after all. So I think the question is what are we doing in the public library space for, let’s say, the small or rural public libraries so it’s 17,000 branch libraries across the US. And my response on this are a few things. First of all, I do think as you noted that there’s a lot of local collections and local history and, in fact, we have hubs that are bringing in materials from public libraries. Our hub in North Carolina has pulled together material from 50 public libraries in North Carolina and that’s important stuff and I, so I do bristle a little bit at those who discount the fact that a third of our collection in fact came from universities and colleges.

Less than a third. We had two-thirds that came from historical societies, from state and local and federal government entities, from public libraries. We had a large number of materials from public libraries. I think that number in fact has gone up since then. We have independent libraries, we have museums, so, you know, there is material there and I think we do want to do more work on that front. In fact, we received a million dollar grant from the Gates Foundation from their public library group in the fall to work more closely with public libraries. So, in fact, we just started the sponsor do training sessions for public librarians so that they can participate directly in the DPLA. So, you know, perhaps there’s a little bit under the radar, but there are in fact activities that are going on that directly support public libraries, that involve their materials as well.

Now, having said that, I think another piece of this perhaps criticism, which I agree has faded considerably since the launch, is why don’t you have the materials that are in public libraries? Why don’t you have Stephen King’s latest novel? And I think as I just explained earlier, nobody has [laughs] Stephen King’s latest novel. It’s a very hard get, it, you know, and, but I do understand that part of what we need to do is have materials that, like e-books, right, that the public is starting to expect from public libraries and I think we’re cognizant of that and we are working toward, I think, a broader agenda that would involve more recent e-books. We have, in fact, 1.6 million books in the DPLA, but a lot of those in fact are older public domain books from a century or more ago. We understand that and so we are working and have worked over the last year to figure out ways by working with partners like Knowledge Unlatched, or Unglue It, or others to pull together more recent books and not just esoteric books, but books that are of interest to the public. And we also have, I think, a sort of growing set of, what I would consider amateur enthusiasts. People who go to the public library to look at a book on coin collecting, or on NASCAR, or what have you. We’ve got lots of materials of interest to these people and so I think by saying that we’re not a public library, I think it, again, it just doesn’t jive with the facts of, in fact what the collection exists of, how people are using it, how we are in fact making efforts to do outreach to public libraries and to the possibilities of new kinds of materials joining the collection in the coming years that are, let’s say, a bit more public library-ish.

Okay, well let’s move to support. Can you talk about the community reps that you have and how that works?

Yeah, well I, well first of all I’d encourage everyone who’s listening to this to [laughs], especially if this is before April 30th to apply on our site to be a community rep. You can go to DPLA/reps and sign up. We already have 100 reps from 36 states and 2 foreign countries, we’re looking to expand across the entire US and so we’re looking for folks who are not on our map yet, you can see our map of where the existing reps are from. We see the reps as a kind of force multiplier for the DPLA. They are out there in their communities. They evangelize for the DPLA’s. So they hold events like Hackathons and educational events that let people know and use art collection. Again, they can be around specific local collection topics. They can be around, again specific app building ideas. We have reps who are going to go into classrooms and talk to students about what they can find in the DPLA. So, right now in 2014 it’s really about getting the word out because we still, we still feel that there are many people across the country who haven’t heard about the DPLA and could make use of our open collection, so they’re a big part of that.

They’re also kind of our eyes and ears on the ground to help us understand what people are looking for. You know, we have an active listserv and ideas and thoughts that are exchanged among the community reps. They also do fun things like hand out t-shirts and stickers and these kinds of things. So there’s good, good swag involved with the, the DPLA community reps. And, you know, I think in the longer run, I think again they’ll be helpful in that we would like to have local events, anniversaries, these sorts of things that involve the DPLA and potentially in the long run help to, to bring online some material that’s not online yet in their communities. Europeana, for instance, has had for the hundredth anniversary of the first world war, they sort of had a community event set up at public libraries where people could come in and scan their local materials, materials from granddad’s shoebox that is materials from the first world war, so they had events like that that helped people with their own family history and personal digitization, but for us right now, since we’re just getting started, that’s a little bit farther out. But I think the reps are really a key part of our network.

And last fall you had a DPLA fest. Is that something you’d want to do again? And can you kind of talk about how that went the first time?

We do. Yeah it was fantastic. I think we had over 700 people sign up and for the first DPLA fest and this was planned from the start to be an annual event, however we, because of unfortunately the Boston Marathon bombings, this was originally it was supposed to be in April 2013, we had to move it to late October 2013 and so we thought it would be a little aggressive for us to try to put on another huge event just six months later this month, April 2014. So, and especially since we’re just so busy in this start up phase, our next DPLA fest will be in April 2015 and we are in fact looking for a host site, I think this is something that we’ll rotate around the country, we want to get people involved all across the country, so you’ll be seeing news soon about where we’d like to host this for 2015 and some of the dates as well, so that’s something that absolutely we want to, to have every year and again more regularly starting in 2015.

That’s great, yeah, everything I read about it sound like it was a great time, so.

Oh, it was, it was a great deal of fun and I think that through the community reps program, it was a great way to generate new ideas, to involve more people and we’ve always been about openness and transparency in our community and so these kinds of events are really important for us.

So, Dan, are there some other ways that people can support and get involved with DPLA?

There are. So, beyond the community reps program, we have a very active community that’s involved in our open calls. So if you go to our website and look under Get Involved, there’s all the different ways that people can get involved, but I’ll just highlight this one. There are committees on various topics like our legal committee which looks at the landscape and things like copyright, outreach and dissemination and those are committees that are open, our committee calls that are open to all.

And so every month we have an open call and, you know, you can sign up, join us on the call, we encourage everyone to speak, if you want to be a lurker that’s okay, but we really do encourage others to, to join in and to get involved with their ideas, with their energy and, and let us know what, you know how they can help out. So I think that’s a great way to get involved. We also have open board calls once a month, so we have a terrific board for a non-profit and you can tune in to those calls as well. And so once a month I provide an overall update to the board and we have an open discussion with the public, so it’s a very transparent organization and I think there’s many ways beyond the community reps to get involved in a very specific kind of thing that you’re interested in.

That’s great. Can you tell people, the listeners, how they can connect with DPLA online?

Sure. Well, first thing to do is go right to dp.la and you can explore all the different elements of the DPLA at our top navigation bar, that includes a lot of material about the DPLA and includes that Get Involved tab. You can become a donor to the DPLA, I didn’t mention that, but we have a personal donation program that starts at just a couple of bucks a month if you want to support what we’re doing and you get awesome kinds of swag from us. Just connect with us in other locations. We have a whole host of ways to use and view the DPLA beyond our website at DP.LA, so we have a very active Tumblr if any of the audience are big Tumblrs, at digitalpubliclibraryofamerica.tumblr.com, I know it’s a little verbose, but you can type that whole thing out, you’ll get to us once and you can subscribe to our Tumblr view which is awesome. Today we are featuring hilarious dogs from our collection. We do have, important historical material and we also have silly, a lot of silly stuff as well. And some great dog and cat photos that we’ve been featuring lately. So.

I think it’s important on Tumblr to be silly, so [laughs].

It is, it is. We are very active Twitter stream, we’re just @DPLA, so, nice and short on the Twitter [laughs] and we’re also on Facebook, you can just find us, I think it’s Facebook.com/digitalpubliclibraryofamerica. So, we are available in your normal places to be social and media and it’s, if you follow us there we’re always happy to interact in those various places, where our staff is also very active on, on social media in connecting in those places as well as through our apps as well. We have an app library which you can find at the bottom of our home page and so we have lots of people, in fact we have 9 million hits to our API over the last year. We had over a million unique visitors to our site, we were at 9 million hits on our API, so a lot of people are interacting with our collection through various apps and you can see all those apps on our website.

Yeah, I remember the Twitter name, that you had to kind of fight to get that DPLA name, that somebody else had already taken it.

We did, no, I know, there was someone that had an unused account, hadn’t logged in in three years and the gods at Twitter were, very kindly donated it to the cause because we were really worried we would have some extremely verbose Twitter handle that no-one would get. So if you knew Mark Zuckerberg, we would love a shorter URL on Facebook too [laughs]. How about it, Steve?

[laughs] Well, let’s see, my good friend Mr Zuckerberg [laughs].


All right, well, Dan, thank you so much for talking to me for the show and for letting everybody know all about DPLA.

Thanks so much, great to be on the podcast and hope to see all of your audience members online and on our site and other places as well. It’s great to talk to you.

Right, thanks. Bye bye.

Take care.


Spring won’t.

Yeah, god. It seems there’s a lot around, huh.

Spring won’t come. Yeah cause down here, I’m in metro Atlanta area, you know we had all the pollen fall so we have all that, but then it got cold again too, so it’s kind of everything all at once [laughs] hitting you, so.

Yeah [coughs].