Book Forum on Philanthropy in Democratic Societies / New Works in the Field / Philanthropy and Democracy

Designing nonprofits for the digital age: Lessons from the Digital Public Library of America

Editors’ Note: For this current forum, we have asked the authors of the recently-published volume Philanthropy in Democratic Societies to present synopses of their contributions. Here, Lucy Bernholz discusses her chapter on the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). 

The story of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) fits into the volume, Philanthropy in Democratic Societies, as an illustrative case on the nature of civil society in a digitally-dependent age. It looks at the intersections between philanthropic funding, nonprofit governance, and digital materials. The particular focus is on how the nature of digital resources – both content and infrastructure – is challenging philanthropy’s traditional liminal place between governments and markets.

As an entity, the DPLA only dates back to 2010. As a step in the long process of digitizing texts the history extends back several decades. The history of intellectual property law provides a centuries’ old frame for thinking about the DPLA, rooting digital innovation in questions about state control of information, individual ownership rights, attribution and fair use . As an example of the interactions between philanthropy and libraries, the DPLA draws from precedents as far back as Renaissance Italy. And as an example of the tensions between what’s public, what’s private and who determines those boundaries, the DPLA is part of a story dating back to the earliest forms of democratic governance.

The Digital Public Library of America is a creator of code, a repository of metadata, and a network of relationships. It is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, with offices in Boston and community representatives around the country. It exists to support and assist efforts to digitize the great collections of libraries in the U.S, connect them to each other, and make those collections more accessible to anyone, anywhere.

Most important for scholars of philanthropy, the DPLA is an example of our continued faith in nonprofits as a mechanism for donating private resources to public good. At the same time, it also embodies the challenges that digital resources, online networks, and global constituencies bring to bear on these mechanisms.

The DPLA was founded by a group of scholars, librarians, and activists. Many of them had been involved in similar efforts to manage digital copies of books, maps, journals, artwork and other “library stuff.” In the early years of internet search and eBooks there was much ado about the future of libraries. This, it turns out, is a consistent characteristic of libraries over time – every new communications technology from the printing press to VCRs causes a tumult of introspection and future planning. The digital revolution had already birthed the Internet Archive and the Hathi Trust by the time Robert Darnton, Harvard University Librarian at the time, published a cri d’couer for a “national digital library” in The New York Review of Books.

Over the next few years, Darnton and colleagues would go about imagining, raising funds for, and leading design discussions with librarians, policymakers, authors, readers, bookshop owners, museum managers, technologists and anyone else who wanted to participate about what a national digital library could look like. The effort was shaped, on one side, by the rapid pace of book digitization being led by Google, Inc. The company had announced its intentions to digitize the world’s knowledge at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2004. The announcement (intentionally) sent shock waves through the publishing, library, and authorial worlds. Some thought it the end of publishing. These people quickly sued. Others thought it a liberating approach to human knowledge. The pressure of commercial innovation and the lawsuits about ownership, intellectual property rights, and the role of libraries lasted until 2015 (and in some forms continues today).

The other side of the DPLA’s story was shaped by the role of the government, in particular the Library of Congress. While the world digitized all around it, and nations and regions from every corner of the globe launched national digital library efforts, the Library of Congress did nothing. Its digitization efforts had lagged for years, and there was no appetite among the library’s leadership (and probably little funding available from Congress) to take on such a new and complicated challenge.

For the first half decade after Google’s announcement, many in the library world were enthusiastic about the potential for universal digitization. As the effort proceeded, major university libraries signed on to make their collections available to the company’s book scanning machines. Meanwhile, lawsuits wound through the courts. As years passed, the coalition of librarians and others counting on Google to do the hard work of scanning the world’s books as a public good began to have their doubts. Should these materials all be scanned, and access to them thus controlled, by a commercial enterprise? Lacking a truly public option, was there any other way to protect these resources? Finally, it was concerns about who would make the rules about digitized culture, who would govern access, make decisions about censorship, or ensure that materials wouldn’t be prioritized according to profit motives that led to the founding of the DPLA.

Having landed on the need for some form of public oversight, and being unable to move the Library of Congress to the job, the DPLA’s founders’ turned to the nonprofit structure. As historian Jonathan Levy shows in his chapter in Philanthropy in Democratic Societies, managing private resources for public benefit, and ensuring some level of public accountability, is what nonprofit organizations had emerged to do. It is in this process of choosing a nonprofit structure and seeking foundation funding that the DPLA’s story speaks to the broader theme of philanthropy’s place in a democracy. The group of scholars, librarians, and archivists whose work led to the DPLA included early supporters of Google’s commercial efforts as well as those who thought it was the role of the government, specifically the Library of Congress, to create and host a national digital library. The decision to establish a philanthropically-funded nonprofit to fill this role on behalf of the nation was by no means pre-destined. Early negotiations with funders, as well as final choices about governance options (conducted on a public wiki), the immediate topics of maintaining public access in the face of corporate control and limited government appetite; all posed – writ small – the questions of what role should philanthropy and nonprofits play in our society?

Having hurdled this first governance challenge, the founders faced others. Partly inspired by a desire to match the function to the form, the group spent a year imagining governance structures that could mimic the distributed, horizontal, redundant design of the internet. These ideas ran aground on the practical need to raise philanthropic dollars and account for them, within the bounds of existing nonprofit law. How could they weave together the idealistic notions of local control and openness with the hierarchical demands of nonprofit boards and fiscal reporting? It is these questions, and the DPLA’s ongoing efforts to address them, that serve as signals of emergent social sector organizational forms. For example, as the DPLA shifted from an association of peers, united by a common interest, to a nonprofit organization with the typical board and staff hierarchy, it continued to rely on wikis, public conference calls, and distributed task forces to ensure active community participation. It slowly shifted from informal work groups to task forces aligned with the board, each of which still invites the public in to meetings. From a staff perspective, the organization relies on a distributed network of hundreds of community representatives. The last few years of the DPLA have required a series of adaptations and compromises as it fits the decentralized, public, networked decision-making heritage into the more centralized framework required by nonprofit corporate law and practice. It has taken pages from the playbooks of its predecessors – such as the global networks managed by both Creative Commons and Wikimedia Foundation. The aspirations are admittedly idealistic. Creating a nonprofit organization, dependent on philanthropic funding, that can physically mimic the virtual nature of the Internet is an ongoing challenge. But in the signals that this process sends out, we can see early indications of what the nonprofit sector and philanthropic actors might become, not only in democracies, but in the digital age.

-Lucy Bernholz

Lucy Bernholz is a senior research scholar at Stanford PACS and Director of the Digital Civil Society Lab. She is a co-editor, with Rob Reich and Chiara Cordelli, of Philanthropy in Democratic Societies.

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