Recently, DPLA has been making waves throughout the library community with the recent layoffs of six employees – a developer, a web designer, an ebook team member, an administrator, a metadata librarian, and a curation and education specialist. Considering that it is the Digital Public Library of America, the laying off of a metadata librarian seems a particularly disturbing choice. While many questions from earlier this week remain unanswered, DPLA has attempted to provide a few vague answers.
Throughout the course of our class discussion on the topic, the question occurred to me – the mission of the Digital Public Library of America (just from its name alone) makes it sound awfully similar to that of a National Library/National Museum. But we have the Library of Congress as our National Library. Oh, wait. It’s the Library of Congress. I’m so confused! Whose job is it to curate, preserve, and display our cultural heritage?
Let’s begin by taking a look at the mission statements of the respective organizations. The DPLA mission (insofar that it can be found on the website) is: “The Digital Public Library of America empowers people to learn, grow, and contribute to a diverse and better-functioning society. We do this by maximizing public access to our share history, culture, and knowledge.”
On the surface, the Library of Congress’ mission is: “The mission of Library Services is to develop qualitatively the Library’s universal collections, which document the history and further the creativity of the American people and which record and contribute to the advancement of civilization and knowledge throughout the world, and to acquire, organize, provide access to, maintain, secure, and preserve these collections.” Aside from issues of public access, the missions sound quite similar.
Upon further research, the Library of Congress website also states: “The primary function of the Library of Congress is to serve the Congress. In addition, the Library provides service to government agencies, other libraries, scholars, and the general public. The Library welcomes public use of its general reference facilities and endeavors to offer the widest possible use of its collections consistent with their preservation and with its obligation to serve the Congress and other government agencies.” This webpage goes on to detail that the general public is only permitted use of the library’s collections once every other resource (public libraries, open access databases, academic libraries, and special libraries) have been exhausted. A member of the general public may only use the Library of Congress physical collections as a last resort.
The primary function of the Library of Congress is to serve Congress. This isn’t to say that they don’t have services and programs intended for the general public. In fact, they urge members of the general public to participate in their Beyond Words project to discover and transcribe old newspaper cartoons. They have digital resources for teachers and digital collections available to the public.
While the Library of Congress was not originally intended as a National Library, it has certainly expanded into that role, even if its primary function (in terms of its physical collections) is to serve members of Congress.
DPLA, on the other hand, is entirely digital, while only a portion of the Library of Congress is digital. LOC curates and displays artifacts within its possession, while DPLA curates objects from all over the country – from the largest museum to the smallest historical society. Like a true library, DPLA offers research guides to help its patrons.
Of course, the biggest difference between Library of Congress and DPLA is funding. The Library of Congress is a government agency while DPLA is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. DPLA has received grants from all of the big names: the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the IMLS, to name a few. A more complete list of grants received by the DPLA and the projects they fund can be found here.
But our question remains: whose job is it to preserve our cultural heritage? Technically, it’s not the job of the Library of Congress – not according to their historical purpose, though they have certainly stepped into the role. And who’s to say it’s any one organization’s job? The United States does not have an official National Library and the U.S. government has other priorities at present. The Library of Congress is doing the best job it can and the National Archives has their hands full. The DPLA is doing important work, even if many believe the project and its funding is being questionably managed. I, for one, am glad that multiple organizations are interested in and actively working on digitally preserving our cultural heritage.