Monday, October 24, 2011

The Other Digital Divide - "Bringing the Local Community Out"

The "digital divide" refers to the unbalanced state between those individuals and communities who have access to digital information and those who do not. The divide often refers to those who have access to the Internet (often the term refers to access to  broadband service) and those who do not. But a digital divide does not only exist for access, I think it is also important to recognize those who cannot upload information so that it can be shared by a wide-range of people around the world. I am specifically thinking about cultural heritage institutions that are unable to take advantage of computers to share their holdings. Lacking a digital initiative, many such institutions are in danger of getting left behind and thus making themselves antiquated. I believe that allowing such institutions to fall behind puts their communities at risk and has the potential to leave broad gaps in our knowledge about the past few centuries.

Though this has been on my radar for a long time, I began thinking more about this last week when I was able to catch some of the proceedings of the Digital Public Library of America plenary meeting. There are large players on the steering committee of DPLA such the Library of Congress, CLIR, IMLS, NARA, government major universities, large city public libraries, and information management companies such as the Internet Public Library who have big ideas. DPLA even announced a collaboration with its European counterpart, Europeana, which has exciting and dynamic implications for the global sharing of cultural heritage resources.  I was left wondering how small institutions with few resources can take part.

Many small institutions continue to struggle to keep their doors open. They may have fabulous collections, but they have no staff to administer them. They certainly have no money to digitize them. There have been many recent discussions among the professional literature about whether these institutions should stay open. Will the present economy in effect "weed out" the struggling small museum and historical society and make our remaining institutions stronger in the end? I think that the DPLA is another obstacle to the small institutions' success that needs to be evaluated.

I searched the DPLA web site to see how small local organizations are being considered. I think the American Culture and History Online project most closely matches the kind of project that I was seeking. It examines local collections that are being digitized primarily through state run library projects. The vision of the project includes these illuminating words,

"In the prior, unconnected age, the public library was the intermediary for bringing the world in to the local community
In the current, connected age, the public library can be the intermediary for bringing the local community out to the world."

The project makes sense for states and regions that are supported by library systems that already have a networking culture, but states like my own (NH) that lacks much formal networking will find it difficult to work with DPLA in this way. It will be a challenge for DPLA to find ways to reach out to those who do not already have a collaborative culture.

It seems obvious to me that any community that does not get "brought out" is at a great disadvantage. They may be left as ghost towns along the "information superhighway" (for those old enough to remember that term.) Will lacking the ability to provide information about a town keep people away from the town? For example, I think about the tourism factor, I am more likely to visit a place with a fabulous web site that stresses their local identity -- history, restaurants, events and the like -- rather than visiting a place about which I can learn little before my visit. Beyond tourism, lacking an Internet presence will also dampen the interest of researchers, businesses and more, shutting communities out of opportunities.

In my next post, I will discuss more about why we should not let small collecting institutions miss the great digital push. Antiquated access and a local focus does not negate the value of their collections to a greater society.


  1. The DPLA content and scope workstream had a great discussion about building communities through collections, pointing out that it is often smaller local history collections provide a unique perspective and roll in collection building.
    I would encourage you to look to the NDPL meeting happening next month in Los Angeles that will be addressing how to get more public libraries involved in digitization -
    Although focused on public libraries, I am sure we will be also addressing the needs of smaller cultural heritage organizations. Great post! - Rachel Frick

  2. Thanks Rachel! I'll check out the information about the LA meeting