Libraries: Setting the Context

From National Efforts to Create Digital Archives to Local Efforts at Access Equality

Libraries and museums have a common core characteristic as stewards of collections that can be made available to others. There is a drive toward preservation informing the mission of both kinds of institutions, what Derrida (1995) has called “the archontic principle.” As digital technology made impacts on the modes of preservation available to libraries, several efforts were made at the national level to bring together research and practices for digital preservation, along with the means for institutions to share access to their collections. As digital technologies and personal computing grew more ubiquitous among the general public, community libraries were recognized for their potential to serve as an internet resource for people who did not otherwise have access to the web. These two strands within the literature on digital media and libraries inform this post. The focus here is on the United States, in part due to the US based nodes the MacArthur Foundation plans to support in its efforts at establishing distributed learning networks mentioned in the previous post.

Digital Archives and Distributed Networks of Preservation

Efforts to digitize library holdings go back to the 1970s, with Project Gutenberg as an early example (Maidenberg, 2008). In 1995, a group of organizations working to digitize their holdings formed the Digital Library Federation as a way to pool resources for infrastructure research and best practices based in collective experience (Kresh, 2007). Funding and institutional support from the US government came around the same time as millennial panics about the loss of digital data and increased circulation of the terms information society and knowledge economy (Ross & Hedstrom, 2005). Smith (2006) writes “in December 2000, recognizing that born-digital content of value to the nation is at risk of being lost to current and future generations, Congress created the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program – NDIIPP.” The Library of Congress was charged with oversight of the program, which funded research for digital infrastructures that would support a distributed network of multiple kinds of digital objects (LeFurgy, 2005). Over time, Congress has approved the extension of this network to include state, regional, and international organizations and an increasing number of private sector partners with stakes in preservation technology (Smith, 2006). Funding for the technical architecture was meant to address four critical areas of investment:

1. building a distributed storage platform to help preserving institutions attain redundant and geographically disbursed storage of digital materials at low cost;

2. establishing protocols for preservation-quality data transfer;

3. developing and testing tools and services for ingest, storage, metadata, and formats and

4. developing practices and standards for assessing the quality of preservation systems (Smith, 2006).

The National Science Foundation also sought to support a distributed network of specialized digital holdings in the form of the National Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology Educational Digital Library (NSDL). The NSDL “comprises a set of projects engaged in a collective effort to build a national digital library of high quality science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) educational materials for students and teachers at all levels, in both formal and informal settings” (Zia, 2001). As a repository for learning environments and educational materials, the NSDL faced distinct challenges from the NDIIPP or other projects that have focused on knowledge stored in print form.

References to the library at Alexandra come up repeatedly in reflections upon the possibility of interconnected digital libraries that would together serve as a repository for all the knowledge produced by humankind (Kresh, 2007). Since its announcement in 2004, Google’s Google Books project has received the most attention for its attempt to digitize every book that has been published and create such a repository (Coyle, 2006; Jeanneney, 2005; Maidenberg, 2008; Toobin, 2007). The company began working towards this goal through partnerships with university-based libraries and publishing companies and are currently working with US courts to create a settlement agreement from (Pickler, 2009) a class-action suit by the US Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers. The embedded nature of Google’s profit structures and the search tools that serve as access points for users has caused concern among many in the publishing, preservation, and copyright trades since 2004. Responses include the creation of the Open Content Alliance (OCA), which is simultaneously undertaking the mass digitization of books with the goal of creating a digital repository for shared digital media, including its metadata (Maidenberg, 2005) and international outcry against Google’s cultural politics and economic structure (“German Authors,” 2009; Jeanneney, 2005; Picker, 2009)

On one of Google’s self-published blogs, the company emphasizes the ways their project will create access for larger populations to works that can be difficult to find (Smith, 2009). Leetaru (2008) describes Google’s project and those of its competitors as one of access digitization rather than preservation digitization. The difference mostly comes down to the digital formats used to create a digitized version of an analog form. Coyle (2006) creates a similar distinction between “mass digitization” and “non-mass digitization.” The expense and technical support required for digital preservation contributes to the willingness of preservation institutions to collaborate with other institutions or digitization projects as part of their mission to sustain the relevance of their collections for digital publics.

Access and Digital Inequality

The emphasis on access in the mission statements of both Google Books and the OCA fits with discourses surrounding the term the digital divide, which emerged in the mid 1990s as more households and business connected individuals with the web (Estabrook et al., 2007; Gates Foundation, 2004; Hargittai, 2003; Jenkins et al., 2006; Kafai et al., 2007; Warschauer, 2003). Beginning in 1995, the US Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) produced a series of reports titled Falling Through the Net that provided empirical grounds for recognizing stratification “in the use of information technology, attributable largely to socioeconomic factors of race, income, education, and geography” (Gates Foundation, 2004, p. 6). Over time, the term itself has been criticized for oversimplifying how inclusion and participation in digital economies and publics works in relation to the socioeconomic factors mentioned above (Hargittai, 2003; Jenkins et al., 2006; Kafai et al., 2007; Warschauer, 2003). The NTIA has changed the title of its reports to A Nation Online. Hargittai (2003) proposed the term digital inequality: “a refined understanding of the ‘digital divide’ that emphasizes a spectrum of inequality across segments of the population depending on differences along several dimensions of technology access and use.”

The MacArthur Foundation’s DML Initiative is part of the shift away from what Warschauer (2003) and others have characterized as a device based model for understanding the benefits of access to ICT. Research reports from Jenkins (2006) and Ito (2008) are rooted in a literacy based model of ICT access (Warschauer, p.46). This shift came about in part from the disappointing results of early efforts to put computers in the hands of people who were considered to be on the wrong side of the gap (Kafai et al., 2007; Warschauer, 2003). Hargittai (2003) and others have advocated for public policy that supports “affordable access to the telecommunications network” in the form of universal service and promotes autonomy of use or “the freedom to use technologies when, where and how one wishes.” The series of posts on this blog that provide information on new media practices in globalized regional contexts point to specific manifestations of digital inequality as well as ingenuity in efforts at autonomy of use.

Two key reports (Estabrook, 2007; Gates Foundation, 2004) that address US public libraries as sites where people make use of the Internet’s resources mirror an increasing emphasis among library professionals to serve their communities in ways that incorporate digital technologies (Kresh, 2007). University libraries are focusing on comprehensive digital resources for their students through subscriptions to digital archives of scholarly publications like JSTOR, while public libraries are developing strategies for utilizing their physical spaces to connect patrons to digital resources and learning opportunities (Kresh, 2007).

In the 2004 Gates Foundation report Toward Equality of Access: The Role of Public Libraries in Addressing the Digital Divide provided statistical data supporting libraries as a site of Internet use for groups that categorically lacked other means of access. The report also acknowledged libraries as a site that facilitated the learning of computer-related skills through its staff and computer training classes. The 2007 report Information Searches that Solve Problemssponsored by the Pew Internet & American Life project and the University of Illinois School of Library and Information Science presents results from a national survey of how Americans across socioeconomic factors utilized various resources to deal with specific types of problems. The study found that the Internet was the top source of information for problem-solving and that 65% of adults who went to a library for problem-solving help said that access to computers, particularly the internet, was key reason they go to the library for help. And 62% of adults who went to the library for help actually used the computers at the library (Estabrook, 2007).


Although the Library of Congress initiated its NDIIPP program with the aim of creating a shared infrastructure and policies for the preservation of national heritage, it is also currently focused upon access and participation, with the launch of a collaboration with as a key example (Springer et al., 2008). This collaboration leverages existing commercial social media networks to facilitate forms of user contributions such as comments and tags. A report on the success of the pilot program mentions that the collaboration between the Library and Flickr led the website to establish The Commonsand serve as a link between digital image archives and various publics. On its website, Flickr claims its twin goals with the project are

1. To increase access to publicly-held photography collections, and

2. To provide a way for the general public to contribute information and knowledge.

While the Library of Congress seeks to make its collections available to more visitors than could reach its physical location, as will be discussed in our next posting, local libraries are working to create physical settings that promote learning in the digital age.


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