My DPLA Beta-Sprint Proposal: The movie

Please see my updated and more complete Digital Public Library of America Beta-Sprint Proposal. The following posting is/was a precursor.

The organizers of the Digital Public Library of America asked the Beta-Sprint Proposers to create a video outlining the progress of their work. Below is the script of my video as well as the video itself. Be gentle with me. Video editing is difficult.


My name is Eric Morgan. I am a Digital Projects Librarian here at the University of Notre Dame, and I am going to outline, ever so briefly, my Digital Public Library of America Beta-Sprint Proposal. In a nutshell, the Proposal describes, illustrates, and demonstrates how the core functionality of a library can move away from “find & get” and towards “use & understand”.

Find & get

With the advent of ubiquitous and globally networked computers, the characteristics of data and information have fundamentally changed. More specifically, things like books and journals — the traditional meat and potatoes of libraries — no longer need to be manifested in analog forms, and their digital manifestations lend themselves to new functionality. For example, digital versions of books and journals can be duplicated exactly, and they are much less limited to distinct locations in space and time. This, in turn, has made things like the search engines of Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft a reality. Compared to twenty years ago, this has made the problem of find & get much less acute. While the problem of find & get will never completely be resolved, many people feel the problem is addressed simply enough. Enter a few words into a search box, click Go, and select items of interest.

Use & undertand

The problem of find & get is always a means to an end, and not the end itself. People want to do things with the content they find. I call these things “services against texts” and they are denoted by action verbs such as analyze, annotate, cite, compare & contrast, confirm, delete, discuss, evaluate, find opposite, find similar, graph & visualize, learn from, plot on a map, purchase, rate, read, review, save, share, summarize, tag, trace idea, or transform. Thus, the problem of find & get is evolving into the problem of use & understand. I ask myself, “What services can be provisioned to make the sense of all the content one finds on the Internet or in a library?” In my opinion, the answer lies in the combination of traditional library principles and the application of computer science. Because libraries are expected to know the particular information needs of their constituents, libraries are uniquely positioned to address the problem of use & understand. Not Google. Not Yahoo. Not Microsoft.


How do we go about doing this? We begin by exploiting the characteristics of the increasingly available of full text content. Instead of denoting the length of a book by the number of pages it contains, we measure it by the number of words. Thus, we will be able to unambiguously compare & contrast the lengths of documents. By analyzing the lengths of paragraphs, the lengths of sentences, and the lengths of words in a document, we will be able to calculate readability scores, and we will be better able to compare & contrast the intended reading levels of a book or article. By tabulating the words or phrases in multiple documents and then comparing those tabulations with each other libraries will make it easier for readers to learn about the similarities and differences between items in a corpus. Such a service will enable people to answer questions like, “How does the use of the phrase ‘good man’ differ between Plato, Aristotle, and Shakespeare?” If there were tools aware of the named people and places in a document, then a reader’s experience could be enriched with dynamic annotations and plots on a world map. Our ability to come up with ideas for additional services against texts is only limited by our imagination and our ability to understand the information needs of our clientele. My Beta Sprint Proposal demonstrates how many of these ideas can be implemented today and with the currently available technology.

Thank you

Thank you for the opportunity to share some of my ideas about the Digital Public Library of America, my Beta Sprint Proposal, and the role of libraries in the near future.

Published by

Eric Lease Morgan

Artist- and Librarian-At-Large

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