On April 27, DPLA West brought together over 400 librarians, technologists, public policy advocates, and a very small number of publishers at the Internet Archive in San Francisco to discuss the progress of the most visible effort yet to forge a common digital library for both Americans and the world: the nascent Digital Public Library of America. The best thing about the meeting, the second major public gathering of the DPLA, was that it was full of hope and aspirations. Of course, that was also the worst thing about the DPLA meeting, too.

Born of a vision to deliver unparalleled resources to public view, DPLA is struggling—albeit with some success—to define a development path that will deliver a working prototype by April 2013, a grant-imposed deadline in exchange for a more than $5 million dollar commitment from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Arcadia Fund, as well as considerable volunteer staff time. Something is sure to be developed by then, but what that is something is will be evaluated in light of priorities that are only now emerging.

Blessed with brilliant and dedicated staff at Havard's Berkman Center, the DPLA was also saddled at birth with no obvious governance, and only a loose set of “workstreams,” committees that lack the means to coordinate goals or activities. It has an executive director, John Palfrey, who is moving from Harvard to a new job as the headmaster of the Phillips Academy; a spokesperson in Robert Darnton who has little connection with the running of the project; a steering committee that is more a loose set of stakeholders than a functioning board; and a fundamental lack of articulation between the goals of high-end research universities, like Harvard, archival repositories, such as HathiTrust and the Internet Archive, and the public library system. And yet, DPLA might still emerge as something amazing.

Fundamental things became clearer in San Francisco. The steering committee is charting a path that would deliver something more like a distributed network of digital library collections, rather than a single centralized repository. DPLA would start by aggregating descriptive metadata about existing collections that would be slowly built up around the country. DPLA would provide a central place for search and discovery and a set of tools and APIs that would enable users to work with materials from both DPLA’s network and from non-participant sites, both commercial and not-for-profit. Palfrey described DPLA’s goals as fivefold: an open source code base; metadata; content delivery; tools and services; and community.

On the administrative side, DPLA is almost certain to be a 501(c)3 not-for-profit, although it might be “adopted” at the start as a program by an existing organization. A search for a badly needed, full-time Executive Director will commence shortly, with a job description due by the June, 2012 ALA meeting in Anaheim, CA. Harvard has already declared that it does not consider itself a candidate to house an independent DPLA—probably a wise choice—and various future locations are being discussed, with conjecture leaning toward either Washington, D.C. or the West Coast.

Susan Hildreth, a DPLA steering committee member and head of the IMLS, which funds digitization projects at local levels, accentuated her desire for DPLA to build on those resources special and unique to each community, identifying “centers of capacity” that would assist smaller and under-resourced libraries in making their collections more broadly available. San Francisco Public Library might, for example, assist smaller libraries with digitization or content description. Hildreth’s vision for DPLA is that of an organization that would grow incrementally, with a funding and income curve to match, initially providing access to unique, local material already digitized by Federal funding. As Brewster Kahle said, DPLA’s goal should be for “every library to be a digital library.”

But this is also the time for the DPLA community to start making some difficult choices, observed Mackenzie Smith—and attendees offered a cacophony of wildly disparate visions. Some public librarians want DPLA to fight the good fight with big publishers, liberating frontlist e-books for digital lending across America. “Publishers should not set public policy,” they argue, and DPLA should take a role in ensuring that people have access to published information. As one audience member noted, the digital divide is rapidly becoming a content divide. Kahle announced his desire to broaden access to 20th Century literature, much of it still in copyright, by digitizing library collections and making them available for a 1-copy/1-user borrowing system, such as that provided by the Internet Archive's Open Library, in concert with State libraries. Others argued for the digitization of new materials, and the collection of born-digital content beyond texts, to include film, video, music, and other material.

There were particularly eloquent pleas provided by the United States' Archivist, David Ferriero, and Carl Malamud of Public Resource, to digitize government documents and publications and make them broadly available to the public. This initiative is backed by several Steering Committee members, such as Paul Courant of the University of Michigan. Working with government documents has many advantages—they are of broad interest; many have already been digitized; and although much remains to be cataloged, “gov docs” is a well-defined and reasonable goal.

Despite this broad appeal, however, the Government Printing Office has recently backpedaled from an expansive access policy under its new leadership. Malamud was particularly stirring in describing how Federally-mandated rules and regulations were restricted in their circulation by being available only in print copies for fees that ranged into the hundreds of dollars. In contrast, Ferriero has done yeoman’s work at NARA in working to make the Federal Register and other critical U.S. government documents more accessible.

While DPLA outcomes are still being debated, an engineering team at Harvard is roughing out some early code that might underpin DPLA services. Based on the presumption that DPLA will enable re-mix applications via linked data techniques, the tech group is trying to make realistic decisions about what it can accomplish by April 2013, when a working prototype needs to be running. The team has the challenge of deciding what to borrow from existing work, what to craft on their own, and how much they can expect external developers to build. For example, the Archive’s Open Library is a working open-source RDF triple-store database that could be easily incorporated into DPLA with additional investment. The Harvard engineers are building some sample tools that demonstrate applications, such as shlv.me, which permits a user to build and share shelves of books, movies, albums, and other media from across the internet; and Stack View, a related book visualization and browsing tool that turns metadata into a browsable, visual stack of books.

At the end of the day, participants were left with hope for progress, and anxiety over the need for progress and organizational clarification. As Carl Malamud observed:

“John Adams made that point so eloquently when he said that if we believe that ‘truth, liberty, justice, and benevolence are the everlasting basis of law and government,’ then we must arm our citizens with knowledge. This right to bear knowledge is far more important than the Second Amendment …the knowledge lobby should be far more powerful than the gun lobby. John Adams said we must ‘let the public disputations become researches into the grounds and nature and ends of government.’ We must “spread far and wide the ideas and the sensations of freedom.” He said that ‘we must let every sluice of knowledge be opened and set a-flowing.’

Despite challenges and uncertainty, DPLA’s higher-order goals are so clear, and so positive, that the hard work of this many dedicated individuals, with the support of generous funders, most surely will deliver public insight and participation.